The end of feminized politics?

George Will

1/28/2004 12:00:00 AM - George Will

WASHINGTON -- New Hampshire confirmed what Iowa intimated. Democrats who are serious about the candidates' electability understand that seriousness requires a retreat from the feminization of politics.

That explains Democrats' short-lived flirtation with Wesley Clark, the empty uniform who, were a Democrat now president, probably would be on the right flank of Republicans running this year. And the Democrats' movement away from feminization explains John Kerry's brisk forward march, with a military cadence.

Kerry's ``patrician aloofness'' may be manly reticence. But he has embraced today's confessional ethos by making autobiography serve as political philosophy, and reducing his narrative to a war story. Riding his Harley, gunning for Iowa pheasants and playing hockey in New Hampshire have expressed his campaign's subtext: manliness.

Feminized politics, according to Carnes Lord of the Naval War College, justifies all policies with reference to their impact on children. In his book ``The Modern Prince: What Leaders Need to Know Now,'' Lord says leadership is a problematic concept in today's democracies. Modern technology has produced prosperity, which has produced a middle class growing in size, competence (education), security (homeownership, 401(k)s, etc.) and self-confidence (assertion of rights). All this, plus the egalitarian, anti-hierarchical spirit of the age, plus the rarity of great wars, threatens to make politics seem unimportant and leaders seem dispensable.

Leadership, Lord says, presupposes some element of ``such traditionally manly qualities as competitiveness, aggression or, for that matter, the ability to command.'' Because ``leadership that is not prepared to disadvantage anyone is hardly leadership at all.''

Kerry told New Hampshire that he had seriously disadvantaged people: ``I've been a prosecutor. I've sent people to jail for the rest of their life.'' He punctuated this manly indifference to syntax by noting that he is a gun owner who supported the 1996 welfare reform. It repealed the entitlement Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

Although Kerry has been almost incoherent about Iraq, he understands the special challenge for Democrats in the world that 9/11 made. Since Vietnam caused the collapse of Lyndon Johnson's presidency in 1968 and produced the nomination of George McGovern in 1972, Democratic presidential fortunes have waxed only as national security concerns waned. Since 1964, Democrats have elected just two presidents: Jimmy Carter in 1976, because of Watergate, and Bill Clinton, elected three years after the Berlin Wall fell, when national security competence had receded as the threshold test of presidential plausibility.

In New Hampshire, Howard Dean lowered the decibel level of his implausible assertions, but not their implausibility. He said the No Child Left Behind Act constitutes ``a federal takeover of the school system.'' He said the Bush administration's doctrine of pre-emptive war means ``we're going to go in if we even think you're looking at us crosswise.'' By such effusions, Dean makes Kerry seem Solomonic.

Dean's campaign is both a cause and an effect of the polarization of the electorate, which continues apace. Eight presidential elections ago, in 1972, almost half of the 435 members of the House of Representatives -- 44 percent -- represented districts that voted for the presidential candidate of the other party. In 2000 that number was less than 20 percent.

John Edwards' campaign derives strength from this fact: In the 44 years since a Northeasterner was elected president (John Kennedy of Massachusetts), only one Northeasterner has received a presidential nomination -- Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, who was defeated by George W. Bush's father. Who was Dukakis' lieutenant governor? John Kerry.

Edwards, who certainly has conquered his autobiographical reticence, is no slouch in the implausibility sweepstakes. His campaign's theme song is ``Small Town'' by John Mellencamp: ``All my friends are so small town. ...'' Oh?

More than any presidential campaign in memory, Edwards' crusade against ``special interests'' is beholden to an interest group -- his fellow trial lawyers -- whose lucrative rapacity depends on thwarting reforms from Washington. He uses their millions to advertise his hardscrabble origins and oneness with the masses. His Uriah Heep candidacy should pay royalties to Charles Dickens: ``The umblest persons, Master Copperfield, may be the instruments of good. ... I have risen from my umble station since first you used to address me, it is true; but I am umble still.''

The pedigree of Edwards' campaign about his humble origins traces to the ``log cabin and hard cider'' theme of William Henry Harrison's 1840 campaign, which was successful. And preposterous: Harrison was born not in a cabin but in Berkeley, a three-story manor house on a Virginia plantation. He died after a month in office, from an illness brought on by delivering a one-hour, forty-minute address on a bitterly cold Inauguration Day. Perhaps -- Edwards, be warned -- Harrison died partly of embarrassment.