Opinion

American presidential elections used to be 'manliness' competitions. What happened?

Candidates, usually Democrats, used to be teased for their alleged femininity. But all that's changed.

Isn't it long past time we figured out which presidential candidate can do the most pull-ups?

The answer seems obvious, at least to Rick Perry, still hale and hearty at 65. When asked about the way Donald Trump had insulted his intelligence ("He put glasses on so people will think he's smart. It just doesn't work"), Perry responded, "Let's get a pull-up bar out there and see who can do more pull-ups."

I knew there was something this race needed: a vigorous round of "Quien es mas macho?"

While I don't think there has ever been a presidential pull-up contest before, there is some precedent for Perry's challenge. In 1984, Ronald Reagan, beset by questions about his advancing age, challenged Walter Mondale to arm-wrestle. Mondale, showing the keen understanding of symbolism that served him so well in that race, replied, "The issue that worries Americans is not arm-wrestling but the need for arms control."

We've traveled a great distance since then, and what's striking is that the relative manliness of the candidates seems to have almost disappeared as a matter of public discussion. It used to come up in just about every presidential election, usually when Republicans found ways subtle and otherwise to allege that the Democratic candidate was not just wimpy, but downright effeminate.

In 2004, Republicans said John Kerry "looks French" (and if you don't know what that means…) and dubbed his running mate John Edwards "the Breck girl." Four years earlier they mocked Al Gore for wearing "Earth tones."

And it wasn't only Republicans. For a couple of decades now, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd has been obsessed with the topic of Democratic candidates' alleged femininity. "Al Gore is so feminized and diversified and ecologically correct, he's practically lactating," she wrote in 1999. Later, she mused on Gore's "prissy sighs" and the fact that he was getting advice from feminist writer Naomi Wolf, what Dowd called "the spectacle of a woman instructing a man how to be a man."

Every four years, we'd see Republicans charging that the Democratic nominee was a little light in the loafers, while their candidate was a true manly man. Nobody played this tune more effectively than George W. Bush, who, with a keen grasp of American masculine iconography, bought a "ranch" just before launching his presidential bid so he could go put on his cowboy costume and be photographed clearing brush.

The media ate it up. It may have reached its apotheosis when Bush landed a plane on that aircraft carrier for his triumphal "Mission Accomplished" speech. "Americans love having a guy as president," gushed Chris Matthews, "a guy who has a little swagger, who's physical, who's not a complicated guy like Clinton or even like Dukakis or Mondale, all those guys, McGovern. They want a guy who's president. Women like a guy who's president."

So where did all interest in which candidate is the guy's guy go? One answer is that it was vanquished by Barack Obama. Far younger and cooler than either John McCain or Mitt Romney, he was much more difficult to feminize than earlier Democrats had been. The McCain campaign made one attempt involving the use of tire pressure gauges as a symbol of masculine limitations (kind of a funny story, if you care), but it fell flat.

And that brings us to 2016, in which the likely Democratic nominee is not a man whom Republicans can charge is insufficiently manly, but an actual woman. Indeed, Hillary Clinton has throughout her career been accused of being too manly, for no apparent reason other than that she's an ambitious female (if she had a dollar for every time someone made a joke about her having balls, she could fund her entire campaign, and one conservative pundit after another has described her as a castrating harpy).

Yet after a 2008 campaign in which she worked hard to convince voters she was tough enough for the job, this time around Clinton seems unafraid to focus on what have traditionally been women's issues. She has also reminded people that she's a grandmother and even made jokes about her hair and clothes.

Clinton seems to have realized that, if anything, the gender gap is likely to work to her advantage. In 2012, Obama lost the men's vote to Romney by seven points, but beat him among women by 11 points. Republicans could try to encourage anxious male voters to flock to their candidate, but in doing so they'd likely push even more women to turn out for Clinton; it would be shocking if that gap isn't even higher in 2016.

It's early yet, and Republicans may not be able to resist the temptation to tell male voters that if they don't vote GOP, then they aren't real men. But if they do, it'll probably fail. That almost seems like progress.

More From...

Picture of Paul WaldmanPaul Waldman
Read All
Did Trump prove Obama wrong about America?
Obama posters and President Trump.
Opinion

Did Trump prove Obama wrong about America?

MS-13 is Republicans' new Willie Horton
Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
Opinion

MS-13 is Republicans' new Willie Horton

Jeff Flake's 2020 kamikaze mission
Jeff Flake.
Opinion

Jeff Flake's 2020 kamikaze mission

How Democrats should tackle Trump in the midterms
Nancy Pelosi.
Opinion

How Democrats should tackle Trump in the midterms

Recommended

Doug Mastriano's controversial run for governor in Pennsylvania, explained
Doug Mastriano.
Briefing

Doug Mastriano's controversial run for governor in Pennsylvania, explained

GOP leaders reportedly spooked GOP might force debt crisis in 2023
Kevin McCarthy
'a hostage you can't shoot'

GOP leaders reportedly spooked GOP might force debt crisis in 2023

Book: Trump almost fired Ivanka and Jared Kushner via tweet
Ivanka, Jared, and Trump
You're fired!

Book: Trump almost fired Ivanka and Jared Kushner via tweet

Lawmaker introduces rabies vaccine bill after fox bite
fox photo
post-Rabid Fox Attack

Lawmaker introduces rabies vaccine bill after fox bite

Most Popular

Returning the Crown Jewels
Queen Elizabeth.
Briefing

Returning the Crown Jewels

The most shocking claims from the newest books about Trump's presidency
A book.
Briefing

The most shocking claims from the newest books about Trump's presidency

New Pacific island forms after underwater volcano erupts
Home Reef Erupts
Speed Reads

New Pacific island forms after underwater volcano erupts