How did Howard Dean, 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 his current standing, but it's not why he stood out from the pack from the moment he announced. Dean did it, as conservative columnist George Will notes, by "discerning 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.
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. 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.
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 a Wall Street Journal columnist 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 - 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 skilfully cast himself as a manly alternative to Bush's ripe macho. That's no mean feat for a dove.
The butch issue explains why Dean's military record is such a hot potato. If it's true that he avoided service by pleading a bad back and then spent the next year skiing, that would be a ruse worthy of a weasel. Of course, Bush managed to overcome a shifty military record. Why are Republicans able to get away with the very flaws they pin on Democrats? The answer speaks to the enormous success GOP strategists have had in reaching voters on a symbolic level. The Republicans have adapted their Southern strategy to the new terms of sexual politics. What they once did with race, they are doing today with gender.
With the same practised expertise, they have stoked white male anxiety, positioning themselves as "the Daddy party" while linking their competition with every attempt to deconstruct the patriarchy that feminism and queer theory devised.
The Democrats have been caught in this well-laid trap. The more they reach out to good old boys, the more they risk alienating feminists and blacks; and the more they embrace liberal values, the more they lose straight white men. This is no minor quandary. White guys are 39 per cent of the electorate, and by now only 22 per cent of them identify as Democrats. To understand why the party of Roosevelt and Kennedy is in such parlous shape, you have only to look at how the dude vote has gravitated to the GOP.
At the Democratic Leadership Council, this "white male problem" is the subject of whole conferences. In cultivating the National Rifle Association, denying that he's a liberal, signalling his flexibility on affirmative action and insisting he's not really for gay marriage (just civil unions), Dean is playing to pissed-off white guys.
It's far from clear that this flirtation will succeed, since Dean is surrounded by the very people good old boys love to hate, starting with gay couples and anti-war activists. Still, Dean thinks he can win back a bloc of Reagan Democrats by addressing blue-collar issues (gingerly). He's certainly no Dennis Kucinich, in substance or style. As historian Douglas Brinkley told the New York Times, Kucinich echoes a time when heroic men projected "a gender-blend" of sensitivity and aggression.
But if Kucinich is a vegan, Dean acts like a man who likes his steak blood-rare and his politics cutthroat. These traits are part of his campaign to achieve symbolically what he can't quite carry off ideologically, by competing with Bush for the most potent compliment in American politics today: You the man!
A spectre is haunting the White House. It is the spectre of the young Clint Eastwood. Check him out in those Reagan-era bad-cop films and you'll see the origin of Bush's flinty glare. This President owes his mandate, such as it is, to his projection of macho. From Bush's taunting response to insurgents in Iraq - "Bring 'em on" - to the fighter pilot drag he donned for that famous aircraft carrier landing, he rarely misses a chance to wave his whopper, and not just figuratively. That flight suit had a distinctly bulbous crotch. It's no reach to think that Bush's handlers, so concerned about lighting and posing him, would pad his panache. That sort of gesture goes straight to the subconscious, an achievement any hidden persuader can be proud of.
Still, something about the president's swagger lends itself to parody. It looks as forced and fragile as it is. Molly Ivins, an acute student of Bush's persona, says it combines three strands of Texas culture: "religiosity, anti-intellectualism and machismo. The machismo is what I think is fake."
If conditions grow grim, the doubts about his masculinity that have haunted Bush will reappear. One reason Dean smells blood in Iraq is that a quagmire there will resonate with what Texans used to say about Dubya: "All hat and no cattle."
Ever since 9/11, nothing seems to be over the top when it comes to macho in a pol. In politics today Liberace's motto applies: "Too much is not enough!" Why do we require macho magic from our leaders? The answer is primal. But human nature is never the whole story when it comes to political behaviour. To decipher the current leadership style, look to the conditions of American life.
White men aren't doing especially badly. Only 18 per cent of them earn less than $30,000; a third make $75,000 or more. If white guys lean Republican, material deprivation isn't the main reason. Their feeling of persecution derives from an entirely symbolic insult. The prestige of white macho has taken a hit, and the resulting sense of loss moves many issues.
Now factor in 9/11, with its gross insult to America's twin stiffies. Real as the danger of terrorism is, it has coincided with the so-called crisis of masculinity to produce a powerful perception that we need a strongman. The result is a politics of cartoon virility. But a symbol that doesn't meet actual needs soon seems like an empty artifice. That's what Dean is betting on. He's out to embody a masculinity that feels substantial rather than ceremonial. In other words, he's trying to be butch but not macho.
At this moment, most voters are looking for a leader who reassures them with a manly presentation. The trick is to be a man women admire, blacks find credible and white guys bond with. It's a hard job, but someone's got to do it or Bush will ride the backlash to the White House - with a real mandate this time.
From The Nation