Monday, September 8, 2008

The Palin Problem

I don't much like the Republican candidate for vice president. It's worth noting that I haven't had much exposure to her, so it's possible Sarah Palin has some great features lurking below the surface. But what I have seen is a candidate who's all too willing to cry sexism when legitimate questions are raised about her qualifications, who's all too willing to shamelessly jump on a feminist bandwagon whose tires she has spent her entire career attempting to slash and who's all too willing to engage in the kind of mean-spirited, often cruel politics of denigration and mockery John McCain purports to abhor. She is, in short, not my favorite person.

But you know what? I'm a liberal Democrat in Kansas. The McCain campaign cares about as much for my opinion as I do for David Brooks' take on the new Kanye West album. What's important is finding a way of successfully conveying that message (the stuff in the first paragraph, not the mental image of David Brooks rocking out to "Love Lockdown") to the people who do matter. Soccer moms in Ohio and Colorado, I'm looking at you. Through your windows. While you sleep.

The question is how to approach Palin, how to attack her, whether it's even a good idea to attack her. A "normal" vice presidential candidate wouldn't present many problems, but Palin's a moose of a different color. She has energized the evangelical base of the Republican Party and helped close the much-chronicled "enthusiasm gap" that supposedly existed between McCain's and Obama's supporters. Those base players wouldn't have voted for Obama, and they probably weren't staying at home on election day either, but they weren't canvassing or phone banking for McCain. Now? They're more inclined to open up the checkbooks.

Far more troublesome is her potential impact on swing voters. Strike that: swing women. (Not to be confused with "swinging women," who, let's face it, are probably voting Democratic in November) The fear is that Palin can use her compelling personal story and preternatural ability to sling mud without dirtying her hands to draw independent, moderate women away from Obama.

Normally the job of attacking the other team's vice presidential pick would fall to your vice presidential pick, but that's dangerous territory for Obama. I'm a Joe Biden fan, but he can sometimes come off as a bit of a...well, "jackass" seems like a kind word for it. And when an old white guy comes off as a jackass when dealing with a woman, unfortunate implications abound.

Biden's not in a position to lecture independent women about Palin's strident opposition to abortion, her opposition to pay equity legislation or her fondness for abstinence-only sex education programs. (The last one being quite an oxymoron, as a "sex education program" dedicated to telling kids "Sex is bad, m'kay?" isn't worthy of the name.) Palin and the McCain campaign would respond with frenzied accusations of sexism. Those accusations would be baseless, of course, but the media would be obliged to cover them. Would many voters be persuaded by all this? Maybe not. But the journalistic maelstrom would suck all the oxygen from the campaign and distract from the economic message Obama is trying to push.

The first obvious solution is to dispatch some high-profile Democratic women to carry the standards against Palin. The highest profile belongs to Hillary Clinton, and she will be campaigning for Obama in Florida this week. I expect Sarah Palin will come up. Clinton could be an effective weapon in this particular battle.

But as some of her aides have pointed out, it's unfair to expect miracles from Clinton. She's got a lot on her plate this fall. The under card is going to be awfully important. There are Congressional majorities to expand and governorships to acquire, and Clinton will in high demand for many of those races. Not to mention, you know, being a Senator. Her dance card is going to be full. When she pledged to help get Obama elected, she didn't bind herself to the role of Obama's troubleshooter on women's issues.

There's another problem as well. The Democrats can send Clinton or any other woman to Ohio to talk about reproductive rights and feminism, but the message might fall on deaf ears. Conservative women energized by Palin obviously aren't going to be swayed.

And those suddenly intrigued independent women aren't in love with Palin because they've made a cool, rational assessment of her policy positions and decided they fall in line with their own. Palin interests them because of that ephemeral concept of identity. She's like them. In many ways, she is them. She's got a large, vibrant family. She cooks dinner. Her husband's a union man, a rugged outdoorsy type. She seems so genuine, so down-to-Earth.

If that comes off as insulting, it's not meant that way. I'll tell anyone who listens that I'm supporting Obama because I agree with his proposed policies, but I largely agreed with the policies proposed in the primary season by Clinton, Biden, John Edwards, Chris Dodd and Dennis Kucinich, and I didn't support them. I'm as vulnerable to those meaningless superficial dynamics as anyone. I like Obama's policies, sure, but there's no doubt that I'm drawn to this young, handsome, hip man and his remarkable wife.

So I don't begrudge these hypothetical women their attachment to Palin, but it's important for this exercise to acknowledge that it's not based on concrete positions. They're not going to be swayed by constant reminders of Palin's extreme conservatism. They're not stupid and they don't live in caves. They know she's strongly pro-life. They know she's not fond of comprehensive sex ed. You can bang that drum all day, but you're not going to accomplish anything. You're not addressing Palin's root appeal.

The other option is to just ignore Palin and focus withering fire on McCain. That has the advantage of avoiding any gender minefields, and you can always hope the Palin stories will fade away until the vice presidential debate October 8. Then you just have to hope Biden can go two hours without accidentally calling her "honey."

But ignoring Palin cedes the field to her, and if early returns hold, she's going to keep lobbing Molotov Cocktails at Obama. The media will cover those attacks, both out of obligation and because they're going to be viciously quotable. Not responding isn't an option; no one wants to repeat John Kerry's mistakes. And responding doesn't make you look strong, it just makes you look reactive, like you're trailing the play. Plus, any journalist reporting your response will have to re-print the original attack.

So, how to deal with Palin? I've written 1,100 words to write these three:

I don't know.


Shannon said...

Not to go all scotto on you, but Dahlia Lithwick has an interesting take on how to debate Palin:

Anonymous said...

Can I ask you a few questions?

Do you want to be as free as possible?
Do you want to be very rich?
Do you want as many options available to you in life as possible?
Do you want your own life, your own car, and to buy your own things (even the things you think are amazing)?
Do you wish you could just speak your mind on any subject anywhere?