Sarah Palin's Debate Performance Tanked Among Women
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I have been feeling really guilty about not liking Sarah Palin. She's independent, her husband helps raise the kids, she's worked most of her life. I should luv her. But the minute she minced on stage in St. Louis Thursday, with her shoulder-length hair and stiletto heels, I realized why I don't: she's The Rules Girl.
Remember The Rules: Time-Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right, Ellen Fein's and Sherry Schneider's explosively controversial 1995 book that upended thirty years of feminist teaching about dating? Forget all that equality and intelligence stuff, The Rules advised. Who wants to be Hillary Clinton? Men are simple, attracted to sexual symbols and bright, shiny objects. If you want them, they argued, you must sport long hair and wear sexy, attention-getting clothes. The suit Palin wore for the debate was some amazingly iridescent material, and she sported an eye-popping sparkly rhinestone flag pin. The governor as the It Girl of the '90s singles scene.
As the capital-letter Rules recommend, Palin knows she must Never Leave the House Without Makeup. And, so far in this campaign, she has scrupulously followed The Rules for dealing with mainstream media suitors: Rarely Return Their Calls. Always End the Date First. Never Make a Date for Saturday Night After a Wednesday Date. Never Make a Date for Meet the Press At All.
Palin follows all The Rules most indigestible to feminists. Let Him Take the Lead ("Bush Doctrine? In what respect, Charlie?") and Never Tell Him What to Do or Try to Change Him (John McCain: "Governor Palin and I agree that you don't announce that you're going to attack another country." Palin: "Well, as Senator McCain is suggesting here, also, never would our administration get out there and show our cards to terrorists, in this case, to enemies and let them know what the game plan was, not when that could ultimately adversely affect a plan to keep America secure.")
The Rules provide a perfect model for GOP media prep. How a Rules Girl acts does not have to reflect what she really believes -- or even what she knows, so long as it's effective with the target audience. As with all such disconnected systems, a practitioner must keep The Rules nearby for reference. If you watch the video of Thursday's debate, you'll see that Palin constantly consulted her notecards. Fein and Schneider recommend keeping a copy of their book on the bedside table, hidden from view but close enough to consult if you're tempted to, for example, linger on a phone call with a boyfriend beyond the prescribed time.
The danger is, of course, when a situation arises for which the notecards do not have an answer. When Gwen Ifill asked a question Palin did not have a notecard answer for -- whether she agreed with Vice President Cheney's egregiously overreaching interpretation of the constitutional role of the vice president -- the answer was ladled up straight from the Palin linguistic smorgasbord:
"Well, our founding fathers were very wise there in allowing through the Constitution much flexibility there in the office of the vice president. And we will do what is best for the American people in tapping into that position and ushering in an agenda that is supportive and cooperative with the president's agenda in that position. Yeah, so I do agree with him that we have a lot of flexibility in there, and we'll do what we have to do to administer very appropriately the plans that are needed for this nation. And it is my executive experience that is partly to be attributed to my pick as VP with McCain, not only as a governor, but earlier on as a mayor, as an oil and gas regulator, as a business owner. It is those years of experience on an executive level that will be put to good use in the White House, also."
In its day, The Rules was a bestseller on the New York Times self-help list. But using it as a guide for political behavior is a dangerous game in 2008. By setting Palin up as the Rules Girl -- the gorgeous, fecund non-Hillary, equipped with all the right answers -- Republicans forget that The Rules is a manual for how to attract men.
But for decades, the voting-age population has been predominantly female: women vote at a greater rate and usually a little differently from men. Despite all the talk of disaffected Hillary supporters crossing over to the GOP after Obama's nomination, serious pollsters found no such thing. Some pundits say Palin did fine last night, but thanks to CNN, we were able to test in real time exactly how the Palin performance played with women voters. CNN provided a little chart that shows how the debaters were faring with a focus group of independent voters from the swing state of Ohio. On the chart, the men's reactions show up green and women in orange. Guess what? Palin really tanked among those women. There were times when the line showing the women's disapproval of her answers sank so low it threatened to leap off the screen and start crawling down the wall behind the TV. I'm imagining those Ohio independents as having a vivid picture of a fully made-up, dimpled, winking woman trying to work the crowd from her tattered copy of The Rules .
In the weeks ahead, expect Palin to keep following The Rules to be the bright, shiny object McCain needs in his charisma-challenged campaign. No matter how well she does this, however, it may not make a bit of difference. It pains me to say this, but in 2001, just as the book's happily married, perfectly coiffed, complaisant co-author Ellen Fein was releasing a sequel, The Rules for a Happy Marriage , her husband left her.
Linda R. Hirshman retired as the Allen/Berenson Distinguished Visiting Professor at Brandeis University. With almost no effort, she landed spot No. 77 on Bernard Goldberg's "100 People Who Are Screwing Up America."