Clinton brought a trickster's charms to the table, but Gore was running against that type, and he never figured out how to combine probity with vitality. A marathon kiss from Tipper didn't do the trick, since she was another one of those bitches--a kinder, blonder Hillary--while Laura Bush left no doubt about her proper place, three steps behind her husband. Then came Naomi Wolfe, whose effort to counsel Gore on color schemes was met with the same scorn that greeted Jimmy Carter when he got attacked by a rabbit. Dubya didn't have to count on a gal to tell him how to dress--he was his own Man! Even his flubs at identifying world leaders made him seem like a dude. After all, no one ever lost macho points for being stupid.
Gore won the popular vote, but as heir to an Administration that had produced peace and prosperity he should have triumphed. It wasn't just his stiffness that hurt him; it was the backlash. By then it was so embedded in mass consciousness that Bush's good-old-boy affect seemed natural while Gore's New Age style seemed politically correct. Too many moderates were lulled by Dubya's charming macho. The culture had clouded their ability to read its ideological content. Bush didn't look right wing; he just looked right.
Now that patriarchy is associated with survival, how can the party of feminism prevail? It's easier to see the problem than the solution, but a good start would be for Democrats to reject the idea that they are weak. This image is a figment of the backlash, meant to demean those who support the empowerment of women. It can't be dispelled by butching up, since the real issue--sexual equity--will remain. The only option for the Mommy Party is to embrace its identity. That means stripping Republican macho of its mystique. This is a moment for speaking truth to power.
The Democrats should hammer the point that virtually every issue--not just abortion--is a women's issue. Take Bush's plan to privatize large swaths of the federal government. Any attempt to cut wages will have an undue effect on women, since so many of them work in the public sector. Then there's the signal Bush sends when he defunds women's bureaus in federal agencies and closes the White House Office for Women's Initiatives and Outreach. There's a pattern here, but it's hard to see because gender is the great unmentionable in public life, and women are especially invisible as citizens in a time of crisis.
It's even harder to address the culture that animates these policies. No progressive wants to be a censor, a puritan or, worse still, a fogy. But attention must be paid, because cultural values are central to social reality. A norm can only be undone if people understand the damage it does, and macho is a stunting force even when it looks fresh and young. Under its thumb, a generation is growing up with attitudes that will warp their lives, not to mention the course of American politics.
Fortunately, this is not another lost liberal cause. The public's doubts about Bush persist, as his seesawing popularity attests. There's a lingering uncertainty about the war, and not just among doves. These misgivings reflect a deep ambivalence about the macho code. Yet this primal issue is rarely broached. What will it take for the best and brightest Democrats to address the relationship between male dominance and the current crisis? Don't count on courage. Politicians usually arrive when the coast is cleared by culture. It remains for artists to challenge the backlash and for critics to criticize it.
It's time to create a new vocabulary of dissent, one that makes a clear connection between war fever and thug power. There's no more urgent task. The dawgs of war are about to be unleashed. Thousands will die, billions will be spent and most of us will have to do with less. These are the wages of following a leader who is strong but wrong. He's the man; we're his bitches.