I don’t really agree with the take of Garance and Ezra on Maureen Dowd’s abjectly horrible column yesterday. The error they’re making, I think, it to assume that these charges have some sort of objective merit to someone, or that there’s some way of avoiding having junior high narratives being developed about you. Consider what similar advice given to Al Gore would look like (and there are many people who blamed Gore for running a horrible, horrible campaign and not adapting to the media.) He wouldn’t be able to wear “earth tone” suits, or casual jackets, or Armani suits, or work clothes…actually, I’m not sure what he could wear. He couldn’t discuss past political achievements because the media would distort them and make them look arrogant. He can’t pass on things a newspaper told him about his friend’s novel because it might not turn out to be fully true. He can’t pay a feminist consultant. And on and on and on. And if he had done all of these things, Dowd, Rich, Connolly, et al. still would have just made stuff up out of whole cloth, as they in fact did. And it’s the same thing with Kerry. If he engages in his actual hobbies, he’s an upper class twit. If he does anything else, he’s a phony. If he talks about NASCAR, Dowd will make him into a phony by lying about what he said. I assume the unwinnable choices and double standards facing Clinton are clear enough that going into detail would be belaboring the obvious.
In other words, I see no benefit to Edwards trying to appease this crowd. If he got a cheap- looking haircut, he would be attacked for that. If he tried to quietly get a mid-price haircut, he would be attacked as a flip-flopper who would really prefer to get expensive haircuts but is being a pandering phony. And then they will attack his suits, and his house, and his teeth, and his previous job, and his decision to betray his wife by staying in the race although she has cancer etc. etc. etc. Precisely because these narratives are 100% vacuous bullshit, there’s no way of avoiding them. If you want to read political significance into ordinary personality traits, a Dowd or a Givhan or anyone else who’s won a Pulitzer for degrading our political discourse will find something. The best strategy is to ignore them, and if they must be engaged the goal should be to point out that they’re clowns who have no business working on major newspapers. Maureen Dowd will be spending the next two years engaging in catty, sometimes dishonest gossip about Democratic candidates, and this will be true no matter what they do. Trying to change your behavior to accommodate this is an inherently futile enterprise.
UPDATE: Since a couple of commenters seem to have misunderstood me, I should clarify that by “ignore” I mean that Democratic candidates should not attempt to change their campaigns in response to these silly narratives; as the Gore campaign demonstrates, this just makes things worse. If the response is to undermine the idiots who make these arguments, I repeat that I support this entirely. See also Matt on how these personality tautologies are part of a larger trap that inexorably tilts towards right-wing outcomes.