The nation wants a daddy, not a bud

Observations on the US presidential elections

It is conventional electoral wisdom in the US that although people don't mind if their senators are aloof and distant, they want their president to be someone they like. The US Senate is constitutionally designed to be a place of cool heads and sober reflection, to be a defence against populism - a "cooling saucer" for legislation, as Washington described it to Jefferson. Not only does it not matter if senators are dull; dullness is part of the skills set. But voters are going to see their president on TV for the next four years and he embodies the nation's personality - he is supposed to be Mr America.

Presidents, according to this wisdom, are supposed to seem like the kind of guy you would want at your barbecue, or in your local bar. Bill Clinton was a natural in this role. And George W Bush learned the lesson that his father's stiffness was a vote-loser. He can fake "ordinary bloke" pretty well. During his 2000 campaign, he joked that while his opponent had written a book at university, he may himself have managed to read one. Clear message: Al Gore's a geek, I'm just a regular guy who'd rather be watching baseball than reading that Tocqueville. Even Bush's syntactical challenges - which so appal Europeans - positioned him, away from the snobbish coasts, as someone you could comfortably share a Bud with.

On that basis, John Kerry, despite his success on Super Tuesday, is a potential loser. Like Gore, he is wooden on public platforms and television; indeed, to describe him thus is probably unfair to some of the livelier deciduous timbers. He is "Boston Brahmin" to his fingertips - a scion of old, moneyed, New England stock. If he were English, he'd have a triple-barrelled name. If elected, he would be the poshest president since FDR. So all the advice to Kerry is to loosen up, connect on an emotional level with the voters and drop the tie.

Yet this advice could well be wrong. In 2004, the conventional wisdom may not apply. At a time when Americans feel insecure and uncertain of the right path, they may reject someone who could just as easily be their local little league coach as be their president. They may place greater emphasis on experience, integrity and discipline. They may want someone who exudes authority more than chumminess. This time, America may be looking not for a good time, but to be protected and led - not for a buddy president, but a daddy president. Kerry should stick with the tie.

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