Freshen up your election, hon?

Waitress Moms, the media construct of the moment, sling some zing into the mid-term election.


James Poniewozik
November 4, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)

Before you switch on the tube at 8:01 p.m. EST tonight and are told why you voted the way you voted (or, more likely, abstained the way you abstained); before a half-dozen electronic U.S. maps are lit up state by state in Nancy Reagan red and Tipper Gore blue; before Bill Bennett tells you that you voted for impeachment and Paul Begala tells you that you voted against it; before the crews of network graphic artists sleepily crack their knuckles and start making Y2K renovations to those Campaign '98 logos, know this: The biggest winner in the 1998 midterm election was crowned long ago. This year, Waitress Mom whupped everybody's ass.

The coinage of Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, Waitress Moms make up a demographic group defined, very roughly, as low-income working women of child-rearing age, troubled by President Clinton's morality, concerned about bread-and-butter family issues, and possibly too exhausted to vote. Waitress Mom is, obviously, the latest invader from the political Monster Island from which Soccer Mom (1996) and Angry White Man (1994) escaped to wreak havoc on the nation's polling places, a symbol of the media's endless need to put a national face on the hodgepodge of local grudge matches and zany ballot initiatives that actually make up a midterm election.

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But she is much, much more than that: She is the true feel-good, rags-to-riches story of this election season, an exemplary case of the blend of high ideals and hucksterism that allowed us to carve a gleaming plain of Starbucks and 5,000-seat churches out of the ragged American wilderness.

Lake identified Waitress Mom in 1996, in an effort to remind her party, during a season of pandering to the Aerostarwaffe of suburbia, that the Constitution still granted the franchise to people without 401(k) matching plans. But like most national candidates, Waitress Mom had to suffer a character-building defeat before rising to prominence. In the news indexes, she makes a feeble appearance toward the end of the '96 election, earning a few desultory mentions and briefly peaking with a plug in a Pew Research center Voter Typology, where she shares buzz space with such other also-rans as "Seculars," the "Partisan Poor" and my favorite, "The Embittered," a truly poetic locution that would make a great title for a Kazuo Ishiguro novel.

In the end, alas, Soccer Mom -- a comfier, more optimistic demo for a year of 30 percent stock returns and welfare gutting -- left minivan tread marks right down Waitress Mom's apron. (After the election, the women-in-politics group Emily's List issued a report claiming that Waitress Mom and not her richer futbolista sister was the real swing vote in that election -- but note that Lake, natch, is a pollster for Emily's List.) Waitress Mom spent the off year in relative obscurity; an article on current colloquialisms in the Fall 1997 American Speech gave a poignant epitaph for her stillbirth: "Peach State Public Radio teaser for 'All Things Considered' NPR said upcoming report would discuss waitress moms (but it never did)."

She lay dormant most of this election year too -- until October, when Lake began flogging her creation like a rented mule in public forums and numerous interviews. By mid-month, papers like the Detroit News and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch were reporting that "national pollsters" had tabbed Waitress Mom as "the key" to the coming election. So who exactly are these multiple "pollsters"? As far as this reader can tell, they're all Celinda Lake. At least, she's the only pollster I can find using the phrase, in article after article (except for Pew's Andrew Kohut, who disparaged the group's sudden importance as a "myth" in an interview with the New York Times). "It's all about waitress moms," Lake tells U.S. News and World Report; "It's actually the waitress moms who will decide this election," she says in USA Today; ditto in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. This is the American do-it-yourself spirit at its finest: one hard-working media gopher popping out of so many holes that she looks like a whole colony.

And Lake's stick-to-itiveness paid off Oct. 18, as her meme entered the Cooperstown of buzzdom: a mention in Maureen Dowd's "Liberties" column. Dowd, who can sense a juicy trend riff like a house cat hearing a can opener from three rooms away, tore into these vittles with abandon: "CNN interviewed a bunch of Flos at a Baltimore diner," she purred, "and it gave me a nice safe feeling to know that the fate of America is in the sensible hands of gals who smoke and call customers 'Hon.'"

