There was an interesting exchange on ‘Hardball‘ Sunday when host Chris Matthews gave WaPo writer Kathleen Parker a chance to plug her new book, “Save the Males.’ Matthews quoted a couple of lines from Parker’s book to provoke comment:
Bush won the presidency against Al Gore and John Kerry in part because enough Americans considered him to be more manly than his effete opponents. How did a college cheerleader beat two Vietnam vets? Bush oozed regular guyness
Parker, quick to point out that this political insight was a tiny part of her book, added “…I would say that George Bush has probably retired regular guyness in politics for all time.” She then related a discussion she had about the Bobby Jindal phenomenon in Louisiana to illustrate her point, observing of Jindal :
He’s kind of physically slight. He’s of Indian descent. He’s always the smartest guy in the room. And I was interviewing this guy Jack Stephens, he’s the sheriff of St. Bernard’s Parish, very big, 6’5″. All the sheriffs in New Orleans–I mean, in Louisiana, except for seven, are Democrats and yet they shifted to Bobby Jindal. So I said, `How do you explain that? What’s –how do you explain this devotion to this guy?’ And he said, `Well, Katrina taught us that brains matter.’…So I think the new model of masculinity and manliness is going to be the intellectual. And surely that’s going to benefit Obama.
The conversation went downhill from there, with jabber about what constitutes manliness or the perception thereof. Putting the stereotype aside, Jindal may prove to have less to offer in the way of solutions than Parker suggests. But what resonated was the idea that a large number of voters may be sobering up to the need for increased brainpower in the white house. I know, that will happen regardless of who wins, since the bar has been set so low. But, if enough voters are saying to themselves, “Well, the regular guy thing hasn’t worked so well. It’s time to let the better thinkers run the show,” then Parker is right that Obama will have an edge. McCain is no dummy, but his policies are full of holes, and Obama should be able to win the minds, if not hearts, of voters seeking more credible answers than failed neo-con approaches.
As for ‘regular guy-ness,” I think it may be more about class than the manly man thing. Indeed, there are plenty of women who project the quality. The one political gift Bush had, other than a rolodex full of oil barons willing to subsidize his political ambitions, was an ability to mimic regular guy conversation, a skill largely unknown to his two opponents. It’s not about chugging brewskis, munching brats and wearing NASCAR hats on the campaign trail. It’s more about the way they talk. Bush, Gore and Kerry were all preppies from the upper class. Bush was arguably the preppiest of all. But somehow Bush had a better ear for parroting regular guy talk. I don’t know how many votes this is worth. But it doesn’t take many in a close election.
McCain has a preppy background too. But he also has a good ear for regular guy speak. Outside of the military and politics, however, his real-world work experience is very thin, compared to the much younger Obama. Ironically, Obama, who has genuine working-class roots is frequently characterized by pundits as having an aloof Harvardesque demeanor. He could probably warm it up a little, but he seems friendly and real enough. JFK and FDR, both aristocrats, projected both warmth and intellect as well as anyone. It came natural to Bill Clinton, who was raised by a working mom.
The whole ‘regular guy’ notion has always been based more on image or bogus persona, than reality. Blogger mikeplugh said it well in concluding his Kos post “The Myth of the Regular Guy” a couple of months ago:
…there is no such thing as a “regular guy.” The myth of the regular guy sells all of us short. It counts on us all being zombies. It counts on men favoring their more base selves and women favoring their submissive side. Humanity is best for its complexity and we demean our American culture by boiling it down to false choices. Reinforcing these choices by framing our national political discourse as a battle between the regular guy and the elitist intellectual class is a distortion of the truth and robs us all of a deeper vision of who we are and what problems face us as a people. Next time you hear someone playing this “regular guy” game, ask yourself what the truth is. Ask yourself what’s missing in their portrayal of the issues and the culture itself. I’m sure you’ll find it lacking.
If Parker is right, increasing numbers of voters are starting to ask versions of that question, and it should translate into Democratic advantage.