Kerry the Strongman

If there's one thing John Kerry wants you to know, it's that he's strong. Not only that, he's got strength. These words are coming out of Kerry's mouth with increasing frequency; in a recent speech to the Democratic Leadership Council, Kerry repeated the word "strength" 21 times, and some variation of "strong" another 16 times. Even affordable health care, Kerry tells us, "means a stronger America." The tag line on the Democrat's latest round of ads is "A lifetime of service and strength." Throughout his ads the words "tough" and "fight" keep coming up, no matter the subject. John Kerry is tough enough to fight for your vote, what with his strength and all.

At times politics can enter a dizzying vortex of recursiveness, as candidates shape their rhetoric in response to the results of specific poll questions, which affect press coverage, which affects perceptions, which affect candidates' choices about what to say, and around and around. Kerry's hope is that if he endlessly repeats the word "strength," when people are asked in polls if Kerry is a "strong leader" (a standard question asked by lots of pollsters) they'll respond in the affirmative, and reporters will then write about how strong Kerry is perceived to be.

Why does Kerry think strength is so important? It goes beyond the facts of the post-9/11 world, in which safety and security are high on the agenda. It has long been a part of the Republican project to convince people that Democrats are wimps, and not just in the sense that Democrats are the "mommy party" that people look to for things like education and health care, while Republicans are the "daddy party" providing security and harsh punishment for transgression. It goes beyond which issues should be important at a given time to a question of the individual character of the candidates: Do you want to vote for a real man, or some pansy-boy?

No president since Teddy Roosevelt has worked as hard as George W. Bush at showing his testosterone, from putting on macho costumes (the flight suit, the cowboy outfit) to the unmistakable pleasure he takes in war, to his affected swagger, chest puffed out. You can almost hear his internal monologue as he heads to a podium or toward Marine One: "I'm walking. This is me walking. Yer goddamn right I'm the president. Check it out, ladies."

Of course, Bush is hardly the first president to flex his muscles for the cameras. In 1984, after questions were raised about his age, Ronald Reagan (another ranch-owning faux cowboy) jokingly said of his opponent Walter Mondale, "I'll challenge him to an arm wrestle any time." (It wasn't the first time he used the quip -- when asked during the 1980 primaries if his age was an issue, Reagan said, "maybe I'll have to take the other fellows on in an arm wrestle.") Mondale, with a typically tone-deaf understanding of the symbolic issues at play, responded, "The issue that worries Americans is not arm wrestling but the need for arms control."

So Republicans know where to aim their barbs. When Al Gore took wardrobe advice from author Naomi Wolff, they guffawed that he needed a woman to teach him how to be a man (as though Gore was the first candidate to ever give thought to what impression his clothes gave). John Edwards is referred to at RNC headquarters as the "Breck girl," while Kerry is said to "look French" - you know, those wine-swilling, brie-eating Euro-wimps.

The real target here, of course, is not women but men. Both parties worry about the "gender gap," the fact that Republicans have a clear advantage among men, while Democrats lead among women. The latest Gallup poll shows Bush with a 12-point lead among men, and Kerry with an 11-point lead among women. If they're going to hold their men, Republicans need to look strong, while Democrats need to do the same if they hope to stop them. To oversimplify things, women will vote for a sensitive guy, but men need to see more than a touch of machismo in a leader.

Given how hard he works at looking tough, it isn't too surprising that at the moment, Bush has the strength advantage. In the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, for instance, 64 percent of those surveyed said Bush was a "strong leader," but only 52 percent said the same of Kerry.

Some have speculated that like much of what he thinks and does, Bush's obsession with manliness is an effort to distance himself from his father. The irony here is that the elder Bush, who fought the "wimp factor," was in truth much more physically able than his first-born. Daddy was a baseball star; Dubya was a cheerleader. Daddy was a bona fide war hero; Dubya couldn't even show up for his physical to keep flying in the "Champagne Unit" of the Texas Air Guard. The 26-year-old Dubya may have challenged his father to go "mano a mano" after getting caught driving drunk, but chances are the young man would have gotten his ass whupped.

One might think it would be tough to put the wimp label on John Kerry - after all, not only is he a war hero, but he stands an imposing 6-foot-4, plays hockey and rides a Harley. But don't think they won't try. So you'll never catch him saying to Bush, as Dick Gephardt did, "Enough of the phony, macho rhetoric." Kerry knows what's coming; that's why he keeps telling us how strong he is.

Paul Waldman is Editor-in-Chief of Gadflyer.

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