Democrats and the Wimp Factor

Glenn Greenwald updates his post in response to my earlier post. He agrees that Democrats are willing to play aggressive politics but says he was actually making a much narrower post.

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.

FILED UNDER: Gender Issues, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. jeff b says:

    Look, I’m not trying to be Mr. First Post today, but 1) I use your RSS feed, and 2) you keep stuffing these ridiculous stories into that feed, therefore I am compelled to reply.

    You say “Al Gore is a powerful guy who no one would accuse of being effeminate.” This statement does not stand up to even the most cursory historical examination. Maureen Dowd, in her column in the New York Times on June 16, 1999, said Gore was effeminate and “practically lactating.” Your claim is demonstrably false. Numerous printed and online publications up to and including all the the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post have all characterized Gore as effeminate.

    Moving on: “it’s just hard for a wealthy northeasterner to convince Americans that he’s in touch with their values.” You cannot seriously make this claim. Bush the Greater and Lesser are both wealthy northeasterners! Both George W. and George H. W. Bush were born in Connecticut, schooled at Phillips, and studied at Yale and Harvard. Prescott Bush was a Senator from Connecticut.

    There are, of course, differences between Kerry and Bush, but they are both silver spoon white guys from the northeast. Probably the greatest trick ever pulled on the American people was when Bush passed himself off as a brush-clearing Texan. (The second biggest was when Cheney managed to run for Vice President from Wyoming despite the fact that his job was in Houston and he had lived there for years).

    Probably the largest difference between Kerry and Bush was that Kerry is a decorated war hero and Bush is a cocaine-snorting draft dodger. But while the national media were busy making fun of Kerry for hunting with the exact same model of shotgun that Cheney later used to shoot an elderly man in the face, no national publication bothered to characterize, whether truthfully or in exaggeration, Bush’s drug-addled past.

  2. PaulB says:

    Al Gore is a powerful guy who no one would accuse of being effeminate.

    Try “wimp.” It was used on him time and time and time again in 2000. It is still being used on him.

    The attacks on him weren’t that he was a wimp

    No. They were precisely that he was a wimp. That he was also (and falsely) attacked on any number of other issues does not negate the wimp attacks.

    but that he was a D.C. elitist son of a Senator pretending to be an aw shucks country boy from Tennessee.

    Oh, good grief. The very fact that you can write this sentence shows that the attacks worked! Do you have any idea what Al Gore’s childhood was like? Free clue: there wasn’t a damn thing “elistist” about it and he did, in fact, work on a farm for a time. You have bought so wholeheartedly into the frame that you can’t even see the picture anymore.

  3. Bithead says:

    You say “Al Gore is a powerful guy who no one would accuse of being effeminate.” This statement does not stand up to even the most cursory historical examination. Maureen Dowd, in her column in the New York Times on June 16, 1999, said Gore was effeminate and “practically lactating.” Your claim is demonstrably false. Numerous printed and online publications up to and including all the the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post have all characterized Gore as effeminate.

    In fairness to James, perhaps the reason he didn’t pick up on Al Gore’s feminine side was because he normally has the personality of a redwood. Kinda hard to get an idea what somebody’s about, that way.

    Do you have any idea what Al Gore’s childhood was like?

    Hell, that’s easy!

    During his early years as a senator’s son in Washington, Al Gore was often the smallest one in the crowd, a pint-size boy with dark hair and freckles who lived with his prominent parents in Suite 809 atop the Fairfax Hotel along Embassy Row.

    Gee, Paul… looks like James’ statement is accurate.

    Any other questions?

  4. Andy says:

    Well, we see how George W Bush’s rough and tumble childhood of hardship has turned out, compared to Gore’s fancy pants upbringing.

    Ahem.

    Again, this is all just media laziness.

  5. Bithead says:

    Is it really?
    Think about it for a minute; why would somebody trying to pass themselves off is not being rich? Why would somebody tried to pass themselves off as something they were not as Al Gore obviously has?

    And if you like we’ll include a supposed Republican… Lamar Alexander… he of the flannel shirt at his rallies.

    The answer in both those questions, and within the context of John Edwards, is that they are trying to pass themselves off as Joe Everyman, with a hint of John Wayne. The fact is, they’re trying to pass themselves off as something they are most decidedly not.

    So again, we come to the Vitter case… What is the complaint of Greenwald, in that case? Oh, that’s right, Vitter’s projecting himself as something he is not, so as to gain governmental power over everybody else, and decide what their morality is by means of law.

    Tell me… how is that any different from Al Gore, or John Edwards? Are they not in fact also trying to project themselves as something they are not so as to gain governmental power over everybody else and decide what their morality will be by means of law, one in terms of energy use, the other in terms of enforced chairty?

