The 1998 Elections: A Symposium: 1998: Another "Year of the Woman"

Ronald J. Pestritto

October 1, 1998

1992 was dubbed "the year of the woman" primarily due to the U.S. Senate victories of Patty Murray in Washington, Carol Moseley-Braun in Illinois, and Barbara Boxer in California. The 1998 election year will also be the "year of the woman"– in this case, one woman in particular: Monica Lewinsky.

In 1992, we were told that women candidates were successful largely because the men in the Senate "just didn’t get it" when confronted with Anita Hill’s accusations of sexual harassment against Clarence Thomas. We know, of course, that the accusations against Justice Thomas were inspired largely by the ideological politics of abortion, and that not a shred of evidence surfaced to corroborate Hill’s story. Nevertheless, the generally accepted take on the 1992 elections was that they were a backlash by women against the insensitivity toward sexual harassment displayed by the Senators who voted for Thomas.

Here in 1998, it seems that heroines of the "year of the woman" are among the most vulnerable Senate incumbents. As things stand at the date of this writing, it would not be a real surprise if all three lost their re-election bids, and it is probable that at least one will.

In Washington, Patty Murray will be challenged by Congresswoman Linda Smith, a pro-life conservative. In Illinois, Carol Moseley-Braun is looking extremely vulnerable to a challenge from conservative state Senator Peter Fitzgerald. Recall that Moseley-Braun upset incumbent Democrat Alan Dixon in the 1992 primaries by making his vote for Thomas a central issue. In California, the latest polls show Barbara Boxer in a statistical dead-heat with state Treasurer Matt Fong. In addition to her championing of Anita Hill, Boxer gained notoriety more recently as one of the lead attackers of Senator Bob Packwood, who was chased out of office for sexual practices that look downright puritanical when compared to the President’s.

Even in the absence of the Lewinsky scandal, each would be facing a tough re-election bid. The president’s troubles have simply made life more difficult for them. Elected in 1992 because men "just didn’t get it," these senators may be defeated in 1998 because one man in particular really was "getting it." Repeatedly. From a college intern.

The re-election difficulties of Murray, Moseley-Braun, and Boxer have something to teach us about liberalism. In the difficulties that each of these candidates face, a fundamental contradiction in liberalism is brought to the fore. The women of 1992 rode into office on the new liberalism characterized by sexual harassment laws. This is a liberalism where the state must become involved in the regulation of private behavior because women are thought to need special protection in the workplace. The women of 1998 are being forced to deal with the liberalism of the 1960s. This is the President’s liberalism–the liberalism that asserts sexual matters are entirely private and that there ought to be no public consequences or sanctions for sexual indiscretions.

The problem is, of course, that these two strains of liberalism have now been brought into direct conflict. The President’s current troubles, after all, stem from having to defend himself in a sexual harassment lawsuit. In fighting the Paula Jones lawsuit, the President has spent the last few years fighting the very type of law championed by the women senators with whom he was swept into office.

It is in trying to reconcile these two irreconcilable elements of modern liberalism that the heroines of the "year of the woman"–and the Democratic Party in general–have been forced into the self-contradictory and hypocritical position of mouthing condemnations of the President’s actions while maintaining that he ought not suffer real public sanction for them. If current trends hold up, it looks like both the candidates and the Party will be made to suffer a real public sanction instead–at the polls.

Ronald J. Pestritto is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, a Fellow at the St. Vincent College’s Center for Economic and Policy Education, and an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center.