WASHINGTON — Some women just bug men. Hillary Clinton did (and still does). Nancy Pelosi, who has replaced Clinton as the Scary Democratic Woman in Republican fundraising appeals, surely does. And now Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren has joined the club.
Warren originated the idea of a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, but she proved so annoying to powerful men in Washington that she didn’t get the job of running it. Republicans, rallying to the defense of Wall Street, twice called her a liar at congressional hearings last spring, and opposition to her nomination among Republican senators was so virulent that she never had a chance.
Yet Warren’s Republican detractors were not alone. Powerful Democrats, including Sen. Chris Dodd, the Connecticut liberal who retired after affixing his name to the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation, didn’t lift a finger to help her on the grounds that everyone knew she would never be confirmed. President Barack Obama could have made a recess appointment but didn’t, eventually nominating former Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray instead of Warren. The big boys in Washington, including some in the White House according to author Ron Suskind, just didn’t like Warren playing in their sandbox.
So Warren, a former Harvard law professor, headed back to Massachusetts to try to reclaim Ted Kennedy’s seat for the Democrats. The incumbent, Republican Scott Brown, is popular, but, true to form, Warren is making the race interesting. At a Democratic primary debate last week, Warren was asked how she had paid for college. “I kept my clothes on,” Warren replied, in a blunt reference to Brown having posed in the altogether for Cosmopolitan magazine in 1982.
It’s not as if Warren had revealed a secret. The photo of the naked Brown had been well viewed during Brown’s successful 2009 campaign. Nor did Warren comment on Brown’s physique. He would have been wise to let the comment fade away.
Brown couldn’t resist. When an interviewer later in the week remarked that Warren had never similarly posed in the buff, Brown blurted out, “Thank God.”
We all agree that sex has no place in politics. There are now 17 women in the Senate and 73 in the House of Representatives, an exponential increase from just 20 years ago. We have already had — and lost — the first female speaker of the House. Clinton is the third female secretary of state since 1997; Colin Powell is the only man to have held the job in the past 14 years.
Yet as Brown’s comment reveals, sex rises to the surface so easily. Brown’s put-down was inherently sexual, and every woman who heard about it recognized it for that. The episode was reminiscent of candidate Obama saying that Clinton was “likeable enough” during their debate prior to the 2008 New Hampshire primary. Had Obama said it to a man, it would have died. But there is sexual chemistry on the political stage as elsewhere, and even bland statements that pass between man and woman can acquire an extra charge.
Women were not amused by Obama’s crack at Clinton and, judging by the response to Brown’s comment, they still aren’t. While Warren has wisely held her tongue, women’s groups have been using the episode to raise hay — and perhaps some money. A spokesman for Emily’s List, the pro-choice Democratic women’s group that is raising money for Warren, said its members are “fired up” over Brown’s remark.
Lost in the wrangling is a blatant double standard: Who thinks that a woman who posed naked for a magazine would be sitting in the Senate as the favorite for re-election? Look around the chamber next time you tune into C-Span: There’s not a Playboy centerfold in sight.
Brown enlisted a couple of female Republicans to testify to what a good guy he is, with Sen. Susan Collins of Maine advancing the ball down the field from sex to class. “It’s wrong to mock anyone” who overcame “tough obstacles” to success by disrobing, she said. There was a time when Republicans covered a nude statue in the Justice Department lest public morals be undermined. Now it seems nudity is equivalent to waiting tables.
Brown pushed the anti-elitism theme. “Listen: Bottom line is, you know, I didn’t go to Harvard,” Brown said. “I went to the school of hard knocks. And I did whatever I had to do to pay for school.”
For the record, Brown attended two private schools: Tufts, down the street from Cambridge, and Boston College. Warren went to two public schools, the University of Houston and Rutgers University, where she worked at multiple jobs to pay her way.
Having been passed over by men in Washington, Warren is now working to get past a man in Massachusetts. After appearing unbeatable, Brown is leading Warren by only 3 points in a recent University of Massachusetts-Boston Herald poll, with a margin of error of 3.8 percentage points. By letting Warren’s quip get under his skin, Brown looked worried and gave his rival a generous boost. Before she can face Brown in a general election, however, Warren will have to win the Democratic nomination. She’s running against five men.
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.