Hillary Clinton should play the "woman card." In spades.
Clinton has never been a natural politician. She's not in her husband's class as a campaigner, or Barack Obama's, for that matter. The crowds greeting Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump this year have generally been larger and more enthusiastic than her audiences.
What she offers as a candidate is steadiness, experience, competence -- but not excitement. Obama captured her problem nicely when he joked at the White House Correspondents' Dinner that her campaign slogan was "Trudge Up the Hill."
But there's one dimension of her candidacy that can change a trudge into a triumph, and a grind into a grand adventure: Her gender. "Making History With Hillary" should be on every one of her bumper stickers and campaign posters starting tomorrow -- or yesterday.
When Clinton ran eight years ago, she didn't emphasize the female factor. Moreover, she was one of two candidates trying to make history and only one could win. The first president of color beat the first woman, but Hillary faces no comparable obstacle this year. (Yes, she has to beat the first TV celebrity with zero credentials or experience, but that's a somewhat different electoral problem.)
The power of the women's vote is not new; the gender gap has been around for a generation or more. In 1996, Hillary's husband actually lost the male vote to Bob Dole by one point, but rolled up a 16-point margin with women. Obama lost men by 7 points to Mitt Romney, but clobbered him with women by 11 points.
This year, the opening is there for Clinton to generate an even larger gender gap. In the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll, 67 percent of voters registered a negative impression of Trump -- a staggering number -- but his negatives rose to 75 percent among women. In the Indiana primary, Trump's margin was 20 points higher among men than among women.
That's why Paul Waldman, writing in The Washington Post, calls Trump's plan for demeaning Clinton's gender "spectacularly stupid." He adds: "Her election as the first woman president would be truly historic, and the closer we get to the election, the more salient that fact may become to women voters (and many men as well) ... There has been a significant gender gap in recent presidential elections, but this election could see the widest one in history."
Some of that gap is based on issues. Clinton got off a good line when she said, "If fighting for women's health care and paid family leave and equal pay is playing the 'woman card,' then deal me in."
But she also has to talk more about the lives women lead and identify with their roles, not just their pocketbooks. One of her better stories is about her mother Dorothy, who left home at 14 and became a housekeeper for $3 a week.
Then there's her granddaughter, Charlotte, who is about to get a younger sibling. "Senator," "secretary of state," even "first lady" are all titles that repel as many voters as they attract. But "daughter," "mother," "grandmother" -- these are human titles that transcend politics and partisanship.
Another promising way to play the woman card is to turn Trump's own demeaning and insulting words against him. A super PAC backing Clinton, Our Principles, is financing an ad that consists entirely of women reading Trump's nastier tirades into the camera.
A focus group run by political scientist Lynn Vavreck found that among voters who viewed the ad, negatives about Trump jumped 10 points while his favorable rating dropped 12 points.
Perhaps the oddest charge from Trump is that Clinton is somehow benefitting from being a woman and playing the "woman card."
"I don't think she'll play it well at all," Trump said on Fox News. "And it's true, if she were not a woman, she wouldn't even be in this race."
Really? Being a woman in politics is now not only an advantage, but an unfair advantage?
Many women will see right through that ridiculous statement and understand Trump for what he is: one more privileged white boy who thinks power is his birthright, and whines about being challenged by an uppity woman.
Ted Cruz got it right when he called Trump a "bully" toward women, adding, "He has a real problem with women ... Donald is terrified by strong women."
Yes, he is. And if Clinton plays it right, Trump is about to be "terrified" by a large group of strong women.
They're called voters.