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The Delicate Flower

Clinton Spin: Sunday’s Democratic debate, the last before the Michigan primary, was about “tone.” Was about “disrespect.” Was about “sexism.”

But it wasn’t.

You know how the game is played if you watch presidential debates. You know that when a campaign complains about “tone” or “disrespect” or, in this case, “sexism,” the issue at hand has nothing to do with those things. It is, instead, about strategy. It is about setting the narrative.

Hillary Clinton needs the female vote. The problem for her is that Bernie Sanders has been getting it in far larger numbers than she anticipated. She has to bring her female numbers up to lock up this nomination. She needs a game changer. Enter “sexism.”

Sexism is something every woman in the business world — hell, some in their own home — must deal with. It’s being treated like you don’t have a brain. Or like your opinion doesn’t matter. Or like you’re not an equal. Or like your value is on the outside. “Sexism” is an evocative term every woman relates to. But what exactly is sexist behavior during a presidential campaign? Or maybe the better question to ask is “What is non-sexist behavior during a campaign?” Is it politeness? Is it deference? It is listening attentively while the other person speaks?

Politics is the opposite of everything your parents taught you was right. “Put others first.” “Don’t brag on yourself.” “Be respectful.” That is what we were taught. But politics turns that all on its head.

During the 1980 Republican primary, when his mic was about to be cut, Ronald Reagan barked, “I paid for this microphone!” In 1988, Vice Presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen said to Dan Quayle when he invoked JFK, “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Politics at this level gets ugly. Hillary knew that; she’s played on this field before. So she knew it would get ugly for her, too. And as politics go, Bernie’s interruptions were not ugly. They were no more and no less than the heart of presidential politics: an opponent vying for leverage. (True ugly won’t come until November.)

Hillary Clinton is a lot of things, both good and bad. But one thing she is not is a waifish wallflower. She is a former Senator, a former Secretary of State, a witness who testified for eleven hours straight during a mockery of a Congressional hearing without losing her cool. So while one can reasonably question her pro-trade policies (that will further decimate blue collar workers), and while it’s fair to ask her what concessions high-powered CEOs expect in return for their tens of millions of dollars in contributions (answer: many more millions than they gave), it is ludicrous for her to pretend she doesn’t grasp what presidential politics entail. It is likewise ludicrous for her to imply that her opponent, a person who for 20+ has supported women’s rights, is sexist.

Bernie Sanders was not sexist tonight. The person condescending to women was, instead, Hillary Clinton. She mocked every woman’s desire for equal treatment by equating respectful behavior to an endeavor within which it would have been sexist if she had been treated with deference. Are you going to fall for that?