I am not here to tell you that Marco Rubio’s boots matter. I am here to explain why people are talking about them. It is not because they are a decision that objectively merits consideration. Nor is it because they are especially notable as a fashion statement. It is because Rubio’s opponents are trying to use them symbolically to turn his campaign message into a liability.
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. There is some evidence this is succeeding — far-right figures within the party, like Erick Erickson and Glenn Beck, are warming to him. The Rubio proposition of spending your popularity on substance rather than symbolism is one whose values political insiders recognize.
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, naïve, and even effeminate.
This works entirely at a sub-intellectual level, of course. But it is in keeping with a long tradition of associating male attention to fashion with effeminacy, and effeminacy with liberalism. My colleague Ed Kilgore points out that, in 1966, race-baiting Arkansas candidate “Justice Jim” Johnson attacked his opponent Winthrop Rockefeller for “fancy” boots:
The Rich Man from the Mountain
With All of His Grace
His Boots Made of Leather and
His Panties of Lace
With His Greedy Grin, All Over His Face
His Hunger for Power That’s
Held in His Paw
Reaches for the State of Arkansas. …
The attack on Rubio is more subtle, but runs along more or less the same lines. Rubio has begun darkening his message accordingly. The line he’s trying to walk is retaining enough of an optimistic thread that he can return to it if he wins the nomination, which is an important element of his plan to win the nomination in the first place. The boots attack is an attempt to heighten the tension within Rubio’s strategy.