Casual news consumers may have noticed something odd this week: widespread references to Marco Rubio's footwear. Many are probably wondering why in the world this is popping up, and if it's my job to help folks navigate political waters, I suppose it's worth one explanatory blog post.
First, a little historical context. It seems about once a presidential election cycle, prominent candidates are confronted with -- and annoyed by -- coverage of seemingly meaningless trivia, accompanied by just a dash of symbolic significance. John Edwards, for example, faced stories about his haircuts. Al Gore was slammed repeatedly by breathless chatter about wearing "Earth tones." Barack Obama saw a mind-numbing amount of chatter about arugula.
"So let me get this right: ISIS is cutting peoples' heads off, setting people on fire in cages, Saudi Arabia and Iran are on the verge of a war, the Chinese are landing airplanes on islands that they've built…in international waters, our economy is flat-lining, and the stock market's falling apart -- but boy, are we getting a lot of coverage about a pair of boots!" "This is craziness! Have people lost their minds?" Rubio asked, incredulously.
This is a perfectly natural, healthy reaction, and to a very real extent, Rubio is right to be gobsmacked. John Kerry's affinity for wind-surfing was also a pointless distraction from issues that mattered. Some might argue that Mitt Romney's treatment of his family's dog wasn't important, either.
But the funny thing about presidential campaigns -- one of them, anyway -- is that the candidates don't get to choose which of these little idiosyncratic stories take root.
I suspect Rubio and his team are inclined to blame the political press for being easily distracted by nonsense. Whatever the merits of those concerns, let's not lose sight of the fact that, just over the last few days, it was Republican presidential candidates -- not pundits and reporters -- who decided his boots were important enough to mock.
And what is it about Rubio's choice of fancy footwear that piqued the interest of his GOP rivals? There are a variety of possible explanations, but New York
's Jon Chait's take
sounded about right.
Rubio's plan is to run to the right on policy substance, but to the center on affect and tone. He avoids gratuitous demonstrations of anger, speaking optimistically and sometimes even gently. If it works, Rubio's strategy will make him more popular in a general election, encouraging Republican insiders to rally around him, thereby increasing his chances of winning the nomination. [...] The weakness in Rubio's strategy is that it leaves him out of step with the mood among the base. That is what his rivals are attempting to exploit. Specifically, they are trying to make Rubio's boots imply something deeper about his character: that he is a lightweight, unmanly, lacking the angry urgency needed at the moment. The boots are a synecdoche. Sunny and optimistic can be turned into callow, naive, and even effeminate.
The total number of Republican voters in Iowa and New Hampshire who'll vote against Rubio because of his fashion choices is probably zero. That said, campaigns understand that a series of factors -- some substantive, some stylistic -- create a broader impression of candidates in voters' minds.
And as annoying as this is, and as much as the discourse should at least try to rise above nonsense, that's why we end up hearing about haircuts, arugula, and "shiny, stack-heeled ankle boots