Attention, all candidates and wannabees: Learn a valuable lesson from Martha Coakley.

If you want to win, don’t take anything for granted. Fight as if your political life depends on it, because it does.

The electorate is fickle; just because you’re a Dem running in one of the bluest of blue states for the seat Ted Kennedy held for 47 years, doesn’t mean you’re a shoo-in. Don’t count on your gender either, if you’re a woman expecting to inherit the seat that Kennedy won with the support of 72 percent of women voters.

Being a woman is not enough. Remember how insulted many women were by the cynical assumption of Republican strategists that women would vote for McCain because of Sarah Palin’s place on the ticket.

I know that as a woman candidate, you’re also constantly watched for signs of “weakness” and are tempted to butch it up as much as possible (e.g., Hillary and those shot glasses). But don’t make Hillary’s mistake: Until that game-changing night in New Hampshire, when her tears exposed her vulnerability, the candidate maintained a supremely confident, rather icy, off-putting distance between herself and the voters.

While women don’t have to be sexy and flirtatious, winking at every interlocutor, they do have to be women. They’re not men and they shouldn’t pretend to be. I think Hillary believed that to compete with men for what had always been a man’s job, she had to act like a stereotypical man: tough and emotionless, to project strength and competence. We saw some of that in Coakley — and in the response to her, when Mike Barnicle described her race with Scott Brown as “the high school football coach vs. the substitute teacher who didn’t pay attention to her students.” It was sexist, and followed by ridiculous chatter — but at bottom was it unfair?

In the 21st century, gender boundaries are much less rigid than they used to be. Today we prize women as women: Studies have shown that women in elected office exercise their knowledge and experience by pushing for education and health care in considerably larger numbers than their male counterparts. Coakley consistently resisted talking about her family during her campaign; she refused to allude to the historic nature of her candidacy — had she won, she would have been the first woman senator of Massachusetts. As Emily Bazelon points out at Slate, she consistently resisted using the F word, feminism.

It’s okay to show emotion: People expect it and suspect something’s missing when they don’t see it. Above all, connect with people. Coakley held very few public events and traveled little. She wasn’t able to mix it up with the voters. The Boston Globe reported that Coakley “bristled” at the suggestion that she wasn’t outgoing enough:

“As opposed to standing outside Fenway Park? In the cold? Shaking hands?’’ she fire[d] back, in an apparent reference to a Brown online video of him doing just that.

Politicians will always kiss babies and shake hands, because the public wants to see and touch and have eye contact before it entrusts someone with defending its interests. That human connection is what makes politics feel like what it’s supposed to be: public service. If you have little tolerance for that connection, please move out of the way and let us find someone who’s the best woman for the job: It’s too important.

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  • Willse Elizabeth January 23, 2010 at 3:46 pm

    Another great, insightful piece, Diane.

    For those interested in reading further, I ran across this op-ed from the Daily News.
    Raising similar points about the difficulties and sexism women can face in politics, though I think Diane said it better.

  • b. elliott January 21, 2010 at 3:28 pm

    Way to tell it like it is! b. elliott