The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences

An Interview with Political Writer Lisa Lerer

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Lisa Lerer giving the Bernard D. Nossiter ’47 Lecture on “A Second Suffrage: How Women are Remaking American Politics in the Trump Era. (Photo by Faith Rotich)

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A lively Q&A following Lisa Lerer's public lecture on women in politics at the Rockefeller Center. (Photo by Faith Rotich)

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Lisa Lerer is a national political writer at the Associated Press (AP), where she was a lead reporter covering the 2016 U.S. presidential race and its aftermath. She has reported in Washington for 10 years, covering the White House, elections, Congress and lobbying for the AP, Politico, Businessweek and Bloomberg News. Her work has also been published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Slate, Fortune and the American Lawyer, where she covered business and legal issues. She appears regularly on PBS’s “Washington Week,” CNN’s “Inside Politics,” Fox News’ “Fox News Sunday,” NPR, and other programs.

This year, Lerer gave the Bernard D. Nossiter ’47 Lecture on “A Second Suffrage: How Women are Remaking American Politics in the Trump Era.” Before her lecture, Lerer sat down with Lauren Bishop ’19 for an interview and took a closer look at the upcoming midterm elections.

Lauren Bishop (LB): You covered the Hilary Clinton campaign extensively, and it’s been a year and a half since the campaign concluded. Do you think the Democratic Party has learned from the mistakes of the Hilary Clinton campaign? Now looking at the midterm elections, do you think they’re still making similar mistakes?

Lisa Lerer (LL): I don’t know the answer to that. God, it feels like 10 years ago at this point. I think some of the mistakes were unique to Hilary, were Clinton-centric things. I’ve thought a lot about what went wrong there and I think it’s really hard to untangle a lot of this stuff. You have the bucket of Clinton things like her history and the re-contextualizing of Monica in our current time and her image in terms of women and all of that. Then you have her ability as a politician which is not amazing, I mean she’s just not a great politician. Some of that is because how she’s perceived, she’s a woman doing something women haven’t done before, but some of it is because she’s not that good. She’s secretive, [her and her staff] tend to hunker down. Her closest advisors are people who facilitate that impulse, so that’s with the email stuff. Just apologize. Apologize early and get it out of the way. Then there’s all this stuff in the country. I believe that it’s not the most qualified person who becomes president, it’s the person who meets the moment. I think what happened with her was that she blocked everyone else out of the field starting in 2013. She locked down the donors, she locked down the top staff, which made it clear that it would be hard for anyone else to mount a primary challenge. Clearly, there was energy in the party for that. I mean Bernie Sanders, this guy who never pops up, gets a lot of support. You don’t know what the moment is going to look like in 2016 in 2013, and I think she was just not the right fit. It was the year everyone wanted to blow up the system and you have this person who embodies the system. So that’s what I think the biggest mistake of the campaign was. Now the Democratic Party is searching for its identity… From a policy standpoint I think they’re definitely shifting left. I suspect we’ll see a lot of candidates, presidential candidates, that support a single-payer healthcare system. I think they’re figuring it out but it’s a tricky calculus. There’s this debate on how much does the Democratic Party give to try to woo white men and how much do they focus on winning minority and female voters. I don’t know how that shakes out yet. 

LB: Looking at the midterms specifically, we are seeing a wave of women running for office. Yet the women running for office do not represent all women. There’s a question of intersectionality and diversity within the candidates who are running. Do you think the women running accurately represent the intersectionality of womanhood or is this primarily a white women’s movement into politics?

LL: We know from the data that its primarily an educated white women’s movement into politics, but we are seeing unprecedented numbers of black women running, unprecedented numbers of Native American women running. Those numbers are just smaller, but they’re still bigger than we’ve seen before. We’re not at parity, we’re not at this perfectly diverse universe where everyone is represented exactly in accordance to their share of the population. I’m not sure we’re ever going to get there, but I still think more diversity is good. Is it enough? No. Is it ever enough? No, but more is good. That’s sort of how I see it. We do know from the data that this primarily educated, primarily white women are engaging more. Which makes since right? Educated people are more likely to be more affluent, they’re more likely to have the time to get involved in stuff like this. I mean this is time-consuming work. They’re more likely to have the resources, and I think that’s a larger issue and a larger debate about equality.

LB: Do you think this movement of women into politics is sustainable long term or do you think this is primarily in reaction to Trump? Will it peter out after the Trump effect fades from politics?

LL: I think it’s definitely a reaction to Trump and that’s really the interesting thought experiment. If Hilary had won, would we have seen this? I don’t know. I have to say, I didn’t see this coming from her loss. I’m not sure if she won that we would’ve seen this. I think people, maybe women, would have thought “ok it’s taken care of.” I mean the Hilary Clinton campaign and her supporters would argue that she would have inspired a whole generation, and maybe she would’ve, I don’t know. We’ll never know. It could have been that in the end, Trump was more inspirational to people than the first female president would have been. Which is sort of a weird irony. Do I think it’s sustainable? I think what’s positive about this moment is that these campaigns are changing the model that we’ve come to expect. Women have been involved in our politics since the beginning, since the founding fathers, but they haven’t been involved in a public way. So when female candidates run for office, they don’t necessarily have a political tradition to rely on. That’s what’s being created now. We’re also seeing these women run in really different ways. With Hilary, it was this constant agonizing thing about her gender. Does she run as a woman, does she not run as a woman? These campaigns, they see [womanhood] as an asset. You have campaign ads showing the candidate breastfeeding in the ads, which is pretty unprecedented. There was just a ruling earlier this month where the FEC approved spending campaign funds on babysitting. The rule for the FEC is that you can spend the [campaign] money on costs that are incurred as a result of your campaigning. If you’re running for office, you need more childcare due to evening events and the logistics of that are pretty obvious. The FEC ruled that this women running in New York could use that money. Childcare is really expensive, so things like that could change the playing field a little bit and make it easier. The other things is that traditionally, women run when their children are old. Think Elizabeth Warren, Nancy Pelosi, Hilary Clinton. They didn’t start running when the kids were little, but a lot of these candidates have really young kids and that’s a big change. Now we’re getting women in the pipeline earlier and I think that’s important.

As told to Lauren Bishop ’19, Rockefeller Center Student Program Assistant for Public Programs

The views and opinions expressed, and any materials presented during a public program are the speaker’s own and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Rockefeller Center or constitute an endorsement by the Center.

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