It’s a man’s world

LET’S call it the testosterone election. John Kerry never misses a chance to surround himself with he-man veterans. George Bush looks happiest when addressing crowds of pumped-up soldiers. Mr Bush likes to spend his free time clearing brush on his Texas ranch, dressed in a sweaty T-shirt and a cowboy hat. Mr Kerry likes to spend his riding Harleys or slaughtering wildlife. Both potential leaders of the western world seem to be remarkably proud of falling off their mountain bikes.

It is all a far cry from the Clinton era. Bill Clinton was not just the first black president, as Toni Morrison dubbed him; he was also the first androgynous president, shifting between masculine and feminine roles as it suited him. With the cold war over, he was free to focus on such traditionally “female” subjects as health care and day care, and feeling everybody’s pain. He was visibly uncomfortable with military men (remember that limp salute) and preferred to spend his vacations hobnobbing with metrosexuals in Martha’s Vineyard. His one attempt at roughing it, a poll-tested rafting trip, proved a disaster.

The reason for the change is simple. No sooner did the planes hit the twin towers and the Pentagon than America rediscovered its butch side. The heroes of September 11th were the firefighters and policemen. The heroes of the subsequent war on terrorism have been soldiers who go abroad to hunt America’s enemies. These have not all been men, to be sure. But they have shown virtues associated, from time immemorial, with manliness.

This rediscovery of manliness has been reinforced by electoral politics. To win, Mr Kerry needs more white male voters than the meagre 36% Al Gore won last time; hence his sterling attempts to seem macho. On the other side, Mr Bush’s attempts to woo female voters—claiming to be a “peace president”, championing education reform and trying to bribe the older dears with prescription-drug benefits—are not going that well; so he is all the keener to hold his main electoral fortress. And both candidates are busy hunting where the white male ducks are—at NASCAR stock-car races and the like.

The politics of manliness is trickier for the Democrats than the Republicans. The Democrats have traditionally played the “Mommy Party” to the Republicans’ “Daddy Party”, in Chris Matthews’s phrase, more interested in nurturing children than fighting wars. The Democratic Party is the natural home of effete thespians and quiche-eating intellectuals, not to mention feminists. The Republican Party is the natural home of macho men—erstwhile wrestlers such as Dennis Hastert and Donald Rumsfeld, football stars like Jack Kemp and J.C. Watts and, of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The body-builder-turned-governor recently attacked “girlie men”. He was referring to state legislators who, in his view, were too cowed by vested interests—particularly trade unions and trial lawyers—to do the decent thing and vote for his budget. Politically correct California immediately slammed the governor for homophobia and indifference to the transgendered community, among other sins. But Arnie had put his finger on a debate at the heart of this election: who are the real men and who are the girlie men?

The Republicans are determined to paint Mr Kerry as a Frenchified wimp in macho garb (the Botoxed Brahmin even opposes the death penalty, for Pierre’s sake). They point to his puny climbdowns before liberal pressure groups—particularly his rapid retractions of criticisms of affirmative action to appease the teachers’ unions. The Republicans have latched on to the “Kerry doctrine”—his idea that “the United States never goes to war because we want to; we only go to war because we have to.” This semi-pacifist girlyism would probably have ruled out most of America’s military endeavours for the past 200 years, including its participation in the first world war.

The Democrats are equally determined to present the Republicans as poseurs—“chicken hawks” who are prepared to act tough only when their own necks are not on the chopping block. Look at Vietnam. Mr Bush, Dick Cheney and the neo-conservatives avoided combat, but Mr Kerry risked his life in the Mekong Delta. The Democrats have fastened on to Mr Bush’s disastrous decision to dress up in a flight suit to declare the end of major conflict in Iraq. General Wesley Clark has him “prancing” in his flight suit. Mr Kerry talks of Mr Bush “playing dress-up”.

Electoral cross-dressing

In truth, there is a certain amount of “dressing up” on both sides. The martial theme of the Democratic convention obscured the fact that nine in ten delegates opposed the Iraq war. Yet the macho posturing is not just posturing; it also says something about both the candidates and America’s state of mind.

Both Messrs Kerry and Bush are products of a preppie establishment that once put a premium on the manly virtues of athleticism and civic leadership. Mr Kerry shone at soccer and hockey at St Paul’s and Yale, and once tried to fly a plane under the Golden Gate bridge. Mr Bush was a sports-loving frat boy who partied hard and regarded academics as wimps. Both men are devotees of hunting, shooting and fishing. Neither is particularly at home with Mr Clinton’s metrosexual buddies.

Moreover, they are vying for leadership of a country that, for all the quibbles, is reconciled to the exercise of “hard” military power—certainly more reconciled than any of its European allies. For all the jibes about their Potemkin convention in Boston, the Democratic Party has moved to the right on defence—and it is well to the right of any of its European equivalents.

Back when the Iraq war was more popular, one neo-con, Robert Kagan, argued that “America is from Mars and Europe is from Venus”. The American half of that will remain true whoever wins the White House on November 2nd.