Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
August 6, 2003
POLITICS: The Brew Test
One of the questions political people ask about a candidate -- especially a presidential candidate -- is, "would you want to have a beer with this guy?" It may be unfair, and it may be a male-oriented question, but the political reality is that the voting public tends to look for a relaxed, easygoing manner in their president -- partly as a signal of some fundamental stability, partly because we are inviting this guy into our living rooms for four years, and don't want to wind up like that Saturday Night Live sketch where President Al Gore is giving droning lectures and pop quizzes to the nation. This phenomenon crosses party lines; Reagan and George W. Bush benefitted from the perception that they were guys you could have a relaxing chat over a beer with, and so did Clinton and JFK.
So how do today's Democrats survive the brew test? Here's one man's ranking:
1. Joe Lieberman. Lieberman suffers with Democratic voters from the perception that . . . well, as Jon Stewart put it, "Lieberman is the candidate for people who like George W. Bush but think he's not Jewish enough." Conservatives like me tend to like him for the same reason, although Lieberman's actual voting record, at least on domestic policy, is fairly conventionally liberal. (In fact, outside of the Big Two issues of national security and taxes, Lieberman may be more liberal than Howard Dean).
But Lieberman's personality may actually be one of his secret weapons; he seems like a fundamentally sane guy (his religious upbringing is undoubtedly a plus), and yet he's got just enough dry humor to avoid coming off as dull as, say, Bob Graham.
Of course, this isn't a consensus. Will Saletan of Slate finds Lieberman as dull as dishwater, and he's seen a lot more of him on the stump than I have. And some people find "pious Joe" and his moral pronouncements grating. But I still think he's a guy you wouldn't mind having a normal conversation with.
2. Dick Gephardt. First of all, you can see the Geniality Gap in stark relief when Dick Gephardt is my second choice to share a beer with. This is totally subjective, but while Gephardt speaks in soundbites, you get the sense that he's not so much a focus group guy as more like a high school debater who thinks politicians are supposed to sound like this if they want to push their constitutents' buttons about "The Rich." The fact that Gephardt comes from a fairly humble background also gets some points for normality here.
3. John Edwards. Ditto on that last point for Edwards, but by now we're already into the territory of people I would actively dislike even if they weren't running for president. Edwards just seems too damn satisfied with how smooth he is, and doesn't seem like a guy who could turn that "off" to stand around a barbecue grill on a summer day and just shoot the breeze.
4. Al Sharpton. OK, I really, really hate Al Sharpton; you have to be from New York to truly understand why. But at least he'd tell some entertaining whoppers. Downside: you'd have to pick up the tab.
5. Carol Mosely-Braun. By default. Her personality doesn't make much of an impression.
6. Bob Graham. 7-7:15: Consumed beer with blogger. 7:15-7:20: Took a leak.
7. John Kerry. Kerry has cornered the market on the elusive Al Gore Grand Slam of personality traits: he manages to come off as simultaneously mean, boring, condescending and insincere. Try it sometime -- it's not easy. Like Gore, you get the sense that Kerry -- also a son of privilege -- decided to run for president by looking in a mirror and thinking, "I really look presidential."
8. Howard Dean. The New Hampshire Primary has historically been very good to angry candidates and scrappy insurgents. Not so for the general election, as Andrew Sullivan notes. It's easy to get caught up in the guy who's angriest at the other side; I did myself in 2000, when I backed McCain in the primaries. You may have forgotten this, but McCain's campaign took off at the precise moment when his stump speech turned up the heat on Clinton and Gore and their lack of integrity in ways Bush seemed afraid to do. One of the risks, of course, is that like McCain, Dean will turn his anger against his own party (we've seen the beginnings of this with his sniping at Kerry and now Lieberman; wait and see if he goes after the DLC the way McCain went after social conservatives).
Ever seen Dean try to smile? It's frightening (Jon Stewart did a good bit on this last night). And everything I've read about Dean's career as Vermont governor backs up the idea that bristling anger is his default mode and not just some act for the benefit of the primaries.
9. Dennis Kucinich. Nothing spoils a good beer like a stern lecture about how our society cruelly oppresses hops and barley.