Friday, May 30, 2008

COCK OF THE WALK

It will a long while before Barack Obama selects his running mate, though the speculation is already running wild. The current fad, more robust and long-lasting than most, is that Obama should balance his ticket with a white male who is well to his right. Someone like Virginia Senator, ex-Reaganite, former Navy Secretary Jim Webb.

A number of assumptions, all of them dubious, are embedded in this argument.

First is a belief, stoked by the right, but also by a number of Hillary-ites, that Obama is effeminate and that he needs to have a manly man at his side--"a real man's man full of anger and testosterone." The argument goes that Obama can innoculate himself against charges of elitism by choosing a tough guy who can appeal to America's auto mechanics and firefighters.

Second is the related argument, one that has circulated in Democratic circles since the early 1970s, that liberals will only win if they attract alienated white men back into their fold. The meme began with the 1970 hard hat riots and continued through Reagan Democrats and NASCAR dads. All of them, the argument went, could be won over to a ticket that included a tough guy. Frankly, I don't think that the performative masculinity of the VP candidate matters much. If it did, why did the GOP pick George H.W. or Dan Quayle, neither of whom were the belly-scratching, beer swilling types. And Dick Cheney might be a good duck hunting companion, so long as you stand behind him, but he's too sour and reclusive to appeal to anyone other than Haliburton executives and wingnuts. And the tough-as-nails Lloyd Bentsen was not enough to redeem Michael Dukakis.

Third is the post-9/11 argument that the United States needs to project a tough, masculine face to the world in service of the war on terror. A confident, swaggering America will strike fear in the heart of our foes. Counter-argument: we've have George W. "Mission Accomplished" Bush in office for the last seven and a half years and his bravado has only stoked the flames of resentment among our allies and our enemies alike. Alas, chest thumping is not strongly correlated with effective diplomacy. Recasting America as Marlboro Man makes for good photo ops, but not effective alliance building.

But the outcome of the Democratic caucuses and primaries suggests something quite different. It's the need to win over women voters. Obama has been doing quite well among male voters, but he has been struggling to win the support of women. Current polls show Obama still struggling to gain the support of Democratic women. And national match-ups show that a sizeable percentage of white women voters support McCain over Obama. A recent Gallup poll found that "Obama loses to McCain by nine points among white women, while Clinton wins by three points. Clinton does better than Obama among both blue-collar and white-collar white women." Other polls show Obama doing better among women, but he can't afford to take their votes for granted.

Democratic women have gravitated toward Hilary for a number of reasons, in part as a reaction to misogyny directed toward her, in part because Hilary has addressed head-on many of the concerns of women voters with specific recommendations rather than high-minded rhetoric. Perhaps most important is the deep but mostly unnoticed strain of blue-collar feminism that explains much of the bitterness of Rustbelt women voters and their attraction to a strong woman like Hillary.

I am a skeptic of Hillary and of the Clintons for many reasons--and remain to be convinced that she should be on Obama's ticket. But it's in Obama's interest to look for a veep candidate who will appeal to women voters, whether it is a man or woman. (There are good arguments for picking a woman candidate). In 2000, women voters split more or less evenly between Bush and Gore, but in 2004, they went decisively for W. Obama and the Democrats will get some of them back, but they need to widen the gender gap as far as they can. It is unlikely that women voters are going to be seduced by Webb's macho, Tailhook-attending, antifeminist, cock-of-the-walk style.