By the time it's over, this presidential campaign may set some kind of record for the sheer quantity of silliness, trivia, and stupidity with which the news media becomes temporarily consumed. From flag pins to Britney and Paris to the latest round of feigned outrage at a campaign surrogate's statement, it's enough to make you pine for the days when candidates argued fervently about the fate of Quemoy and Matsu. But before we throw up our hands in despair, we should note that even the dumbest of campaign controversies can be quite revealing of the symbolic undercurrents that flow beneath our politics.
So it was with the latest round of back-and-forth about gas prices, in which Barack Obama made the eminently reasonable suggestion that among the things we could all do to improve our gas mileage is keep our tires properly inflated. The McCain campaign swung into action, quickly distributing to reporters tire gauges with the words "Obama's Energy Plan" printed on them. Har har! They were so pleased with themselves, they sent out a fundraising e-mail offering you your very own "Obama Energy Plan" tire gauge, for a contribution of only $25.
Though there was no particular evidence that the tire-gauge attack was having an effect, the McCain campaign's glee was evident. Just days before, they had alleged that Obama's criticisms of their tactics constituted "fussiness and hysteria," and now here they were brandishing small, phallic objects bearing their opponent's name.
Meanwhile, McCain himself was sent out to pose in front of working oil rigs, to testify to his thirst for pulling more black gold from the earth. The message couldn't be plainer: See that itty-bitty, little tire gauge? If you vote for Obama, that's how big your penis is. If you vote for McCain, on the other hand, your penis is as big as this rig, thrusting its gigantic shaft in and out of the ground! Real men think keeping your tires inflated is for weenies.
There may not be a sign tacked to a bulletin board at McCain headquarters reading, "It's the sexual insecurity, stupid," but McCain's team of operatives, many schooled at Karl Rove's knee, know just what to do when an opportunity presents itself. They've been playing this tune for so long, they don't need to look at the sheet music: Our guy is a real man, their guy is a sissy, rinse, repeat.
And most of the time, Democrats don't even realize what's happening. During the 1984 campaign, Ronald Reagan joked that he'd be happy to arm wrestle Walter Mondale. Seemingly unaware that his manhood was being challenged, Mondale responded, "The issue that worries Americans is not arm wrestling but the need for arms control." Nice retort, Poindexter.
That isn't to say that Democrats are incapable of playing this game. Watching the tire gauges flying, I was reminded of an incident last year, when Al Gore testified before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Since the Democrats had taken back the Senate the November before, the committee's chairmanship had recently passed from troglodytic Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma to the very progressive Sen. Barbara Boxer of California. Inhofe is a man so concerned about tamping down any rumors that he might be less than a real man that he once went to the Senate floor, placed on an easel a large photograph of his family, and proclaimed, "My wife and I have been married 47 years. We have 20 kids and grandkids. I'm really proud to say that in the recorded history of our family, we've never had a divorce or any kind of homosexual relationship." Just in case you were wondering.
During Gore's testimony, there was a dispute about how much time the witness and each senator would have. At one point, Inhofe said, "Why don't we do this: At the end, you [Gore] can have as much time as you want to answer all the questions." Boxer then interrupted him. "No, that isn't the rule. You're not making the rules. You used to when you did this," she said, holding up the gavel that belongs to the committee chair and almost taunting him with it. "Elections have consequences. So I make the rules." From the stricken look on Inhofe's face, you would have thought Boxer said, "See this? This is your manhood. And now it's mine."
But mostly, it's Republicans who have been expert at setting up their rigs to drill deep into the male voter's lizard brain, down to where sexual insecurity resides. This is where they draw the line connecting the voter's own worries to the Democratic candidate. This is how they turn fear into contempt and hostility, the same psychological move that makes some men react to an advance from another man – or even the sight of an effeminate man – with hatred and violence. See that Democrat over there? He's a little prissy, isn't he? Kind of girly. And if you vote for him, what are people going to think about you?
This attack finds a waiting audience in our nation's intrepid pundit corps, particularly the conservatives. The potential of a Hillary Clinton presidency sent many of them into a panic, from Rush Limbaugh going on and on about the "testicle lockbox" in which Clinton supposedly confined fellow Democrats' organs, to Chris Matthews calling male Clinton supporters "castratos in the eunuch chorus," to Tucker Carlson admitting almost proudly, "When [Clinton] comes on television, I involuntarily cross my legs." The sight of a candidate being attacked as less than fully male has always been irresistible to them, whether it's John Kerry being called "French," John Edwards being referred to as the "Breck Girl," or Al Gore being derided for taking advice from feminist author Naomi Wolf -- as Maureen Dowd put it, "the spectacle of a woman instructing a man how to be a man."
At 72, John McCain is himself not exactly a simmering pot of heterosexual energy, causing women to swoon at the first whiff of his man-musk. He no doubt fears meeting the same fate as his predecessor Bob Dole, who was left to become a spokesman for Viagra after running a tired, flaccid campaign outmaneuvered at every turn by that of his more youthful and vigorous opponent. So something tells me this won't be the last time we'll see the McCain campaign calling Barack Obama "fussy," or sending their candidate out to stand in front of big, manly machines. After all this time, it would be far more surprising if they didn't. A Republican campaign that didn't allege that its Democrat opponent is a little light in the loafers just wouldn't be a Republican campaign.