How do you decide who gets your vote in the presidential elections? Is it determined by the candidates' physical appearance, by the charisma they radiate or by the emotional strings they manage to tug deep inside you, conjuring childhood yearnings for security and a night-light after dark? And if you do cast your vote on these grounds rather than on the candidates' policies, do you want political pundits to tell you what they think about the looks, smells, and aura of dominance of each candidate? Or would you prefer polls of other voters' impressions on such matters?
Well, no matter what your answer, several political commentators have decided that their impressions on these issues are important. Take Chris Matthews, the host of MSNBC's Hardball. Matthews has asked whether Giuliani would win a late-night street fight in Queens against the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and has shared with us that Giuliani's personality makes him remember the ominous sentence: "Just wait until Daddy comes home".
Fred Thompson makes Matthews even more giddy. On a recent episode of Hardball, he wanted to know if his female guest found Thompson sexually attractive. This must be the case, given that Thompson looks "seasoned and in charge of himself" and smells of English Leather, Aqua Velva or cigar smoke.
Even Mitt Romney gets nods of approval from Matthews, who thinks he has a perfect chin and perfect hair, both apparently attributes of importance for a president.
And Chris Matthews isn't the only pundit who's apparently enamored of these three Republican candidates. Roger Simon, The Politico's chief columnist, has written that Mitt Romney is "strong, clear and gives good soundbite, and has shoulders you could land a 737 on." Earlier Simon was enraptured by Romney's "chiseled-out-of-granite features, a full dark head of hair going a distinguished gray at the temples, and a barrel chest." Bill O'Reilly of Fox News agreed, announcing that Romney appears "presidential," a sentiment that was echoed by NBC News Washington bureau chief Tim Russert. An article in Newsweek described Romney as "buff and handsome in middle age."
Who doesn't receive this kind of adulation? The Democratic candidates. Pundits don't laud John Edwards' perfect hair, they're still focused on a $400 haircut. Barack Obama, according to Maureen Dowd, is "afraid of looking like a pretty boy," and yet is "drawing attention for his more superficial charms." And Hillary Clinton, according to Chris Matthews, has a voice which reminds "some men" of "fingernails on a blackboard."
Describing this attention to the candidates' cosmetic characteristics is easy. Understanding it is much trickier. If all the candidates received about equal amount of praise I might assume that the pundits are simply satisfying their audience's perceived need for some fluff commentary, in between the more serious (and perhaps boring) bits about platforms and policy proposals. But that theory fails when it becomes apparent that the Republican candidates appear to get a disproportionate share of praise. Note that my informal survey deliberately excluded the comments by right-wing pundits Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. If these were added the picture would look even more skewed towards benefiting the Republican candidates.
There are some alternative explanations. Perhaps certain commentators would like to see a Republican president in 2008 and are thus more willing to promote them on emotional grounds. Or maybe what we're observing here is yet another battle in the so-called "war of the sexes" -- another attempt to define the Republicans as the "Daddy Party" (strong and protective), as compared to the "weak" "Mommy Party" of the Democrats. Glenn Greenwald certainly thinks so, writing, "Republicans have long tried to exploit masculinity images and depict Democrats and liberals as effeminate and therefore weak. This is not new."
What is new, of course, is the entry of a female candidate into the presidential race. This may be the reason why Greenwald notes that the attacks against the Democratic party have become more explicit and upfront. The battles are more urgent, and not only for Chris Matthews, who recently ran a poll about whether the next First Lady should resemble Laura Bush or Hillary Clinton. Doing this when the race includes a female candidate smelled a little panicky to me, but Matthews topped that in a later program when he delved into the question of women's ability to be war leaders. When a discussant noted that Margaret Thatcher and Golda Meir had both performed in that role, Matthews stated: "But we've got Patton and John Wayne on our side." Our side? Perhaps Chris Matthews should be treated as a separate category in this evaluation of pundit opinions.
Even ignoring Matthews, many pundits do seem to equate "presidential" with "masculine." How would this explain the recent focus on the good looks and fatherly demeanor of the three Republican candidates most often praised by the pundits? Are the approving comments aimed at the female voters in the audience, intended to draw their gaze to the attractive features of Giuliani, Romney or Thompson? Or are the pundits expressing their own emotional satisfaction with these candidates' manly aspects?
I'm not sure. But I found it curious that the Republican columnist Peggy Noonan chose to enter the debate by telling us that Hillary Clinton does not have to prove her manly attributes but her womanly ones. Funny how "masculine" qualities are deemed absolutely necessary to be president -- until the candidate is a woman. Then those same qualities are a liability.
Special thanks to Justin Cole of Media Matters for America.