By Betsy Rothstein - 06/25/08 05:09 PM EDT
It’s the new baby on the campaign trail these days, with candidates reaching for the bottle long before they reach for the cute dumpling in the onesie.
Sure, politicians still kiss babies. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) is way out front on that as parents pass their babies overhead for a smooch. But it seems wherever we turn, a lawmaker is drinking beer in a local watering hole in an effort to present him- or herself as a man or woman of the people.
During President Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign, he was continuously hailed as the guy “you’d rather have a beer with.” A Zogby/Williams Identity Poll found that 57 percent of undecided voters would rather have a beer with Bush than with Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). And this despite the fact that Bush says he stopped drinking in 1986 and acknowledged a 1976 DUI.
Fast-forward to 2008, when Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) did a shot and drank beer in New Hampshire. We heard repeatedly about the overseas trip she took with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), among others, to Estonia in 2004 during which she called for a vodka-drinking contest.
Obama criticized her for her drinking in New Hampshire, saying, “They’ll promise you anything and even come around with TV crews in tow to throw back a shot and a beer.”
But he too has indulged.
Obama drank a Yuengling in Pittsburgh and questioned whether he was pronouncing it correctly. He also drank beer in Puerto Rico.
“Beer is, by its very definition, a product that brings people together, a product of celebration,” said Craig Purser, president and CEO of the National Beer Wholesalers Association. “It’s something Americans connect with.”
This is evidenced by McCain, who dropped by an annual St. Patrick’s Day beer-tasting event and was photographed with a beer.
Just last month, Cumberland House published The Ultimate Beer Lover’s Cookbook by John Schlimm, a politically savvy author who took it upon himself to match the presidential hopefuls with beer recipes (see sidebar).
“Beer has become the ultimate running mate in this campaign,” said Schlimm, whose great-great-grandfather is Peter Straub, who founded the Straub brewery back in the 1870s.
Schlimm says the beer photo op appeals to the middle working class.
“It’s nice to pose and kiss the baby and pose with the factory workers, but boy, it really gets a reaction when they knock back the beer,” he said. “The beer has become the new baby.”
The cookbook author says Clinton has fared well in the alcohol department. “Hillary has gotten the most attention,” Schlimm said of the former presidential hopeful. “She knocked back a shot of whiskey and chased it with a beer.”
Perhaps beer exists in the subconscious. McCain, whose wife Cindy is a beer heiress and chairwoman of Hensley & Co., one of the largest Anheuser-Busch distributors nationwide, made a recent gaffe. During remarks to the National Federation of Independent Business, the presumed GOP presidential nominee was discussing excessive spending when he declared, “I will veto every single beer.” He regrouped and said he meant to say that he would veto every “bill with earmarks.”
The great thing about beer, remarks National Beer Wholesalers’ Purser, is that it gets people talking.
“Civility is so important,” he says. “You can have a debate or a discussion. Some call it a social lubricant.”
Each year Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.) host “Feeney’s Penthouse Party” at his dorm-like Capitol Hill apartment. Beverage options are Diet Coke and beer.
“There are many tests out there,” he says. “Voters are looking for people they can trust their kids with. Ideally, you’d want to have a beer with him. The bigger test is who you’d want to leave your kids with, and some days [laughing] I’ll leave my kids with anyone.”
But some politicians don’t care for brew.
Rep. Steve Kagen (D-Wis.), whose state is home to Milwaukee’s Miller Brewing Company, sees no place for it in his professional life. “I have listening sessions, not drinking sessions,” he says.
Kagen says if he were sitting down with the politician who would represent his best interests and those of his family, “it would be my hope that they would offer me fresh fruits and vegetables.”
Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.), whose district houses Anheuser-Busch, says beer is not a social requirement, but concedes that the politician who would sit down for a beer with constituents would be “an affable and easy person,” and “a person you could feel comfortable discussing a broad range of topics.”
But he hardly indulges.
“Once every five years,” he says of his beer consumption, adding: “Once in a while I have a non-alcoholic beer.”
Other politicians don’t think it’s necessary to imagine drinking a beer with the commander in chief. But, they say, it can’t hurt.
“I think it’s important to be able to imagine the future president in a tutu,” joked Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho). “No, it’s not important. It’s just the symbol of being one of the people, someone you could talk to, one of us. I don’t think it’s important that the president be seen at a NASCAR race. But when he is, he’s one of us.”