"Be" candidates versus "do" candidates, or, how feminist theory may help elucidate contemporary politics


I like to assign a little Judith Butler the first week of class to weed out the weak and/or uncommitted students.  It’s nothing strenuous (for Judith Butler, anyway)–just the first chapter of Gender Trouble, which serves as an introduction for the book.  It’s in this chapter that she introduces her notion of gender as a performance, which was a signal insight in feminist theory.  Embodiment versus performativity.  “To be” versus “to do.”  It’s an especially helpful idea for historians, because we are all about the contingent and variable nature of everything.

Perhaps this “to be” versus “to do” distinction is a useful way of describing two different strategies for American politicians on the national stage.  This year, both the Republican and Democratic nominees have leaned heavily on their personal biographies, selling themselves primarily on who they are rather than on what they will do.  This approach has its advantages, because a compelling personal narrative helps distract people from a candidate’s voting record or his overall record in public service, if there are discrepancies he’d rather not explain or dwell on.  John McCain, who this year is a far cry from the effective insurgent of 2000, clumsily brings every political quesiton he’s asked back to his five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.  He strikes me as an oddly tone-deaf and inept candidate, but it seems to work for him:  the polls are close, and the Democratic National Convention appears not to be improving Barack Obama’s polling against McCain.  McCain has wiped out the lead that Obama had earlier this summer.

Bill and Hillary Clinton are and always have been “do” politicians.  Their campaigns have been built around not who they are, but rather what they will do for their constituents.  For all of the boneheaded media indignation about how “the Clintons think this convention is all about them!  ZOMG!  Because we can’t stop talking and writing about them!,” their speeches in Denver on Tuesday and Wednesday nights illustrate the “do” strategy.  In her speech Tuesday night, Hillary Clinton gently chided her supporters,

Were you in this campaign just for me? Or were you in it for that young Marine and others like him? Were you in it for that mom struggling with cancer while raising her kids? Were you in it for that boy and his mom surviving on the minimum wage? Were you in it for all the people in this country who feel invisible?

Those are the questions of a candidate who is about doing, and not about being. 

Barack Obama sold himself to the Democratic party on his life story, as told in two biographies and in repeated iterations on the campaign trail:  the son of a Kenyan man and a Kansan woman, born in Hawaii, raised in part in Indonesia, a scholarship kid who made good at Columbia and Harvard and then moved to Chicago to serve his adopted community there.  It’s a classic American story with an appealing multi-ethnic, international twist:  the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin plus impressive Ivy League achievements and a global perspective.

Democratic presidential candidates in the last seventy-five years have had limited success with the “be” candidate strategy.  I would classify Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, and Bill Clinton as “do” candidates.  Their biographies were part of the way they sold themselves, but they were fundamentally about politices and not personality.  John Kennedy and Jimmy Carter were “be” candidates and presidents–Kennedy the dashing World War II hero with the attractive young family, and Carter the honest Southern evangelical Christian who would “never lie to you,” in direct contrast to the disgraced Richard Nixon.  Democrats have had more success with the “do” strategy, because Democratic policies are usually more popular than Republican policies.

Because Republican policies poll less successfully, Republicans have made an art of the “be” campaign, especially with candidates whose resumes were thin and acheivements few.  Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush are probably the best examples of the “be” campaign in action, even with dubious backgrounds (respectively) as a Hollywood B-lister and as an underachieving drunk.  Republicans also get away with playing dressup to burnish their embodiment of their supposed virtues:  Reagan with his cowboy hat on his California “ranch,” Bush in a flight suit or with a chainsaw clearning brush on his Texas “ranch.”  (Contrast this with the way Democratic presidential candidates Michael Dukakis and John Kerry were mocked for riding around in a tank and wearing camoflage and blaze orange on a hunting trip.)  “Do” Republican candidates and Presidents like Bob Dole and George H. W. Bush, who each had long careers in public service before running for President, have been notably less successful.  (I think I would put Richard Nixon in the category of a “do” President, although he was a very successful “doer” so long as his presidency lasted.)

Although I think that the “be” strategy is fraught with peril for a Democratic candidate, particularly against a war hero with a (largely unearned) “maverick” reputation, we’ll see what happens in November.  The good news for Obama is that the weather here in Colorado will be gorgeous for his outdoor acceptance speech and rock concert–none of our late summer thunderstorms or hail storms in the forecast–sunny and 85 degrees today, cooling off to about 65 by the time the candidate speaks.  But the campaign will continue, and Obama will hear himself re-defined the Republican way next week in Minneapolis.  I think he’s got all of the votes he’s going to get as a “be” candidate.  It might be time to try it the “do” candidate way.

