Scoring Candidates on Style Points

The problem isn’t attacks on superficial traits—it’s that men are not subjected to the same criticisms as women.

Matt Rourke / AP

Hillary is a screamer. So says Bob Woodward, the journalistic legend and seasoned political pontificator. This is no small problem, asserts Woodward, who recently explained on Morning Joe that Secretary Clinton’s shrieking, shouting “unrelaxed” delivery is a troubling sign of her lack of “self-acceptance.”

Woodward’s take shouldn’t have surprised anyone. For all his reportorial gifts, the Washington Post’s eminence gris is himself deadly dull: ponderous enough to put even the most adrenaline-jacked cable junkie to sleep. For Woodward, anyone speaking with more oomph than the somnambulant Ben Carson is apt to come across as overwrought.

But as an old white guy criticizing the speaking style of a female candidate, using the too loud/too shrill cliché  loved by patronizing chauvinists the world over, Woodward not only surprised many female listeners, he ticked them off. Cries of “sexism” went up, with women lawmakers in particular rallying to Hillary’s side, armed with their own tales of being held to different standards than their male counterparts. Senator Jean Shaheen tartly observed that Bernie Sanders isn’t exactly “relaxed” in his self-presentation: “He shouts the whole time. Give me a break.”

Now, I firmly believe all of the many studies showing all of the many ways that women are judged more harshly than men when it comes to their leadership fitness. And you can’t spend as many years in the workplace as I have without witnessing (and weathering) some truly impressive sexism from time to time. That said, I feel compelled to semi-defend Woodward. For whatever blend of reasons, Hillary just doesn’t do the fired-up-and-ready-to-rumble thing well. Not so much because she is a woman (Elizabeth Warren seems to manage), but because she fundamentally is not an inspirational candidate, and never has been. Hillary is the work horse, the wonk, the dogged over-achiever. As a result, watching her try to cut loose on the stump is a little like watching Sanders try to talk foreign policy: Its awkwardness is jarring. In pointing up this reality, should Woodward have taken greater pains not to come across as smug and patronizing? Yes. This does not, however, mean that he was wrong.

Sexism aside, some people consider this sort of candidate critique to be inherently shallow and vapid and not at all the sort of thing with which serious political analysts should sully themselves. When there is a whole wide world of ideological and policy differences to discuss, who gives a flying fig about a candidate’s tone or appearance?

Well, everyone. Just ask the terminally stiff Al Gore or Screamin’ Howard Dean. More than any other type of candidate, POTUS wannabes are graded on style as much as substance. In addition to smarts and experience, they are expected to convey strength and empathy and confidence and competence and decency and, as the cliché goes, the vibe that they’d be really fun to chug a beer with. People can lament how this should not be so, but it is so. And, far from frivolous, such stylistic judgmentalism speaks directly to a vital aspect of the job.

Beneath all the pomp and power, presidents are to some degree glorified salespeople, endlessly pitching their vision for this nation both at home and abroad. The content of the message matters, but so too does the appeal of the messenger—an appeal that rests in no small part on intangibles like Bill Clinton’s gift for emoting or Reagan’s air of optimism. Or consider how many times President Obama’s perceived aloofness has undermined his salesmanship.

This is not to suggest that Hillary fans should allow their candidate’s oratorical shortcomings to place her at a disadvantage. I am, in fact, a yuuuge proponent of leveling the playing field—not by ignoring female candidates’ surface-level quirks but by seeing to it that the guys in the game receive equal scrutiny. Rick Perry’s look-how-smart-I-am, nerd-chic glasses? Marco Rubio’s chronic dry mouth? Bernie’s mad-scientist hair? Trump’s phantasmagoric comb over and burnt-umber complexion? All fair game. The same goes for John Kasich’s crabby-patty disposition, the low energy of Jeb!, and Carson’s spot-on impression of a man who believes debating is best done while chilling on Valium.

And then there’s Ted Cruz, whose stylistic challenges are the stuff of which Twitter memes are made: the painfully gassy smile, the desperate-to-look-non-threatening pullovers, and, saints preserve us, that voice! Whatever you think of Cruz’s policies or of the fact that most of his Senate colleagues (Republican and Democrat alike) would rather see Sarah Palin become the nominee than the widely disliked Texas bomb-thrower, does anyone seriously think that a guy with that voice can become commander-in-chief? Hillary may get a tad shouty now and again, but listening to Cruz is like having a Black & Decker power drill slowly implanted in your skull. The mere threat of a President Cruz whining his way through a State of the Union address is enough to have the entire nation reaching for Advil—and ear plugs.

Am I being a wee bit harsh about our noble POTUS contenders? Snarky? Petty? Trump-esque even? Perhaps. Then again, so is much of the electorate. (I certainly didn’t come up with the above criticisms on my own.) As they should be. If something about a president’s manner rubs enough folks the wrong way, he or she will have a helluva time leading anyone anywhere. As such, there’s a value to weighing the candidates’ various idiosyncrasies relatively early in this process—but all of the candidates, not just the ones Bob Woodward finds grating.

So rather than expend too much energy fretting that Hillary is being picked on for a flaw that she cannot help, I propose taking a more realpolitik approach to achieving balance. Keep a very close, very critical eye on those male performers candidates. Embrace your inner Simon Cowell. And the next time Cruz breaks out an egregiously dorky sweater, go on and tweet your dismay to the world.