When the ballot hits the box in New Hampshire, Howard Dean will be the one to beat. How did the former governor of a sparsely populated state become the Democratic front-runner? The usual explanation is that he sprang from the Internet and took to the skies with a series of propitious political alliances. That may account for Dean’s current standing, but it’s not why he stuck out from the pack almost from the moment he announced. Dean did it, as conservative columnist George Will notes, by “discern[ing] what liberals want: attitude.”
It’s also what attracted the media to Dean. A database search reveals that in December 836 newspaper pieces about him mentioned the a-word. Look beneath the surface of Dean’s plucky, peppery attitude and you’ll find the underlying reason for his success. He’s butch–and many Democrats are convinced that’s what it takes to beat George Bush.
Dean will have to do a lot more than man up to overcome the President’s popularity. But if the polls tighten, gender presentation could make a decisive difference–as it did in 2000, when Al Gore’s less-than-butch image cost him dearly. This is not to say that people vote on the basis of sexual fantasies alone, but the erotic aura that surrounds a candidate is a big part of that intangible quality called charisma. Today it isn’t a matter of being tall, not too dark, and handsome; it’s all about gender presentation.
Is she a real woman; is he a real man? These may be the most important questions in American politics today, precisely because they are rarely asked. Pollsters don’t measure a candidate’s butch appeal, but political strategists do. And ever since Ronald Reagan rode roughshod over that wimp in the Mr. Rogers cardigan, the Republicans have played the gender card very effectively against the Democrats. From Bill Clinton’s “rhymes with witch” wife to Gore’s obsession with earth colors, the party of give-’em-hell Harry has taken blow after blow to the primal parts. It’s been a long time since the Democrats had a presidential candidate who could jut out his chest and shoot from the hip with Dean’s credibility. Maybe it’s natural, maybe it’s an act, but as even some Republicans are willing to admit, it seems to be working.
Peggy Noonan, who wrote speeches for Reagan, calls Dean “the it candidate”–not because of his policy positions but because of “sheer attitude.” When Bill Moyers asked Wall Street Journal columnist Dorothy Rabinowitz what she thought of Dean, she launched into a meditation on his body: “He’s got this jut-jawed face. He’s got sort of the right posture. It’s an absurd posture–that sleeves rolled up. But it works for mysterious reasons. All the mysterious reasons…you can’t put your finger on.” Women are freer to acknowledge what guys aren’t supposed to notice (though they do): Dean has skillfully cast himself as a manly alternative to Bush’s ripe macho. That’s no mean feat for a dove.
Dean is the only major Democratic candidate to evade the sissifying barbs of the GOP’s shock-jock surrogates. First, comely John Edwards was labeled “the Breck girl.” (He trimmed his hair, to no avail.) When Edwards flagged and John Kerry emerged, he was dubbed “Mr. Ketchup,” implying that his wife’s fortune, and by extension Teresa Heinz Kerry herself, wears the pants in their manse. (Kerry hauled out a bomber jacket to signal his war record, but it resonated with the image of Michael Dukakis peering haplessly from the hatch of a tank.) Then came Wesley Clark in mufti barely concealing his stars and bars. After this writer compared Clark favorably to Ashley Wilkes, Rush Limbaugh jumped on the analogy, braying on about Clark’s wimpery while the theme from Gone With the Wind played in the background. As for Dick Gephardt, he has long labored under the burden of lacking eyebrows, making it hard for him to perform the requisite Dirty Harry stare. If he should somehow prevail, look for the Republicans to draw comparisons between his currently ample brows and their formerly faint state. If there’s one thing wussier than lacking body hair, it’s a transplant.