What John Kerry Needs: The Estrogen Factor
Sherry is just a regular gal. Like most Americans, the married 30-something would rather watch "Survivor" on CBS than a bunch of talking heads discuss Washington politics over on CNN. And yet, she has a photo of John Edwards and his wife stuck on her refrigerator. Oh, except she's carefully grafted her own face onto Elizabeth Edwards' body.
Let's just say Sherry really, really likes John Edwards. And she's not alone.
John Edwards was the rare candidate who actually got more of his support from women than men in many of the Democratic primaries. He also got more of his money, in both dollar amounts and percentage, from contributors identified as homemakers or housewives. In fact, it's the women of North Carolina who put Edwards in the Senate -- he owed his upset victory over incumbent Republican Senator Lauch Faircloth in 1998 to a whopping 16-point gender gap.
The secret of Edwards' estrogen appeal goes far beyond his pretty face. Unlike NASCAR dads, women voters tend not to be too impressed with the kind of masculine appeal that involves swaggering across an aircraft carrier with a bulging crotch, a la George Bush. They tend to favor a more subtle kind of power -- the kind that fuses strength with compassion and charisma. It's why Meredith, a pretty photographer with little enthusiasm for politics or politicians, makes an exception for Edwards. "He is the only candidate who seemed human," she says. "I felt like he actually cared for real human beings, instead of talking about them as policy issues or talking points."
And that ability to connect is exactly why Edwards would make a perfect running mate for John Kerry. He supplies the two resources Kerry needs most: charisma and vision.
Just Say No to Macho
Watching Kerry ponderously mumble his way through the campaign trail is sufficient to send even the most optimistic liberal diving for the nearest spider hole. Here's Mr. Fire-in-the-belly on how he would handle the gruesome evidence of torture in Abu Ghraib:
"I'd want to get the facts and hold the people accountable and make the appropriate statements, take appropriate responsibility.... If that includes apologizing for the behavior of the soldiers when that happens, then we ought to do that."That's not running to the center, that's running your self right out of town.
Let's face it, John Kerry could use a little help. And since Bush has already bagged Jesus as his co-pilot, Kerry will just have to settle for John Edwards. Sure, Edwards can't raise the dead or walk on water, but he can deliver the one constituency most likely to help Kerry win: women.
What Kerry needs is not someone who will deliver one battleground state or another. Nor does he need to further butch up his candidacy. That whole "band of brothers" thing is pretty testosterone-driven as it is. We already have a Democratic nominee who can't cross the street without the requisite grizzled, military vet in tow. The mantra is strength, strength and more strength.
Every four years, the Democratic Party desperately tries to out-macho the GOP in a vain attempt to convince working class white men to vote for its candidate. In the '80s, for example, the Dems were busy courting the so-called Reagan Democrats, the same demographic that has now been re-labeled "NASCAR dads."
Well, here's a news flash: A person who has not voted for a single Democratic nominee in 20-plus years is, in fact, a Republican. Only 22 percent of white guys identify themselves as Democrats. As a voting block, white men represent 39 percent of the electorate. As Charlie Cook, a Washington-based analyst, once observed, "NASCAR dads haven't voted Democratic in a presidential election since Moby Dick was a guppy." It's time to stop spending all the hard-earned money raised from loyal Democrats on wooing loyal Republicans.
It's the Women, Stupid
What John Kerry needs, in fact, is the estrogen vote. Remember the women? Right, those creatures with breasts;they actually vote more than men (61 percent versus 58 percent in 2000). Women are also more likely to vote Democratic in presidential elections. The 11-percent gender gap in 2000 was the widest ever, as both married and single women overwhelmingly preferred Al Gore to Bush. As NOW president Patricia Ireland pointed out, "Fifty-four percent of women voted for Gore, handing him the popular vote that had been widely predicted to go to Bush. If men alone had voted, Bush would have won the presidency hands-down."
Gore didn't win the White House because he did little to inspire his own party faithful. A better turnout among single women in Florida and the liberals wouldn't have been counting chads.
Unfortunately, John Kerry isn't doing any better in the inspiration department, thanks to his obsessive desire to out-macho George Bush. When he's not putting his audiences to sleep (Daily Show host Jon Stewart described his big education speech as the "Leave No Child Awake" initiative), Kerry talks incessantly about his military record -- to the point of embarrassment. Matea Gold of the L.A. Times writes, "In one 24-hour period, he invoked his (war) service: to fend off attacks by his Republican rivals; as evidence he will fight to expand healthcare; as evidence he understands the complicated landscape in Iraq; to explain his love of peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches."
Instead of getting mired in the same old machismo war with the GOP, Kerry ought to be focusing on shoring up his support among women. In the 2002 mid-term elections, the so-called soccer moms swung towards the GOP in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg also points to another statistic that represents both a challenge and an opportunity for the Dems. While Kerry beats Bush by 51 to 44 percent among college-educated women, he is losing out by 9 points among women who didn't attend college. Those women -- married with children -- used to vote Democratic but have swayed toward the GOP in recent years.
And let's not forget the single women. They represent one of the most loyal Democratic voting blocs, but turnout in lower numbers than married women. There were 22 million single women who didn't show up at the polls in 2000, of whom 16 million weren't even registered.
