Tough Talk in Tuesday’s GOP Debate

23474955300_dd0de94c4e_zWith the presidential election now in full swing, the Ms. Blog is excited to bring you a series presented in conjunction with Presidential Gender Watch 2016, a project of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation and the Center for American Women and Politics. They’ll be tracking, analyzing and illuminating gender dynamics during election season—so check back with us regularly!

Tuesday’s Republican debates, both the undercard and main stage events, focused almost entirely on national security and combatting terrorism at home and abroad. Inevitably, this focus encourages candidates to emphasize their strategies for promoting safety in the face of instability. However, the substance of those strategies and the rhetoric with which they’re discussed can diverge significantly. For the majority of candidates who took the stage Tuesday, promoting security means using tough talk and proposing even tougher action.

Whether repeatedly describing how they will “hunt down and “destroy” ISIS, kill terrorists or bomb cities to protect the homeland, each Republican candidate utilized the language of war to make the case that he (or she) should be Commander-in-Chief. In fact, over 100 direct references to war were made over the night’s two debates.

War, and the toughness credentials often expected of those waging it, is most associated with men and masculinity. Just ask Rick Santorum, who doubled down on his criticism of putting women on the front lines in Tuesday’s undercard debate. Santorum questioned the physical capabilities of women to engage in combat, but the skepticism about women’s leadership in war time relies most often on emotional stability and the arguably false dichotomy between emotion or compassion and toughness or strength.

Among political leaders, gender stereotypes associate emotion and compassion more often with women and toughness/assertiveness more often with men, and expectations for our Commanders-in-Chief have most often aligned with the latter traits. Women leaders are also less likely to be viewed as experts on national security or foreign policy, presenting additional hurdles to proving themselves in contexts of war and conflict. For example, a January study from the Pew Research Center found that 37 percent of the public felt male leaders are better at dealing with national security and defense, while only 5 percent gave the advantage to women leaders on these issues (56 percent of the public cited no gender difference). Finally, the privileging of men’s leadership in these contexts often relies on ideas of masculine protection both in contrast and in response to women’s feminine vulnerability.

Strength, in these models of masculine leadership and protectionism, comes from hard lines and brute force, not nuance or compromise. That distinction was made clear when candidate Chris Christie criticized President Obama as a “feckless weakling” in his current approach to ISIS, and when Donald Trump turned that characterization on his fellow Republicans. Calling Jeb Bush weak, Trump warned, “We need tough people. …We need toughness. We need strength. We’re not respected, you know, as a nation anymore. We don’t have that level of respect that we need. And if we don’t get it back fast, we’re just going to go weaker, weaker and just disintegrate.”

But is employing the tough talk used in Tuesday’s debate the only route to communicating strength—whether of a candidate or a nation? Carly Fiorina, the only woman candidate in the Republican race, argued, “Talking tough is not the same as being strong.” This nuance, perhaps reflective of her understanding of the hurdle women often face in proving toughness credentials, was echoed by the other woman in the presidential race earlier in the day on Tuesday. Speaking at the University of Minnesota on how she would address ISIS, Democrat Hillary Clinton argued, “Promising to carpet bomb until the desert glows doesn’t make you sound strong, it makes you sound like you’re in over your head.  Bluster and bigotry are not credentials for becoming Commander-in-Chief.”


Tough Talk Word Counts: December 15, 2015
  Main Stage GOP Debate Undercard GOP Debate Clinton Speech on ISIS
Bomb 16 7 1
Commander-in-Chief 19 8 1
Destroy 23 19 0
Kill 24 24 4
Tough 16 0 2
War 51 56 3
Total Words ~23,900 ~15,500 ~4,740


Clinton used the word “war” just three times, “kill” four times (of which three were references to the horror of those being killed) in her speech about ISIS strategy, not using “destroy” once. In comparison, the main stage GOP candidates mentioned “war” 51 times, referenced “kill” or “killing” 24 times, and used the word “destroy” 24 times, most directly in discussing plans to “destroy ISIS.” Even when accounting for the fact that Clinton’s individual speech was about one-fifth of the length of the main stage debate, the use of masculine rhetoric among the Republican candidates far outpaced Clinton’s tough talk. These measures do not negate the “hawkish” approach often credited to Hillary Clinton, but at least demonstrate a difference in the ways in which that approach is explained, and potentially the motivations behind it.

Together, both women presidential contenders—in their own ways—challenged both the valuation of and criteria for toughness credentials in presidential politics. That’s not exactly surprising. For my book on gender and campaign strategy, I talked with political practitioners about the gender differences in how candidates establish toughness profiles. Democratic pollster Celinda Lake explained that women candidates are most advantaged when they can tout the toughness they drew upon in “slaying a dragon,” meeting the masculine demand of toughness in a way that justifies the potential disruption of gender norms of femininity. Carly Fiorina provided a glimpse of this strategy in her opening remarks, displaying her toughness through her ability to “slay” dragons in the boardroom, combat breast cancer and overcome the death of her daughter. Proving this strength of character works to women’s electoral benefit, according to research by the Barbara Lee Family Foundation. But it may also reflect a lesson learned by gubernatorial candidate Jari Askins, who told me, “People will vote for men because of the expectation of their potential. People vote for women based on their past performance.” While Fiorina focused less on tough talk and more on what she has done to hone her toughness credentials, many of the men on stage described the tough, and often ruthless, actions they would take to protect the homeland.

Regardless of how they do it, women running for executive office—especially the presidency—are still expected to prove they are tough enough to do the job. Meeting the masculine expectations of presidential leadership, even if offering different models of toughness and strength, still means adapting to, instead of altering, the gender rules of the game. Altering gender dynamics of presidential debates—and races—not only requires seeing and hearing women on the stage, but also revising what is expected of presidential contenders. In the context of national security, reconsidering or revaluing the credentials necessary to promote safety may mean looking to strengths more often associated with women, as well as drawing less clear lines between compassion and strength or weakness and force. Women are not the only ones who can challenge, or redefine, masculine expectations, and Saturday’s Democratic debate may demonstrate the ideological distinctions in these approaches to national security. We’ll be watching at #GenderWatch2016 with an ear to the tough talk we heard on Tuesday night.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user DonkeyHotey licensed under Creative Commons 2.0


Kelly Dittmar is an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University and a scholar at the Center for American Women in Politics. Find her on Twitter @kdittmar.