UPDATE 8/29/08:  Nice speech last night–less about the biography, more about the policy positions and the things he wants to do.  He wasn’t too specific on how he’s going to get all of that stuff done, but I respect that it’s probably wise to hold some of his cards close to his vest.  He talked about the Democratic tradition and explained how he saw himself fitting into it.  I agree with Big Tent Democrat’s analysis–I may be even more enthusiastic about it than BTD, if you can believe that.  It was a heck of a conclusion to the convention–fireworks and all.  Well done!  And I hope all of those people cooped up in the stadium all day long weren’t too uncomfortable and that they got home reasonably quickly last night.

16 thoughts on “"Be" candidates versus "do" candidates, or, how feminist theory may help elucidate contemporary politics

  1. Historiann,

    If you go to the Big O-in tonight: Don’t sit near that gorilla from the Police concert at Red Rocks!

    Good analysis above. But I’m glad that wasn’t an assignment for US, as I first mis-read it. I’m maxed out right now with drop-add! Whine. I’m back on independent study right after Labor Day, however.


  2. Indyanna, the show tonight is for vacationers and the unemployed. People who have to work out SOL, because although Obama won’t speak until 8 p.m. MDT, ticket holders are being encouraged to queue up at 11 a.m. That’s a long day in the hot sun, and since they’re not permitting people to bring in any of their own food and drink, it’s a heyday for stadium concessions. I can’t imagine bringing children, at least not babies or very young children, or being handicapped or elderly or not in perfect health. But, I understand that’s what our modern National Security State demands!


  3. I’m glad to hear that James Dobson’s prayers for a “rain of Biblical proportions” during Obama’s acceptance speech apparently fell on deaf ears.


  4. ej–Instead of making Clinton President for Life, Democrats just maybe should learn how to nuture and grow talent within the party and learn how to promote the Dem brand? It’s kind of sad that we sit around waiting for a Savior every four years, and that we have to go back more than SIXTY YEARS to find a successful more-than-one-term president before Clinton.

    And Mary: yes, a bad day for Dobson is a good day for most Americans.


  5. I’ve watched very little of the convention coverage and then only on the PBS news (BBC, Lehrer). I have to say I was blown away by Dolores Huerta putting Hilary’s name into nomination. Does anyone have any background on that?


  6. It was a good speech. I watched it as an official event sponsored by some of our hard-core Obamaniacs, including some of my students from last Spring. They seemed to think they had a recanter in their midst. There should be some way to avoid making a guy have to say thank you, thank you very much forty-five times while the applause subsides, some other sort of ritualized response. He got in some very good zingers, esp. the 10% chance on change. The U-here kicked us all out when it ran one minute past eleven! The building manager told me in the elevator on the way down that it was a good speech but that he “just couldn’t see it…” so I guess more cultural work will be needed here in Bittervania. I
    hear the bus tour starts here in the Commonwealth.

    Meanwhile the Repubs may postpone their convention because of a hurricane somewhere? And now we hear of some sort a Statue-of-Liberty play out of Alaska to start off the fall campaign season?


  7. I really enjoyed it- I too have been sick of hearing all the rhetoric and wanted to hear something more substantial- which he did. My sister was there and had a great time, felt inspired, invigorated etc.


  8. Good. It seems like he did what he needed to do. (Too bad no one’s talking about it today since McCain’s announcement of his running mate!)

    I’m waiting to hear and read more about Sarah Palin before posting thoughts. It’s discouraging to see so many so-called “progressive” blogs immediately deride Palin, when Tim Kaine had basically the same (lack of) experience. He’s a first-term governor who was previously mayor of Richmond. That’s what I understand her background is (municipal government, a few terms as mayor, and then a leap into the governor’s mansion). I’m also getting the sense that she may play well with Westerners, with the gun and environment stuff.


  9. Pingback: Sarah Palin : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  10. Pingback: This is why we need more (& better) women politicians: : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  11. Pingback: This is why we need more (& better) women politicians: : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  12. Pingback: This is why we need more (& better) women politicians: : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

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