Kaine laughed. But: Of course he is! On the one hand, the image he is building—his seeming embodiment of friendly, low-key authority—is perfectly attenuated to the responsibilities of the vice presidency. As The New York Times’s fashion critic, Vanessa Friedman, wrote of Kaine’s sartorial choices during his appearance at the DNC,
Of all the male power speakers at the convention thus far, he was the least tailored. In fact, he looked kind of schlubby. In his gray suit, which pulled and bunched when he waved his arms, his dull blue shirt, and his tie with the wide red, dark gray and blue stripes that somehow matched his shirt and blended the two together, he looked like the anti-image-consultant guy. And I bet that is all to the good. After all, it is partly the point.
Kaine’s dad tour, though, is also tapping into something broader even than the omnipresent presidential campaign: The VP candidate’s embrace of his own dadness is perfectly fit for a cultural moment that is renegotiating what “dadness” means in the first place. Instead of blanket authority, the dad as an aesthetic embraces a certain nerdiness, a very particular kind of out-of-touch-ness: The dad is always trying just a little too hard, always caring a little too much. That befuddled humility is the sense of dadness embraced by, say, dadcore. And by dadrock. And by those excellent fake covers of Dad Magazine, via (RIP) The Toast.
Even the celebrations of the #dadbod that arose last year—the bod in question being “a nice balance between a beer gut and working out,” and saying, “I go to the gym occasionally, but I also drink heavily on the weekends and enjoy eating eight slices of pizza at a time”—pivoted on notions of accessible masculinity. The dad, as an aesthetic, is both playful and subversive: It is fit for a time that is doing away with many of the rigid conceptions of “gender” and “family” that did so much to define the culture of previous generations. As my colleague Spencer Kornhaber summed it up last year, the notion of the “dad bod”—and the treatment of dadness as an aesthetic—“marks a turn away from men as the cultural default, perpetual subjects instead of objects; and interprets them instead as just another group of people to be scrutinized.”
But that treatment recognizes, too, a cultural situation in which men continue to enjoy more power than other people. Jokes about #dadbods and the like, Spencer noted, “are fair play—with men still wielding most of the cultural and economic power, nobody’s actually hurt by some chuckling about Steely Dan and un-taut stomachs.”
It’s the same with the dad jokes made about (and, in their way, made by) Kaine: They are permissible in a way that jokes about Hillary Clinton’s status as a mother and grandmother still cannot be. Kaine’s dad-ness, in that sense, offers a way for Kaine, as a candidate, to do the thing that voters demand of the people who seek to lead them: to perform authenticity, with a good-natured laugh. To poke fun at themselves and congratulate themselves, both at the same time.
On Thursday, Colbert asked Kaine, “Are you familiar with your role as America’s stepdad?” In response to this, Kaine—after a hearty chuckle—gave the most dad-like answer possible. “I’ve been prepared for that for 26 years,” Kaine informed Colbert, “because I have three children who have been ripping on me and saying those things about me since they were born.”