As America takes time out from baseball to channel-surf the real world series—the presidential election—the race seems closer than a catcher to his crotch. But under the surface, a major shift has occurred among one crucial segment of the electorate. Bush has all but closed the gender gap.
If the race is tightening, that’s largely because Gore’s lead among women has shot up from 2 to 11 percent. Meanwhile, Bush’s lead among men has held steady at about 18 percent. If Bush wins next month, the divided loyalties of women will be the reason why.
There’s nothing new about the Republicans’ male margin: It’s existed ever since the late 1980s, when GOP strategists exploited the reaction against feminism and affirmative action to create the Angry White Man. But women vote in considerably greater numbers than men do, and their support for Democrats is responsible for such victories as the party has achieved over the past 20 years. Bush has shaken this bond. The story of how he cut into the women’s vote is the big news of the 2000 campaign.
(Lefties take note: Ralph Nader’s gender gap is the largest of any candidate. Men are five times as likely as women to back him. When all is said and done, Nader is the progressive man’s man. His discomfort with the so-called social issues—read feminism and gay rights—is consistent with his demographics. Though his followers are driven by a conscious sense that they are making a radical choice, polls show that the bulk of Nader’s support comes from men, especially young and affluent men, who have the least to lose from a Bush victory.)
You’d think the primacy of gender in American politics would be a very hot story, as it has been in the past. Yet this year the media are focusing on class, race, geography, ideology, while the fact that nearly a fifth of female voters may shift from the Democrats in 1996 to the Republicans in 2000 is barely addressed. Only the candidates seem to have noticed the decisive role of gender in this election, and their attention has been riveted by the indelible fact that Bill Clinton owes his political life to women’s votes.
No wonder Clinton is pacing the Oval Office in a barely concealed funk. Gore doesn’t dare to call him into major play, and without his touch, the race may well go to the fella who has inherited Clinton’s twinkle without his temerity: the party-hearty Dubya. This good old boy—who cracks jokes about executions, winks at every bigotry, and glad-hands the oppressed even as he keeps them in their place—is a cleaned-up Bill. That leaves Gore with the other part of Clinton’s persona: the warrior wonk. It’s almost as if Big Daddy has split his legacy between two sons. Call them Cain the Tame and All Too Able.
The reason it’s plausible to think of Bush and Gore as rival spawn is that they both really are daddy’s boys. This election is a contest between two decidedly filial men. There’s no alpha male here, no father who knows best.
The last time this situation occurred was in the 1960 race—also a squeaker—in which John F. Kennedy nosed out Richard Nixon, who was then the incumbent vice president. In the defining debates, Kennedy looked like the beloved son, while Nixon seemed like someone who’d had to squeeze every ounce of affection out of his father (and indeed, he’d very nearly been dropped from the 1956 ticket by the great postwar daddy, Eisenhower). Flash forward to the current campaign and you can see the remake.
Gore seems like the older son—ever willing to assert his superiority. People say they don’t like that bossy tendency, but the real source of their uneasiness has more to do with the way Gore expresses aggression—as if he’s sat on his anger far too long and hard. This is why his repertoire of sighs and nods in the first debate was so off-putting: It looked passive aggressive. In the second debate, Gore strained to be polite, a pose that seems frightening in an angry man. Finally, he came out swinging, but he went too far, moving into Bush’s space. This was the classic response of a man caught between compensation and depression. In a president, that’s far more disturbing than inauthenticity—the label Republicans have tried to stick on Gore—because it suggests an inconstancy at the core.
Bush isn’t anywhere near acute enough to suffer from oedipal doubts. He comes across as the son who was doted on, helped along, and amply rewarded for making the most ordinary effort. Gore is the Nixon figure in this race, Bush the Kennedy. That’s ominous news for our side, because Americans like their presidents blessed with grace.
If this analysis seems “soft” (to use a favorite designation of men who measure rigor by its resemblance to an erection), that’s because it lacks the quantifiable dimension of important events like baseball games. Politics today is Oprahfied, we’re told, and no small part of the uneasiness about this trend stems from the fact that TV talk shows are geared toward women. They are part of the culture’s female narrative, which is why they are taken much less seriously than a basically male medium like talk radio. In fact, there’s no appreciable difference between Oprah and Rush except for the tone. Both are hunter-gatherers of emotion, and if Limbaugh seems like he stalks “issues” while Winfrey cultivates “feelings,” that’s because men’s sentiments are given the imprimatur of logic while women’s reasoning is often cast as intuition.
In the end, both sexes vote at the point where reason and emotion meet. If men buy Bush’s politics, that’s not to say they don’t also see him as a Maserati to Gore’s Volvo. The problem for many women is a disjunction between their feelings about Gore and their reasons for supporting him. Most men who agree with Bush also like him, but many women (and men) who agree with Gore don’t. And while the majority of women will stick with their assessment of the issues rather than their affection for the candidate, a sizable minority will vote exactly as men do: from the gut.
In the end, enough women may go with Gore to compensate for the bullishness of Bush’s mostly male base. But it’s never exhilarating to do the right thing at the expense of one’s emotions, and it may not even be the most rational way to vote. After all, in a world where the unprecedented is the only precedent, we want our leaders to be sexual enough to pick up the scent of possibility. In the absence of an alpha, this election may hinge on which son is the better lay.
Making love is a far cry from bullying, as Rick Lazio learned when he invaded Hillary Clinton’s space during their first debate. It’s just possible that, had Rick been a gent, he would be leading now. But like Gore, he compensated for all that ribbing by female pundits like Maureen Dowd (who calls Lazio “Little Ricky”) and Andrea Peyser (who complained that he had “graceful fingers that slope gently upward, like a girl’s”) by going way too far. If Lazio somehow wins, the only explanation will be the preternatural rage real men feel toward Hillary, known in many locker rooms as the cunt. When you read the broadsides against her from righteous and rational men, remember that nine women have run for higher office in this state to the same chorus of complaints—about everything from their hypocrisy to their harridan personalities to their lesbian tendencies. All these women failed. Never underestimate the power of sexism in New York politics.
But what’s really interesting about invading your opponent’s space is that it also worked against Gore. His misjudgment has allowed Bush to play the vulnerability card to women even as Dick Cheney plies the whiteboy vote at tailgate parties and other convocations of the buds. (Face it. No Jewish candidate, no matter how socially conservative, can shine in a fly-fishing store.) This is the essence of the new Republican politics: Court women, pat minorities, and suffer queers. They are playing this game with all the skill that once belonged to Bill—and far more reactionary politics.
Will women fall for the backlash boy who wears the face of a beloved son? It’s an eternal question, and probably the one thing in American politics that has less to do with gender than with the ability to see through grace to where your real interest lies. Americans have never been very good at that.