    Al Gore dumping more CO2 into the atmosphere with his jet setting around, while arguing against OUR ‘selfish use of energy’, you know… “global warming”, isn’t following the morality that he’s preaching. Isn’t that what Vitter was charged with, recently? How is it that such charges stick with errant conservatives, and not with an obviously rich and pampered Al Gore, in GReewald’s lights?

    John Edwards, is one of the richest individuals around. The man homes of a house that could double as a resort complex. Yet, he tells us that we should be spending more of our money on the poor. That’s something he’s always been free to do with his OWN money, but I will guarantee you that he will resist you’re looking at how much of his personal fortune has gone into the effort of helping the poor. Once again, he’s projecting himself as something he is not. Why? For the purpose of gaining the power of government, so that he can dictate what your morality will be, by means of law. Once again, the point gets ignored.

    By Greenwald’s lights, mentioning Gore and Edward’s faults in the news, is supposedly a reporter being lazy. I suggest it is not; rather, it is revealing of a character flaw…. in all of the cases I’ve mentioned. It provides a public service,a nd provides a clearer picture of the candidate than many other stroies ever could. By Greenwald’s lights, it’s only revealing of a character flaw, and a good thing, apparently, in the case of Mr. Vitter.

    I say apparently because he engaged in it; Greenwald, too, is projecting himself to be something he is not; as I pointed out in my earlier response, the names of Greenwald and Vitter show up 174,000 times in Google. For all of his self righteous complaining about how one sided and lazy the press is why would he spend a significant amount of time on the Vitter story, for Vitter’s crime of projecting himself as something he is not, while ignoring that same crime in Gore and John Edwards?

    Again, as with my mention of Vitter in other threads on this site; this is not intended as a defense of Vitter… merely pointing out the rather dramatic double standard being applied by such as Greenwald.

  6. jeff b says:

    The funny part is Greenwald already demolished your argument, before you even wrote it. See is Update II on salon.com.

    You say that Edwards is “one of the richest individuals around.” I wonder where you get this idea. Certainly he’s in the top 1%, which puts him among about 3 million other people. The lowest ranker fortune in the Forbes 400 is 1 billion dollars, which is 30 times more than what Edwards has. Rudy Giuliani’s income in 2006 was half as half as large as Edwards’ net worth. Think about that. Mitt Romney is worth at least 500 million dollars, more than ten times what Edwards is worth. The trust for Mitt Romney’s kids is worth more than double Edwards’ fortune. Clinton reported her net worth as lying between 10 and 50 million and McCain’s net worth is about 30 million.

    I think you should be more careful when calling Edwards “one of the richest individuals around” to note that most of the leading presidential candidates have fortunes at least as large.

    Furthermore you might want to read the filings to find out that Edwards is by far the largest contributor to charity among the candidates, measured by fraction of fortune donated. Edwards gives a full percent of his fortune every year, about a quarter of his income. Romney gives only slightly more than Edwards despite his comparatively vast fortune. Giuliani is not noted for his charitable giving, despite his millions.

    If you gave a quarter of your income to charity last year (more than ten times the national average) then I guess you can throw stones at Edwards. If not I’d advise cautious reflection instead.

  7. I just find it amusing that a quote from Maureen Dowd is being offered as evidence in favor of the proposition that Republicans smeared Al Gore as effeminate. Maybe the VRWC is vaster than in even Hillary Clinton’s wildest imagination…

  8. Grewgills says:

    The answer in both those questions, and within the context of John Edwards, is that they are trying to pass themselves off as Joe Everyman, with a hint of John Wayne. The fact is, they’re trying to pass themselves off as something they are most decidedly not.

    This is typical of virtually all politicians. They all to one degree or another pretend to be whatever their audience wants and all are concerned about their appearance. Bush tries to pass himself off as a good ol’ boy from Texas despite his prep school to Yale legacy upbringing and is largely given a pass on this by the media. Fred Thompson with is red pick up is also playing make believe.
    One glaring difference re Edwards is that he was not raised in wealth and he has dedicated considerable time and money to helping those less fortunate. He does not pretend that he is now poor.

  9. Bithead says:

    I think you should be more careful when calling Edwards “one of the richest individuals around” to note that most of the leading presidential candidates have fortunes at least as large.

    Of course they have fortunes that large! the difference is there not trying to consider convince everybody they are Joe Everyman.

    And my partner in crime at BitsBlog points out an article in the Telegraph on Al Gore:

    ONLY one week after Live Earth, Al Gore’s green credentials slipped while hosting his daughter’s wedding in Beverly Hills.

    Gore and his guests at the weekend ceremony dined on Chilean sea bass — arguably one of the world’s most threatened fish species.

    Also known as Patagonian toothfish, the species is under pressure from illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing activities in the Southern Ocean, jeopardising the sustainability of remaining stocks.

    Here, again, Gore is telling us what’s moral for us and then doing the opposite himself. As David says, saving the planet is for the little guy.

    If you gave a quarter of your income to charity last year….