Of course, if Dowd's politics of secondhand smoke -- "Manager! The counter girl ashed her health-insurance concerns all over my omelet!" -- neatly sums up the gap between Op-Ed America and the cancer-stick-puffing millions, it doesn't make the original coinage any more of a leap forward for class relations. Describing her 1996 eureka moment to the New York Times, Lake explained, "I was trying to think: What's the downscale version of the soccer moms -- the women who don't have a minivan and a cleaning lady?" pulling off the nigh-impossible trick of making the term sound even more demeaning than it had to begin with. Lake may have had the best intentions, but if she really wanted to boost the Dems' image among the "downscale," she might have picked a moniker that didn't broadcast that the party elite think of the proles in terms of their ability to keep the waffles and coffee coming during those jaunts to godforsaken New Hampshire and Iowa. (I'd love to see the notepad she brainstormed her creation on: "Cleaning Lady Moms? Scratch that ... Korean Lady Who Works at the Corner Dry Cleaner Moms? No ...")

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So why did Waitress Mom catch on? Certainly you can point to Lake's determination, coupled with reporters' easy willingness to hand over the political discourse to a few designated parrots per election cycle. It also says a lot about the evolving political role of "pollsters," who increasingly appear on the news as dutiful water carriers for the two parties, despite our charmingly antiquated view of them as clipboard-hauling, objective scientists. But moreover, Waitress Mom fits neatly into the meta-narrative of national news circa fall 1998; now that the "unparalleled national expansion" story is played out, the image of a dog-tired America soaking its feet and telling Bill Clinton, Ken Starr and the Asian economies to kiss its grits is irresistible.

And the fact that analysts can't agree on who Waitress Mom is -- here she's a party-hopping "subset of the Reagan Democrats," there a "core Democratic constituency" -- only makes her more useful. This is, after all, an election year whose rare pleasure has been the cheerful willingness among the pundit class to admit that they don't know what the hell is going to happen. It's a situation ready-made for Waitress Mom, what with her proletarian volatility and her woman's prerogative to change her mind.

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Most of all, chimerae like Waitress Mom and her kin put a national face on elections that tend in reality to be tediously local; it's simply more exciting to describe a fired-up electorate engaged in a nationwide death match than to watch the elderly and the fetus-in-a-jar crowd hie to the polls for whichever local sad sack dug up the ugliest file photo of his opponent for the TV blitz. That's why, for example, analysts engage in such arbitrary games as picking the magic number of GOP gains in the House that would constitute a "vote for impeachment" (U.S. News set the number at 15 and 20 on two different pages of the same election issue).

That's also why journalists did grateful somersaults when the Republicans finally aired ads raising the Lewinsky issue last week, again raising hopes of the long-wished-for "national referendum": William Safire, insisting that "impeachment is the gut issue," lustily cheered the GOP for dropping its pantywaisted refusal to target Clinton's Achilles groin.

Jann Wenner, meanwhile, preempted the GOP ad campaign with a "Clinton Conversation" issue of Rolling Stone, sounding out actors and musicians on the sex scandal (best choice: official voice of aggrieved alpha-male sexuality Michael Douglas), and penning an editorial beseeching us to "vote down this inquisition." (Elsewhere, the issue includes a poll of young adults on the scandal that doubles as a defensive demographic plug: "This new generation -- which includes ROLLING STONE readers ..." All right! We believe you!)

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Sadly -- despite the entreaties of Michael Moore, Pat Robertson and others for us to enlist our ballots and our

href="http://www.salonemporium.com/members/default.html">wallets

against Clinton or Starr -- American voters seem largely to have treated the scandal as the nonissue that they have considered it all along. Not that that will prevent anyone from saying otherwise come poll-closing time. By the time we hit the hay, we will have -- whatever we thought we were doing at the polls -- repudiated the Democrats by voting for some Republican or repudiated the Republicans by voting for some Democrat or repudiated both parties by voting for Jesse Ventura. And after a two-year-long shift, Waitress Mom will at long last be able to cash out, as our pundits and pollsters scan the electorate for a new demographic to take their order.


James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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