Though the press and Barack Obama supporters often maintain the opposite, by the rough-and-tumble standards of American politics, Hillary Clinton really hasn’t run that tough a campaign against the Illinois senator. She’s broadcast very few negative ads. Her critiques, until recently, have focused primarily on Obama’s electability. Her husband’s attacks on her opponent have mostly backfired, generating far more negative reaction than positive. In fact, most of Obama’s problems on the campaign trail have come from stories emanating from the press — the Jeremiah Wright controversy and his own remarks before supporters in San Francisco being two examples. And, of course, Obama keeps losing key primaries, which isn’t doing him any favors.
But there is one Clinton line of attack that does have the potential to seriously undermine the Obama effort. She has begun to try to emasculate Obama — portraying him, in so many words, as a wimp.
Look at the recent poses Clinton has adopted: she downs drinks at a bar, wields baseball bats at rallies, and constantly uses the combative metaphors of sports. She demands more debates, while Obama ducks them. Her most successful negative ad (the “3 am” commercial) accuses Obama of not being able to keep us safe, which is, after all, the traditional male role.
In contrast, while Clinton wants to keep fighting, Obama speaks of a politics of peace — both literally in Iraq and at home with an end to partisanship. He’s never had any relationship with the military and, when it comes to sports, er, even though he’s claimed he could dunk in high school, and he did work out with the University of North Carolina men’s hoops team this week, he bowled that disastrous, gutter-ball-plagued 37.
Given the history of American politics, this is not a helpful trend for Obama, especially since, in his autumn effort to become our next commander in chief, he’ll be going up against a war hero.
Like it or not, there’s always been a strong macho element to American politics. It began, naturally, in the days when women couldn’t vote, voting often took place in saloons, and participatory politics bore more than a passing resemblance to spectator sports. Thus, as early as 1824, partisans of Andrew Jackson were criticizing the supposed effeminacy of John Quincy Adams, a line of attack that continued in another form against Jackson’s successor, Martin Van Buren, in 1840, where he was portrayed as “Little Van — the used up man.” (His sin was that he enjoyed fancy clothes and taking baths — indicating, if nothing else, that Americans have always enjoyed focusing on a kind of personal politics that the present Democratic front-runner seems to find distasteful.)
Things have changed since then, but despite women’s suffrage and the feminist movement, they haven’t changed all that much. George Washington (the father of the country — we presumably didn’t need a mother) began the trend that military service and heroism are helpful prerequisites for the presidency, and they still are. Remember that Bill Clinton was the first candidate since Calvin Coolidge elected to the presidency without any kind of military service or connection to a war effort. Still, distasteful as it may seem, he was able to secure his masculine street cred through his well-publicized “eye for the ladies” — a trait that many thought would wreck his candidacy but also enabled him to overcome doubts about his “softness.”