"Sexual politics" means a lot of things in Washington, even how men and women relate to each other, defining notions about femininity and masculinity. For better or for worse, as in the marriage vows. In Washington, "sexual politics" is usually more about power than sex. The Republicans are the Daddy Party, the Democrats the Mommy Party.
But the stereotypes are changing right before our eyes, and smart pols will take due notice now because public expectations and psychological perceptions will shape their future. Nancy Pelosi, pretty in pearls and looking warm and maternal surrounded by her grandchildren, wants to be perceived as one tough mother with a gavel.
Henry Kissinger said "power is an aphrodisiac," and that's certainly true for men, but so far it hasn't quite applied to women. We expect women in power to be defeminized, if not neutered. Think Maggie Thatcher, Indira Gandhi (and if you're old enough, Golda Meir). Geraldine Ferraro shared her recipes for blueberry muffins, and she got burned around the soft edges.
Nancy Pelosi is helped along by what John Lapp, former executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, calls "the Macho Dems." These men were recruited as a new breed of candidate, part of a strategy for winning back the Congress. "So we went to C.I.A. agents, F.B.I. agents, N.F.L. quarterbacks, sheriffs, Iraq war vets," he tells The New York Times. "These are red-blooded Americans who are tough."
How this will play out with the red-blooded American ladies who live in Gender Gap, so far a Democratic enclave, is not yet clear. "Macho McGovernite" is an oxymoron, and the left wing of the party, still addicted to McGovernite nostrums, wants to rewrite Teddy Roosevelt's famous dictum to "speak softly and carry a big shtick." The macho Democrats are culturally conservative, and how they clash with their liberal colleagues will give us clues as to how sexual politics will be played in 2008.
Hillary Clinton is the most vulnerable of the prospective presidential candidates, caught in a crossfire between the sexes, not quite sure how to conduct the power foreplay. The granny of her Wellesley College days has morphed into the fashionable, carefully coiffed middle-aged matron, inviting speculation that a little Botox has helped her look buff and even a little younger. But if a changed physical image serves her well, her political facelifts have not.