On Sunday the New York Times ran a front-page article previewing what appears to be the emerging consensus in GOP circles on how to stop Hillary Clinton from winning the White House in 2016: by portraying her as too old for the job. Clinton will be 69 on Election Day. In the piece, the Republican Senate leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, likened the Democratic field to “a rerun of The Golden Girls,” since it may also include Joe Biden.
This is a terrible political strategy. Anyone who is married, or has a girlfriend, or a mother, can probably spot the weakness: Calling a woman “old” is guaranteed to enrage, and thereby motivate, legions of women of all ages, because the charge carries deep psychological and gender implications of which the architects of this strategy are somehow unaware. A nation of angry, motivated women would be horrible for Republicans’ electoral prospects. Last year, President Obama won female voters by 11 points (55 percent to 44 percent), an increase from his performance in 2008. It stands to reason that Clinton would do even better. Republicans have exacerbated this trend by saying a series of appalling things about rape, deepening a perception pushed by Democrats that the party is waging a “war on women.”
How do I know this would be a terrible political strategy? Partly because it would force Republicans to explain why age is a problem for Clinton but wasn’t for the sainted Ronald Reagan, who was also 69 when first elected in 1980. This is impossible. But mostly because building a strategy around the physical characteristics of a woman would be, for Republicans, like handing a box of matches to a curious toddler—certain to quickly engulf everyone in flames. Some Republicans wouldn’t be able to resist the temptation to say something impolitic or downright misogynistic—or, even likelier, wouldn’t recognize that they were doing so. The race would become a referendum on gender. That’s a race Republicans can never win.