The lenses by which we view presidential candidates

Apparently Pete Buttigieg had a bang-up debate performance Tuesday, at least according to many political pundits. Meanwhile, as I was skimming a CNN recap that placed the South Bend, Indiana, mayor atop a list of "winners," I was also talking with an old friend who had this to say: "Ugh. When did Mayor Pete become that dude who throws you under the bus once you learn only one of you gets the Rotary scholarship?"

Some of his debate performance was inspired, such as his retort to Tulsi Gabbard: "You take away the honor of our soldiers, you might as well go after their body armor next." That's a heck of a line. But I've always admired Buttigieg's generally thoughtful, calming manner − and Tuesday wasn't that. "I don't need lessons from you on courage," he scornfully told Beto O'Rourke. His signature move was to sanctimoniously claim he was above all this scrapping, while actively participating in the scrapping.

My sample size is tiny and unscientific, but when I floated this irritation online, the people who agreed were mostly women. Men either hadn't noticed Buttigieg's tonal shift or they liked it: His newfound aggressiveness came across to them as smart debate strategy for a guy who needs to make a fast surge in the polls.

What to make of suddenly being mildly irritated by Pete Buttigieg, one of the easiest-to-like candidates in the race? It wasn't about him so much as it was about us, the women I was talking to. We'd determined that Buttigieg was behaving like a kind of dude we had seen before, a sort of megalomaniacal Eagle Scout, and weren't sure we entirely loved.

Fair? Not at all.

But politics is often about applying our own life experiences onto candidates, to make them not humans but archetypes. We've seen this most explicitly with female candidates: Is Elizabeth Warren lecturing you? Is Kamala Harris yelling at you? Are they − stop me if this one sounds familiar − shrill? No, and no. And no! But plenty of male voters have watched them on the trail and come away feeling that.

This might be the first election in which, when we talk about electability, we are also talking about the electability of men. Do they have the right kind of masculinity for the moment? Does it seem as if they're addressing the female candidates with respect? What kind of dude are they being?

For every man who saw Hillary Clinton as a shrew, there's a woman who looks deep into Joe Biden's eyes and sees only the father-in-law whose uninvited shoulder rubs end when he either loses his train of thought or decides to reassure you of his wokeness by listing all of his gay friends.

That dude.

I know one woman who confessed she'd have to really force herself to vote for Bernie Sanders − whose politics she believes in − simply because he reminds her so much of her own estranged father, shaking his index finger over the family dinner table.

That dude!

Elizabeth Warren is that woman who thinks she knows more than you? Fine. Tom Steyer is that dude who thinks he knows more than you based on once reading the book you wrote.

Kamala Harris is yelling at you? Fine. Have you met Bernie Sanders?

Are any of these stereotypes fair? I don't know. Julián Castro and Cory Booker seemed good to me on Tuesday night, but they drove others up the wall. Booker is the only man in your feminist studies course, bless him, but he sits in the front row and offers his opinion before any women can talk.

I'm slightly embarrassed by the fact that, for me, the most electrifying debate moment wasn't a policy question: It was Harris describing a hypothetical president by casually using the female pronoun: "The commander in chief of the United States of America has, as one of her greatest priorities and responsibilities, to concern herself with the security of our nation."

Because if you've never gotten to be the default pronoun − if you've gone through life hearing about firemen and policemen and mailmen, or if you've been told that "mankind" just rolls off the tongue better than "humankind," and anyway, ladies, "mankind" tacitly encompasses women, too − if you've quietly lived in this world, then it's still shocking to hear about a different world. One in which, sure, the archetypal commander in chief is, by default, a "her."

And not that dude.

Monica Hesse is a columnist for The Washington Post's Style section.




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