An Ex-Beauty Queen for VP: Political Risk or Political Genius?
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With no foreign policy experience and a political resume that could fit on my pinky fingernail, Sarah Palin is an absurd choice for vice president. Yet it should come as no surprise to the public -- especially to Democrats -- that John McCain chose her anyway.
That's because the very issues that Democrats say make her a political risk -- her newness to the political world stage, her anti-choice stance, her opposition to gay marriage, her support of capital punishment, her disregard for the environment -- matter very little in determining the outcome of elections. Voters -- some of whom dissect policy issues daily, but most of whom don't -- ultimately cast their ballots based on emotion. Not logic. Not knowledge of "the issues."
This was supposed to have been the big take-away lesson of 2004. That debate, perhaps more so than any other since the first televised presidential showdown between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, showed that appearance, charisma, personality and likeability matter. Smarts are mostly a bonus and a distant second.
In 2004, John Kerry was the champion debater. He was sharp, focused, intelligent. He could call B.S. on George W. Bush and poke holes in nearly any of his arguments. But he was also stiff. He seemed cool and disconnected, not just because of his body language but also because of his words. His policy prescriptions, detailed as they were, didn't connect with his audience. Four years after hearing him speak, I can only recall that, on an intellectual level, I agreed with his points. But I don't remember what he said. His words didn't resonate with me. They didn't stick with me in my gut.
Bush, on the other hand, was the dunce. He wore a goofy smile and dodged questions in each debate. But he was the man people could imagine having a beer with. He drew crowds in with his drawl, spoke in a simple, unintimidating way, and so could get away with covering up four years of abysmal domestic and foreign policy. I probably disagreed with 99 percent of what Bush said, but I can at least remember some of his talking points. He said he worked hard and promised to work hard for American families. He said he understood American families. He said he would protect American families.
Was that a load of bull? Of course. But it sure was delivered in pretty packaging. And, most importantly, it made a large number of voters feel good.
Drew Westen, a clinical, personality and political psychologist who teaches at Emory University, explains this phenomenon in his recent book, The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation . "(T)he vision of mind that has captured the imagination of philosophers, cognitive scientists, economists, and political scientists since the eighteenth century -- a dispassionate mind that makes decisions by weighing the evidence and reasoning to the most valid conclusions -- bears no relation to how the mind and brain actually work," Westen writes. "When campaign strategists start from this vision of mind, their candidates typically lose."
Simply put, people don't always vote for the candidate or the policy that serves their own best interests. That concept should be no more surprising in politics than in other parts of people's lives. If individuals always did what was best for them, they would consistently choose broccoli over cake; they would enter into relationships with the good guy (or gal) instead of the charming jerk who never calls; they would stick to purchasing necessities and use credit cards as a last resort -- only when there's not enough money at the end of the month to pay for groceries or utility bills.
But we all know people who eat more sweets than they should, date charismatic yet inconsiderate cretins, and shop on impulse. Those behaviors might be unhealthy, but they sure can feel good at the time. That's the campaign strategy Republicans have perfected: manipulating our senses and emotions to make us act in ways that we'll later regret.
In the short while since the news about McCain's choice for VP broke, we've learned a lot about Sarah Palin. We know that she played point guard on her high school's state champion basketball team. She's worked as a sports reporter. Her favorite food is moose stew. She's outdoorsy and comes from a family of hunters. She rides snowmobiles. She's a mother of five and a member of the PTA. She's a self-described "hockey mom."
Sarah Palin is also young. At 44, she's three years younger than Barack Obama. And she's beautiful. In 1984, she was runner-up for Miss Alaska.
But as New York Times reporter Timothy Egan writes, "Palin brings a bit of the "Legally Blonde" aspect to the race -- you underestimate her at your peril."
It's been barely a day since the media introduced us to Palin, and those are the details that are easily overshadowing -- or at least obscuring -- the more serious news about her regressive politics or the ethics investigation she's under.
These basketball-playing, snowmobile-riding details are what could easily give Palin broad appeal. She appeals to men because she doesn't threaten their way of life. She's a former beauty queen who also, according to the media's narrative, knows how to be one of the guys.
