Democrats and the Wimp Factor
When I said that conservatives are far more eager than liberals “to exploit these sorts of themes,” I am referring to the gender-based personality attacks that have become a staple of right-wing campaigns and — far more than the supposed “hypocrisy” from Edwards’ poverty platform — is what has made the Edwards hair story resonate. The standard right-wing attack on liberals generally, and on John Edwards specifically, is to attack them as being effeminate (in contrast to the swaggering, pseudo-tough guy GOP brush-clearing ranchers and (play-acting) military commanders and fighter pilots).
For some time now, it has been commonplace for Democratic candidates to be depicted as gender-confused freaks — Al Gore, emasculated with earth colors at the hands of the controlling Naomi Wolf; John Kerry, the wife-dominated, French windsurfer; Hillary Clinton, the domineering, emasculating, pants-wearing dyke; and John Edwards, the pretty, womanly faggot obsessed with his hair. One can make a strong argument, as some have, that those personality-attack themes have played a far larger role in the outcome of the last two presidential election than any substantive issues, and liberals simply have nothing close to the potency of the right-wing filth machine in advancing these gender themes.
It’s a more interesting and defensible position, I think, although still a position I’d reject.
It’s quite true that it has been easier in recent years to paint Democratic presidential candidates as soft. The combination of their dovishness toward Communism (starting with the latter part of the Vietnam War and continuing to the advocacy of things like the nuclear freeze movement), support for “women’s lib” and later gay rights issues made them an easy target for conservatives defending traditional roles. Picking candidates like Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis didn’t help much, either.
I’d argue, though, that the arguments have really been class based rather than gender based. The attacks on Gore and Kerry and Edwards have essentially been variants of the line the late Ann Richards used against George Bush the Elder: “He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”
Al Gore is a powerful guy who no one would accuse of being effeminate. The attacks on him weren’t that he was a wimp but that he was a D.C. elitist son of a Senator pretending to be an aw shucks country boy from Tennessee. The “earth tones” jokes weren’t about the way he dressed but rather that he seemed to be a grown man who was still uncomfortable in his skin.
John Kerry fell prey to much the same type of jibes when he showed up in hunting apparel that seemed to still have the L.L. Bean tags on them pretending that he was a good ol’ boy. The jokes about windsurfing and whatnot always struck me as absurd — Kerry is an athlete in phenomenal shape for his age — but, let’s face it, most Americans are unaccustomed to seeing their presidential candidates in spandex.
Democrats have been willing to play the game in reverse when they could. Indeed, the charge that Bush 41 was a wimp stuck, war hero, baseball captain, and all. Absent the “vigah” of a John F. Kennedy, it’s just hard for a wealthy northeasterner to convince Americans that he’s in touch with their values.
The meme most comparable for the Democrats, in the sense of being media conventional wisdom if not selling it to the public, is the idea that Republicans are dumb. Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush managed to get elected to two terms each with the press and the opposition party lampooning them as affable morons.