The Mommy Factor

Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., speaks during a town hall meeting, Sunday, Jan. 28, 2007, at the Mississippi Valley Fairgrounds in Davenport, Iowa.
It was striking. On her first foray into Iowa as a presidential candidate, Hillary Rodham Clinton was clearly trying to soften up her image. "I am going to be asking people to vote for me based on my entire life experience," she said. "The fact that I'm a woman, the fact that I'm a mom is part of who I am." Wow. Could this be the same Hillary Clinton who told voters way back in her husband's first run for the White House that she wasn't just going to stay home and bake cookies? Or the first lady who tried to redo the nation's healthcare system? Or began collecting national security cred on Day 1 in the Senate by landing a seat on the Armed Services Committee?

The Clintons are a great reflection of the national zeitgeist. So don't take Hillary's appearance in Iowa in pastels lightly: It may mean we've come full circle, baby. After all these years of trying to be one of the guys-talking tough, playing backroom politics with the bad boys (more on those later)-do we now have to tone it down so people will like us again? Have we overcorrected the initial problem? "We can't decide if we want to wear iron britches or if we're sweet," says former Colorado Rep. Pat Schroeder. Remember her moment of fame? She cried when announcing that she would not run for president. "We got a lot of 'We don't want people who cry with their finger on the button,'" Schroeder told me. That happened 20 years ago, and we've tried not to cry ever since (although we love it when men do).

So here's my question: Is this a problem for all women at a certain stage, or is it mostly about Hillary? After all, when Speaker Nancy Pelosi gaveled her first session of the House of Representatives to order a few weeks back, she seemed to present pretty much the perfect, balanced portrait: a tough grandmother. When all the kiddies were invited to the podium, it seemed to be an entirely authentic moment-and a signal that Pelosi is, well, fully evolved. We accept it; in fact, we applaud it. "It was wonderful to watch her with the grandchildren," former vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro told me. "If I had done that, I would have been judged as too soft, a mommy, not able to handle the issues." To be fair, Pelosi has an advantage that Clinton doesn't: We haven't tracked her every move, as we've watched Hillary morph from the wife bristling behind the podium to the candidate finally in front of it. Since we seem to have spent more than a decade observing her, maybe she just becomes someone with too many identities for us to sort out-or to decide which is real.

Sure, there's a natural affinity among women for Hillary Clinton when she tells voters that "I expect there will probably be more stories about my clothes and hair than some of the people running against me." You bet. And there will also be different kinds of girl questions, like the one from the man in Davenport, Iowa, who asked how she would handle the world's "evil and bad men." It was hard not to read something (aka Bill) into her playfully ambiguous response: "What in my background equips me to deal with evil and bad men?" With perfect comedic timing, she let the answer play as the audience erupted into laughter. And although she later denied she was even thinking about Bill Clinton, how could we think anything else? Can this possibly be the new, real, authentic, believable Hillary Clinton?

Hanging tough. The ultimate policy question for female candidates, of course, is the use of force. Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins, who has muscle to spare (she has chaired the Senate's Homeland Security Committee and sits on the Armed Services panel), says: "I don't want to ever leave the impression that a woman won't do what's necessary to defend the country." Neither does Hillary Clinton. She voted for the war, but she has also refused to admit that the vote was a mistake-while other Democratic presidential candidates have done their mea culpas.Instead, Clinton offers an explanation convoluted enough to be worthy of John Kerry: "If we had known then what we know now, there never would have been a vote, and I never would have voted to give this president that authority." Huh? If, as a woman, you're worried about being perceived as tough, maybe it's time to fret about being seen as artificial.

And what about this? Clinton complains that the president is doing the unthinkable, leaving Iraq for someone else to fix. "The president has said this is going to be left to his successor ... and I think it's the height of irresponsibility," Clinton told an Iowa audience. "And I really resent it." But if Hillary Clinton is running as a mom, here's a thought: We're used to cleaning up messes, and we're good at it.

By Gloria Borger