But what about the questions that female voters, the media and no small number of female bloggers have been asking? McCain almost certainly picked Palin to try to rope in the female vote, a plan that Democrats are arguing won't work. Hillary Clinton may have gotten 18 million votes, but Sarah Palin is no Hillary Clinton.
Trouble is, she doesn't have to be. Clinton supporters do not have to cross over and vote for Palin for her to be effective on the Republican ticket. With such a close race between McCain and Obama, Palin may need only to motivate conservative women or independents who weren't sold on McCain or persuade those who hadn't planned on voting to show up at the polls.
And Palin is likely to use every emotional ploy possible to bring in more female voters. She's already co-opting Hillary Clinton's remarks on having 18 million cracks in the highest, hardest glass ceiling -- a ceiling that Palin says women can still shatter "once and for all."
Already a flurry of conservative and independent women have been rallying behind Palin. Policy aside, on a personal level, she represents work-life balance -- something that resonates with women of all political affiliations. She's also popular among blue-collar voters, the Republican party base and Evangelicals, particularly because of her staunch position against abortion. She, like McCain, favors overturning Roe v. Wade.
And if Democrats aren't careful, that could easily become their Achilles heel this year. Elections are about emotion, and if there's any topic that's sure to stir emotion, it's abortion.
Despite the majority of the public supporting family planning and comprehensive sex education -- both effective ways to reduce unplanned pregnancies -- and despite the fact that Democrats champion federal funding for these programs, the Dems still haven't figured out how to defend a woman's right to choose in a way that voters can identify with on a gut level. If Democrats have historically had trouble defending their abortion position against male candidates, they will have triple the problem doing so against a woman. And Palin is a slick one.
Palin vehemently apposes abortion, even in the case of rape or incest, a fact that the public may miss while she's busy touting membership in Feminists for Life, a group that focuses on alternatives to abortion, particularly for college-age women. The organization works under the guise of providing women choices, as long as abortion isn't one of them.
Besides her Feminists for Life affiliation, Palin is herself a mother. In fact, she decided to keep her fifth child even after knowing it would be born with developmental disabilities. Imagine it: debating a female candidate -- a mother -- who can say, "I had a choice, and I chose life." That's the challenge Biden will face. He must defend a woman's right to choose while avoiding coming across as callous or attacking the mother of a disabled child. Simply explaining that Palin is an "anti-woman woman" isn't enough. That kind of message assumes voters will respond with logic and reason. But for those who aren't steeped in gender issues, it risks either sounding loony or being dismissed.
Democrats are only too eager to argue that this election will be different from the last two, that people have finally had enough of the Bush brand of conservatism. I hope they're right. But Democrats need to be realistic about the challenges they face with a Palin VP, because abortion is just one of them.
Having a woman on the GOP side will make it easy, perhaps tempting, for the media to resort to sexist attacks. Then feminists will be forced to walk a line, defending Palin against sexism without looking as though they're supporting an anti-choice candidate. Even women who didn't like Hillary Clinton recoiled at watching her become the target of media-driven sexism. Clinton polled the best when women perceived that she was being treated unfairly. Palin will likely be no different. Worse yet, if Palin gets bullied, McCain will swoop down and protect her, pretending to be women's biggest advocate when he is anything but. The public will see Palin being attacked and will watch as the Republican Party comes to her rescue.
And having a young, inexperienced woman on the Republican ticket could do more to underscore people's existing concerns about Obama than it does to undercut their confidence in Palin. How can Democrats, without appearing hypocritical, level serious charges against Palin for being "untested," when that's the word that's still hovering over their own candidate? Palin may not have foreign policy expertise, but she has a son who is a soldier. That's no small detail in a country obsessed with patriotism. And it's one that voters can connect with emotionally.
Unlike Obama, Palin is not a change agent. But perception matters in politics, and Palin looks the part. She represents a first for the Republican Party, and her relative youth could dilute Obama's change message -- the very message that, for the first time in many years, has allowed voters to identify in an emotional way with a Democratic presidential candidate.
Will Obama be able to keep that emotional connection with voters? His campaign has only two precious months to figure it out.
Heather Gehlert is a managing editor at AlterNet.