JCG on Palin — McCain Camp Needs to Stop the Paternalism
Jan Crawford Greenburg has a fascinating post about the Palin pick, that combines personal stories about Greenburg’s own history of overcoming sexism with new information about how Palin was picked.
Palin appears to have been selected, in no small part, precisely because she’s a woman. Yet instead of acknowledging that as a real strength, the McCain campaign is acting like gender had little or nothing to do with it. Campaign officials instead have been angrily portraying questions about her qualifications as nothing more than old-fashioned sexism, and then trying to put a protective shield around her.
They’re treating Gov. Sarah Palin—a ground-breaking woman by anyone’s account—like a girl.
As a result, for many, the campaign’s defense of Palin smacks of the tokenism and paternalism of a past generation, things women who’ve fought for equal footing want to believe we’ve moved beyond. At the same time, it seems devoid of the honesty that the first women of firsts—women like Sandra Day O’Connor—brought to the debate. Those women unapologetically said they knew why they were picked, and that it was a good thing for women and for society.
For more than a week now, we’ve heard how Palin’s treatment is sexist. How the questions she’s endured—about her experience, her qualifications and her life—would never have been asked of a man. We’ve seen the McCain campaign say this pit bull of a hockey mom would not talk to the press until she was shown “deference.”
There’s a lot there to react to, and I certainly don’t agree with all of it. I initially bristled when Greenburg cited Palin’s gender as a principal reason she was picked (but keep reading — she backs up that claim). After all, there are numerous reasons Palin would have been a fantastic pick regardless of gender — and a lot of them have to do with her being a younger version of John McCain, with more conservative credentials.
Liberal carping aside, Palin has been a reformer. The L.A. Times — not a paper that is friendly to conservatives — highlighted some of her major accomplishments recently. Those include taking on corrupt Republicans in her state, passing ethics legislation, slashing spending in times of budget surpluses, and forcing oil companies to pay their fair share for access to gas and oil reserves. The Washington Post concedes that she took on Big Oil in Alaska to deliver on a pipeline. And, while she has been criticized for giving a simplistic version of her opposition to the Bridge to Nowhere, the Associated Press (on the pages of the New York Times) gave credit to Palin for killing the project, back before they realized it would help John McCain to admit it.
Palin is conservative, but like McCain, she has put conservative causes on the back burner to fight for the reform issues that animate her public service. She has a reputation for bipartisanship in Alaska, as numerous journalists from the state have repeatedly acknowledged; in fact, she has upset many Republicans more than Democrats.
It’s easy to see why John McCain would gravitate towards such an independent-minded reformer, regardless of gender. So even if McCain picked Palin in part because of her gender (and he apparently did; see below), there’s plenty there to like regardless of gender, and we should be clear about that.
In addition, many of the attacks on Palin have indeed been undeniably sexist. Greenburg cites one that is not: Biden’s claim that electing McCain/Palin would be a step backward for women. Hey, that’s the kind of shot you have to be able to take in the Big Leagues; Democrats always think they have the only policies that benefit women, and you can’t whine when they use that argument against a woman.
But plenty of the attacks on Palin have been sexist. Palin has been called a bad mother for trying to balance career and family — a challenge Greenburg herself has been faced with. She has been criticized for having too many children, for being a former beauty-queen airhead, and for being too fragile to face the press. And it goes on and on and on.
At the same time, I agree that the McCain camp runs a risk of appearing paternalistic if they hide Palin from the media for much of the campaign. I still suspect (or at least hope) that the strategy is a rope-a-dope tactic, lowering expectations for someone who will hold her own just fine. Such an expectations-dampening tactic could serve as valuable insurance against the dangers posed by unfair pop quizzes (“Who is the leader of Podunkstan?”) of the type that many pundits are actively seeking — and that the men in the race will never face (sorry to invoke sexism again, but if the shoe fits . . .). As such, the tactic may be politically wise.
On the other hand, it could reflect a genuine lack of confidence in Palin’s competence. And, as it turns out, McCain’s people may well be underestimating Palin, just like her political opponents are. There is support for that theory in Greenburg’s post, because she can back up her accusation that McCain picked Palin in no small part because she is a woman.
This isn’t some flippant remark tossed off by Greenburg; she’s done the reporting and she can back up what she says. Read Greenburg’s post; excerpting it doesn’t do it justice. Those of us who supported the Palin pick in the weeks preceding the announcement would like to think that McCain was smart enough to see it as obvious all along, but he wasn’t. He stumbled into the best decision he has made in this campaign.
Greenburg complains that the McCain folks “treat Palin like she’s a woman from the olden days who needs protecting—not the modern-day leader she is.” She says:
I know I’m not alone in saying I can’t wait to see her start speaking for herself and answering these questions on her own—beginning with ABC’s Charles Gibson. So far, she seems a far better advocate for herself than John McCain is, as many concluded from their respective convention speeches last week.
I agree on both counts. And I have some advice for the McCain camp — and please, listen up, guys. If you’ve never listened to me before, listen to me now.
Let Sarah Palin be Sarah Palin. I’ve watched plenty of clips of Gov. Palin from the past in debate and interview situations, and she can hold her own. Don’t put her in a rhetorical straightjacket and force her to answer all questions with memorized soundbites from her speech. The only way she’s going to mess this up in any real sense is if you people try to prevent her from being genuine, and if she listens to you. So just trust her. Dispel Jan Crawford Greenburg’s sense that you’re being paternalistic to her, and let her shine — as we, her supporters, have every confidence she can.
Now that my rants are done, please go read Greenburg’s entire thoughtful post.