It's women, single and married, who represent a "swing" constituency in 2004, and not disaffected white men, whose emotional investment in Bush is far too great to allow them to acknowledge his failures. Bush has received higher job approval ratings from men than women in all but three Gallup polls conducted since he took office. The gender gap in his approval ratings stood at seven points in March and is expected to widen as women grow increasingly more skeptical about the war in Iraq than men.
But even female supporters of Kerry agree that his women-friendly policies may not be enough to inspire a large turnout. As Arianna Huffington told the San Francisco Chronicle, "Everything you say has to be part of a narrative. Voters want to know: 'What's your story?' ... Nobody is going to pick the next president based on their Medicare plan.''
John Edwards, Estrogen Man
There is no one better equipped to help Kerry with that task than John Edwards. It became clear during the primaries that while there is little difference between the two men on the issues, there is an enormous gulf in their ability to articulate their vision.
Edwards is a man who can talk. In the words of columnist Kathleen White, "He can talk lawyer; he can talk populism; and he can talk back yard." Edwards' "Two Americas" speech -- described by James Carville as the best stump speech in the primaries -- encapsulates just why women find him irresistible. Both his message and his style are warm, engaging, upbeat, dynamic -- and personal.
Writing for Salon, Peter Dizikes reveals just why Edwards would be so effective in speaking directly to that non-college educated mother or single woman struggling to pay her bills:
"(Y)ou can always hear the crowd's approval when Edwards says he wants to crack down on 'predatory lenders, payday lenders, and these credit cards companies that are fleecing the American people, every single day.' He continues: 'I know that some of you have seen these ads. Don't you love these? ZERO PERCENT introductory offer. Right. How long does that last? And then the rate goes to 18, 19 percent. We can ban these kinds of abuses.'"Edwards works the same kind of magic with every other issue. It's not about healthcare but about being able to care for a sick child. It's not about Social Security but about "working middle-class families" who are "saving nothing." His populist message -- couched in carefully inclusive rhetoric -- is bound to echo with unmarried women. As sole breadwinners of their family, single women's highest priorities are health care, employment, education, job security and retirement benefits. Certainly not the candidates' military record.
It doesn't take a leap of imagination to see just how easily someone like Edwards could make the war in Iraq about saving the lives of our soldiers and keeping our families safe at home. That's a message most women can get behind, including so-called "security moms" who are worried about terrorism.
And as Betsy, a young digital artist from San Francisco points out, the fact that Edwards "looks seriously hot" while he's making his pitch doesn't hurt either.
Conservative commentator Dana White conceded in January, "John Edwards is very Clintonesque without sort of the flaws ... he's charming, he's good-looking, he's energetic, and he has a positive message for the U.S. So, I think that's going to go a long way in attracting Democratic women voters." More importantly, unlike Clinton, Edwards doesn't exude the fake sincerity of a barroom sleaze. You can go home with him at the end of the night and still respect yourself in the morning. Better yet, when he calls -- and he will -- you can invite him over for Sunday brunch with your mother.
Edwards also tops Clinton's "I feel your pain" style that was designed to bring attention to his ability to empathize. Dizikes writes:
"Edwards has also inverted the purpose of the standard political address, normally intended to get the audience to feel good about the candidate. The 'Two Americas' talk also makes Edwards' audience feel good about itself. Sometimes he is blatantly hokey -- 'I believe in you' is one of his concluding lines. But Edwards uses subtler tactics as well, creating a feeling that he -- and you -- can confide in each other."If there are any doubts about whether this self-affirming style appeals to women, just talk to Oprah. In survey after survey, women non-voters cite a sense of powerlessness as an important reason for their alienation. A running mate who connects directly to these women and can convince them that he cares may be exactly what Kerry needs to counter the NASCAR dad vote. (A woman running mate may be just as effective, but it is unlikely that either Arizona Gov. Jane Napolitano or Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius will make the final cut.)
In this post-9/11 testosterone-fueled era of politics, it may seem downright sacrilegious to suggest that Kerry pick a running mate for his appeal to women. The Republicans have been relentless in attacking his masculinity, whether by implying that he is a "kept" man (Mr. Ketchup) or questioning his war wounds. The fact that election coverage is dominated by white men equally obsessed with the manliness of their leaders plays right into the GOP's hands. Even thoughtful critics on the left such as Richard Goldstein have reluctantly accepted the credo that the penis rules when it comes to presidential elections.
That maybe true. Then again, maybe not.
The Democrats can keep pandering to the "crisis of masculinity" among disaffected white men. The truth is, however, that people who are afraid will likely always pick the illusion of strength embodied by Bush simply because it is that much more direct, simple and therefore powerful. Isn't it wiser to reach out to a constituency that is more likely to see through what Goldstein describes as "cartoon virility"?
The women's vote will decide who wins the popular vote in the 2004 election, as it did in 2000. And as always, women will vote for their interests in November -- be it on healthcare, education or jobs. The Democrats just need to give them a good reason to do so.
As Laura Ross, an Edwards fund-raiser, recently told the Democratic nominee, "If you want to see our firepower, put Edwards on the ticket." If John Kerry knows what's good for him, he'll get off the goddamn snowboard and ride Edwards' estrogen love train all the way to the White House.
Lakshmi Chaudhry is senior editor of AlterNet.