    I don’t know what it comes up to in dollars, as I don’t give that way. I give in terms of time. Having turned 50, recently, I still DJ parties, but not as often, anymore. The only places I play anymore are charity fundraisers. Time was, I was getting $500 a pop for doing a job, but I don’t take money from charity runs…I work for free. The amount of money my part of the events I’ve played raise, ends up being around twice my annual income.

    Any more judgments?

    I just find it amusing that a quote from Maureen Dowd is being offered as evidence in favor of the proposition that Republicans smeared Al Gore as effeminate.

    Kinda makes you wonder if they know what they’re complaining about, doesn’t it?

    Bush tries to pass himself off as a good ol’ boy from Texas despite his prep school to Yale legacy upbringing and is largely given a pass on this by the media.

    Ever heard of Molly Ivins? Ever heard of Lyndon Johnson? Ever heard of Jim Hightower? All these were well educated people as well. Yet, despite their ‘down home’ demeanor nobody’s charged them with trying to pass. Have you ever actually met someone from Texas?

  10. Bithead says:

    He does not pretend that he is now poor.

    No, not specifically. But he does of late spend a good deal of time telling us how much he “cares” about the poor. This “concern” has, of late, become the centerpiece of his campaign. Within that context, he has come up with several statements suggesting increased government expenditure, here, or there , to aid the plight of “the poor”. Well, if more money is necessary, he’s always had the opportunity to do that, with his own money.

    The poor, as a rule, if we are to take the polling data seriously, suggests that they’re not accepting this “caring” and “concern”. I suggest that as a group , and in general, they’re seeing through this facade of his.

  11. Scott Swank says:

    “support for “women’s lib” and later gay rights issues made them an easy target for conservatives defending traditional roles.”

    How about:

    “support for black and later hispanic rights issues made them an easy target for conservatives defending traditional roles.”

    Same old GOP, just a soft shift in bigotry.

  12. Perhaps John Edwards should call his poverty tour “Poor You”.

    When John Edwards disposes of his assets so that his net wealth is roughly equivalent to mine, then we can discuss how he wants to tax me to further his political career sincere interests in helping other people. Until then, well, my cycnicism seems justified.

  13. Grewgills says:

    Ever heard of Molly Ivins? Ever heard of Lyndon Johnson? Ever heard of Jim Hightower? All these were well educated people as well. Yet, despite their ‘down home’ demeanor nobody’s charged them with trying to pass. Have you ever actually met someone from Texas?

    Ivins was raised in Houston and went to high school there, not in a high end boarding school in the north east.

    Johnson was born in Stonewall, TX, on August 27, 1908, in a small farmhouse in a poor area on the Pedernales River…He graduated from Johnson City High School in 1924.

    Born in Denison, Texas, Hightower came from a working class background. He worked his way through college as assistant general manager of the Denton Chamber of Commerce

    Perhaps these people played up there past, but at least it was their past.

    Bush attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts where he played baseball, but made a more significant mark as an effective head cheerleader at the all-boys school during his senior year.

    Bush played a part to get elected and further his political agenda. Other politicians on both sides of the aisle do the same so he is far from unique in this.

    I grew up in the Bible Belt and have close friends in and from East and West Texas.

    No, not specifically. But he does of late spend a good deal of time telling us how much he “cares” about the poor. This “concern” has, of late, become the centerpiece of his campaign. Within that context, he has come up with several statements suggesting increased government expenditure, here, or there , to aid the plight of “the poor”.

    You said , “Once again, he’s projecting himself as something he is not.” In what way have you supported that argument?

    Well, if more money is necessary, he’s always had the opportunity to do that, with his own money.

    and he has, apparently moreso than any of the other candidates on either side of the aisle.

    The poor, as a rule, if we are to take the polling data seriously, suggests that they’re not accepting this “caring” and “concern”.

    Could you cite this polling data?

    When John Edwards disposes of his assets so that his net wealth is roughly equivalent to mine, then we can discuss how he wants to tax me to further his political career sincere interests in helping other people. Until then, well, my cycnicism seems justified.

    So one cannot have wealth and sincerely believe in government spending to aid the poor?

  14. The problem is that the assets to support government spending don’t grow on trees. They are taken from otherwise productive people as taxes (or worse, deficit spending). Believe it or not, some of us don’t regard the primary purpose of government as the redistribution of wealth.

    Can you address the apparent hypocrisy of solving problems with other peoples money while keeping your own? What sense of morality is this?

  15. Grewgills says:

    Can you address the apparent hypocrisy of solving problems with other peoples money while keeping your own?

    He pays taxes just like everyone else and it is not hypocritical to have an opinion on how those taxes are best spent.

    Can you address the apparent hypocrisy of ‘solving problems’ in the ME with other peoples money and lives while keeping your own and indeed not even putting your own at any real risk?
    This argument is at least as fair as yours.