Scott Brown is from Wrentham, and he drives a truck. He is now a Massachusetts Senator.
This week, as pundits debated whether Brown's win was a referendum on Obama or on health care reform -- and what it says about the "pulse" of the country -- an important discussion about gender was drowned out. Coakley's uninspired campaign produced many legitimate criticisms and it would be unfair to blame her loss on sexism alone. But the typecasting of political actors that electoral campaigns are often reduced to made it nearly impossible for Coakley to succeed in the current political climate. Driving a truck certainly contributed to Brown's win -- but it also solidified Coakley's loss.
Voters want candidates they identify and connect with -- an "everyman" -- and this is particularly evident in the type of populist political moment we are in now. The iconic everyman image remains easy to conjure up: a breadwinning, sports-loving, truck-driving family man who's in touch with the people. Someone who can fight for us because they seem like one of us. Someone like Scott Brown. But while the everyman archetype may be easy to invoke, the "everywoman" politician is far more elusive.
Brown's successful everyman politician, after all, had a familiar playbook: cruising around in his manly but populist vehicle of choice -- a truck; mucking around with an entourage that included popular Boston sports heroes; he's also handsome and strong. A self-described "family man" in a household of women, Brown didn't even have to defend his position on woman's issues. With a wife and two daughters, his dedication to women was apparently self-evident. Brown's TV ad responding to Coakley's attack even featured him in his kitchen -- a traditionally female domain -- with photos of his children plastered across his fridge in the background. It was a dig at Coakley that didn't go unnoticed.
And then there was the now ubiquitous Brown nude centerfold shot in Cosmo. For Brown, it was a funny anecdote -- another colorful detail of his hard-working "everyman" existence (he apparently sought to put his winnings toward his tuition costs at Boston College Law School). These pictures never worked against him; if anything, they certified his masculinity, and certainly his hotness. Could any woman running for Senator have pulled off such a feat?
Martha Coakley, meanwhile, married late and had no children. Although her public service career suggested a deep concern with the welfare of others, she was not thought of as nurturing. She was often accused of being cold, an "ice queen." She was described as "lawyerly" -- though both candidates were lawyers -- and cautious. Said to be too ambitious and opportunistic at the outset of her candidacy, by the end she was not trying hard enough and was described as weak, and lacking the fire in the belly to win. Ultimately, Coakley succumbed to the age-old storyline that pitted her as a detached politics-as-usual elitist running against an underdog everyman.
But what is an iconic everywoman? What does she look like? It's a harder visual to invoke, but certainly one that puts mothering and nurturing at its core. Perhaps Sarah Palin's early dramatic success is the best example of the power of the everywoman image to attract a populist audience. Much like Brown's constant reference to his truck, Palin's acceptance speech at the Republican convention defined her as just a regular hockey mom. Her popularity surged instantly, and only after her startling lack of substance overcame the initial everywoman appeal did it finally ebb.
The truth, of course, is that the very idea of the everywoman is largely inconsistent with the lives of many successful women who run for high office, particularly those of Coakley's generation and older. These women have often had to make more sacrifices than men to succeed in their careers and as a result their lives don't always resemble their male counterparts. Many have spent their professional careers fighting off the stereotype that they are too emotional and soft, and understandably have become wary of showing that side of them. For most male politicians there is a women-behind-the-man who has long supported their careers, raised their kids, and enabled them to "have it all." Women have struggled with this balancing act for decades, so naturally, their lives look different.
Of course, in an ideal world, we wouldn't judge candidates by comically oversimplified labels. We would judge them on their policies, their experiences and their competency to serve. But Martha Coakley may just be the canary in the coal mine warning that women candidates must thread the needle in a way that not only highlights their competence, but also their compassionate, personable side -- particularly during troubled times for the country. Unless we accept this reality -- or hope that the passage of time cements a new vision of an everywoman -- many qualified women candidates will continue to lose.
For women, it's a delicate and often treacherous road to navigate, especially with large trucks barreling on by.
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