If you want to know who’s going to win November’s Presidential election, just look for the candidate who can physically kick his opponent’s butt. It may sound facetious, but with the elections of former pro wrestler Jesse Ventura and, now, former bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger, it’s clear that voters believe that might makes right.
Politicians have long known that voters are quick to confuse physical strength with moral strength. Franklin Roosevelt feared that voters would think his polio made him weak. John F. Kennedy hid his chronic back pain for the same reason. And in the last 10 Presidential elections, the winner has been the guy who would have won in a prizefight, a bar-room brawl or wrestling match-or at least gave voters the impression that he could do so.
Let’s look at the historical record.
In 1964, Lyndon Johnson trounced Barry Goldwater, whose hawkishness could not disguise the fact that he was no match for the gargantuan L.B.J.
In 1968, Richard Nixon and his 5 o’clock shadow fended off pointy-headed intellectualHubert Humphrey in a back-alley donnybrook decided by fewer than half a million votes. Four years later, even without the segregationist George Wallace as his hit man in the South, Nixon clobbered the peace-loving George McGovern.
In 1976, able-bodied, blue-jeans-wearing peanut farmer Jimmy Carter triumphed over Nixon-pardoner Gerald Ford. Mr. Ford, a former football player for the University of Michigan, probably could have taken the born-again Mr. Carter in a wrestling match, but the public perception of Mr. Ford was sealed by Chevy Chase’s impression of him as a stumblebum who couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time.
In 1980, Mr. Carter-weakened by the Iran hostage situation-lost to big-shouldered Ronald Reagan. Mr. Reagan won a second term by routing the less-than-feisty Walter Mondale.
In 1988, Michael Dukakis led in the polls by 17 points until George Bush started distributing photos of the Massachusetts governor looking ridiculous in an Army helmet. Mr. Dukakis, then 55, probably could have whupped the 64-year-old Mr. Bush, but as soon as voters learned that he let Willie Horton out of jail, the electorate decided he was too much of a soft-hearted liberal to be President.
In 1992, a scandalously virile 44-year-old Bill Clinton defeated a tag-team of sexagenarians in 68-year-old George Bush and 62-year-old Ross Perot. Four years later, the reigning heavyweight champion easily defended his title against a challenge from an even older (73 years) Bob Dole.
If the 2000 election had been fought at Madison Square Garden rather than a Tallahassee courthouse, the result probably would have been the same: a split decision with both sides claiming that they wuz robbed. But in the end, Yale-educated, silver-spoon-fed scion of privilege George W. Bush beat Harvard-educated, silver-spoon-fed scion of privilege Al Gore primarily because voters thought of Mr. Bush as a Texas cowboy, but saw Mr. Gore as the tree-hugging geek who invented the Internet.
To beat Mr. Bush this time around, the Democrats will have to put up a contender who boasts not only moral leadership, but also brute strength. Mr. Bush’s once-vigorous exercise regimen was interrupted by pesky world events, but his war on Iraq has allowed him to dress up and play Army man (something he failed to do during the Vietnam war). If history is any guide, the Democrats can only win the White House if they run a candidate who voters believe can kick the President’s ass.
So who will it be? Battling Joe Lieberman? Puh -leeze. His whiny voice may sound a bit like Mike Tyson’s, but the only Friday Night Fight Mr. Lieberman has ever won was with Hadassah over who sits at the head of the table for Shabbas dinner. John (“Pretty Boy”) Edwards, who can’t seem to get his campaign started? Not likely. Dennis Kucinich? He couldn’t even beat the Moseley-Braun Bomber. John (“Kid”) Kerry? He can barely keep his motorcycle from falling down. Al (“the Tawana Brawler”) Sharpton? Maybe when he slimmed down during a hunger strike, but not now that he’s given up his jogging suit. “Deadeye” Dick Gephardt? He’d win in a landslide if the contest were for class president, but not for commander in chief.
So that leaves Howard Dean and Wesley Clark. Mr. Clark, a former officer and a gentleman, would seem to hold the edge, but don’t rule out Dr. Dean. Combining a medical degree with a political career fashioned entirely in the Birkenstock-clad confines of Vermont doesn’t exactly inspire fear, but his relentless pit-bull approach to the campaign suggests that he’s not ashamed to go for the jugular. And because he’s a doctor, he knows exactly where that vein is, and how to sever it.
Just ask the Democrats whose butts he’s already kicked so far.