On a road trip in the fall of 2004 my friends and I traveled from New Orleans to Wilmington, N.C. Throughout every mile of Interstate 10, massive billboards flashed the slogan "Boots or flip flops." It was the most formative aspect of my first presidential election season.
It was then that I realized that since the inception of televised politics, every successful presidential bid had gripped, in some way, some feature of American masculinity in the mind of the public.
If they weren't war hawks they had to be seductive. If they were conciliatory and forgiving with adversarial governments, then they had the extramarital affair to restore their image as patriarchs. The few successful Democratic presidential figures benefited, if accidentally, from appearing as womanizers.
Case in point: Clinton's approval ratings climbed higher and higher as his opponents in Congress dragged out the details of the Lewinski scandal. It seems that a president had to be a Reagan hardliner or a Clinton playboy. Figures like Jimmy Carter, who fell into neither category, floundered.
Since we have endured an attack on domestic shores this sensitivity has been very easy to exploit. Tapping into the fragile sense of American masculinity got Bush re-elected when his approval ratings were among the lowest of any successful presidential incumbent in recent history. The Bush camp played it perfectly, attacking Kerry's heroic military record and painting his lack of support for the war as indecision and impotence. They left the public a choice between a fickle, blundering senator and an aggressive but effective leader.
Now figures like Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi are publicly stating that they feel they don't need to fit a traditionally tough, masculine template to get into office. According to The New York Times, political strategists are beginning to say that a female politician's domestic side no longer clashes with her executive.
The public is growing accustomed to females in positions of power. Consequently, it is no longer necessary to conform to the image of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to gain access to office. This isn't seen by many as such a monumental moment in gender equality.
It can be pointed out that many other countries in the developed and developing world have been led by female politicians for decades. But I don't note this development because of its implications for gender politics. I am fascinated with it because I think this might signal the permanent nullification of the "boots or flip flop" conception of the executive.
Strong leadership, decisiveness, and ideological resolve have been indissolubly connected with an image of an imperial presidency and an impetuous foreign policy.
The more masculinity is used as a campaign tactic, the more it becomes a job requirement and the less of an option diplomacy becomes for future presidents. The more presidents need to present themselves as vigilant defenders of the nation, the more they have to instill a sense of struggle and urgency in the public, and so, the more imperial our foreign policy becomes.
The need for a patriarchal president creates both a cause and an excuse to get mired in situations like the one in Iraq. The image of the excessively hard-line leader goes hand in hand with the concept that we are locked in a great struggle between good and evil. The same concept that has blurred the line between peacetime and war, that has given the president indefinite wartime powers, allowed us to subjugate foreign nations and ignore the rest of the world in their objection.
The general acceptance of competitive female candidates could serve to separate the notion of determined leadership from belligerence abroad and with it the ill-fated choice presidential candidates in the past two elections have given us - the war monger or the inept.