“Politics ain’t beanbag” Is an old-fashioned way of saying that politics can be rough. People express roughly the same idea when they call politics “hardball” or a “contact sport.”
The term originally comes from a 19th century novel by the writer Finley Peter Dunne. One of Dunne’s characters is an Irish American named Mr. Dooley, who likes to sit in his favorite Chicago bar and talk about politics. The full quote from Mr. Dooley reads, ““Sure, politics ain’t bean-bag. ‘Tis a man’s game, an’ women, childer, cripples an’ prohybitionists’d do well to keep out iv it.”
The phrase is a little archaic, but it’s still used periodically, especially by political commentators who want to lend extra gravitas to their declarations. In 2014, for example, New York Post columnist Bob McManus wrote a piece discussing Andrew Cuomo’s re-election as the governor of New York. McManus wrote that Cuomo had used some dirty tactics to get elected but,
Big deal: Politics ain’t beanbag, as the Irish used to say, and Andrew Mark Cuomo woke up Wednesday morning sitting right where it matters most – in the catbird seat.
In 2018 the columnist Arlene Jones, writing in Austin Weekly News, used the phrase in a piece about Chicago politics. Jones described the plight of Ja’mal Green, a Chicago mayoral candidate who was having a tough time navigating the system. Jones concluded, ruefully,
“The coming weeks will reveal if Ja’mal makes it on the ballot or not. But knowing the way this city works, I’m not going to put too much money on it. Politics ain’t beanbag, and when you run, you need to learn how to play the game!”
Politicians use the expression too, of course. In 2013 Ted Cruz took to the Senate floor to denounce what he saw as a particularly nasty trick carried out by the Democrats. Cruz began by saying, “we all know the old saying that politics ain’t beanbag. But the nastiness with which the Democratic majority responded to Senator Vitter… was extraordinary.”
In 2012, when Mitt Romney was running for president, New York magazine poked fun at him for getting the famous phrase wrong, again and again. Romney repeatedly said that “politics ain’t bean bags” and once said that it ain’t “the bean bag.” Newt Gingrich, who also ran for president that year, tried to turn the expression back on Romney at one point.
What is bean bag, anyway? Today, the game is often referred to as a “bean bag toss” and is generally seen as a kids’ game; it’s the kind of game you might play in the back yard during a birthday party, for example. In some parts of the country, the game is referred to as “cornhole.”
The rules are very simple. Competitors hold small bags filled with dried beans (beanbags) and toss those bags into baskets, or into holes in a specially-made beanbag board. Whoever makes the most shots wins the game. It’s a gentle, friendly game – very much unlike presidential politics.