Lessons learned from the Palin debacle
How to avoid another disastrous Republican national nomination
This week, Sarah Palin stoked a late, brief flurry of speculation that she might enter the 2012 presidential race. I won't try to predict the former Alaska governor's decision. But I will predict this: If Palin does enter the race, she won't be any kind of factor. Over the past three years, Palin has systematically laid waste to the basis for a presidential campaign. By her own words and actions, she has discredited herself and alienated her one-time supporters. But before Palin vanishes into her hard-earned obscurity, Republicans need an assessment and an accounting. Had John McCain won in 2008, we would have put an incompetent, deceitful, and vengeful person second in line to the presidency.
The people who promoted and celebrated the Palin pick have disavowed — or at least abandoned — their former enthusiasm. They no longer accuse those who objected to the pick of "elitism" or "snobbishness" or "misogyny." It's now considered very bad form among Republicans even to remember what the people said and wrote about Palin three years ago.Before Palin vanishes into her hard-earned obscurity, Republicans need an assessment and an accounting. But before the episode is consigned to forgetfulness, there are some lessons to be learned of urgent value for 2012 and beyond. More respect for brains as a qualification for the presidency.
Within days of the announcement of Palin as GOP running mate, it became obvious to everybody that she could not pronounce two coherent consecutive sentences on any aspect of national policy, foreign or domestic. A lot of effort went into arguing that this ignorance did not matter, or even that it represented a weird kind of plus factor. Three years later, we no longer hear such excuses for Palin. But it remains true even now that Republicans do not take intelligence or expertise very seriously as qualifications for the presidency. Mitt Romney's smarts do him surprisingly little good; Rick Perry's non-smarts do him disturbingly little harm; and Michele Bachmann's out-beyond-the-Orion-belt substitutions for familiarity with life here on Earth only intensify the admiration of her fan base. Quit treating consumption patterns as substitutes for character. It's very important that politicians understand the everyday lives of Americans. It's important that politicians champion the ordinary person and not pay undue heed to the wishes of the rich and powerful. It's important that politicians be people of integrity, not hirelings of industry lobbies. These are issues of character, and character counts. But the choice of cowboy boots over loafers, enjoyment of hunting rather than bicycling, a preference for ketchup over mustard — these tell us precisely nothing about a candidate's character. Yet it was precisely these kinds of irrelevant lifestyle choices that persuaded so many conservatives that Sarah Palin would be a fitting leader. She drops her "g"s! Her husband owns a fishing boat! She shoots moose! (Not really on that last point, but that's the story we were told at the time.)
Involve more women as party decision-makers. The Republican Party's nomination of its first female vice presidential candidate led to an utterly unexpected effect: a collapse of female support for the Republican Party national ticket. In the single month of October 2008, Sarah Palin's favorabilities among independent women dropped by more than 20 points. Within a year of Palin's appearance on the national scene, a plurality of female Republicans dismissed her as "unqualified" for the presidency. Male voters, by contrast, took much longer to reject Palin, and male Republicans still give her pretty decent favorability ratings. Female voters normally favor female candidates. During the Democratic primaries, Hillary Clinton outpolled Barack Obama among women, especially older women. Sarah Palin had exactly the opposite effect. Why?
I think it's pretty obvious. In 2008, John McCain had a choice of three female Republican senators, two female Republican governors, and an array of Republican female CEOs, including Meg Whitman, who would gain the Republican nomination for governor of California in 2010.
Each of these possible running mates had her weaknesses, but any of them would have been more experienced, more knowledgeable, and more disciplined than Sarah Palin. But there was one clear advantage that Palin did possess over her more traditionally plausible rivals: her looks. Had women participated in the selection process, one of them would have issued a warning: "Boys, I gotta tell you — whatever she's doing for you, she's not doing for me." John Ziegler, producer and director of a documentary movie about Palin, had this to say about the women who rejected Palin: "I think the fact that she was a very successful career woman, with five children, who still clearly loves her husband, who kills her own food and who looks amazing doing all of it, is a very threatening package for a lot of women. Unfortunately, Sarah Palin makes a lot of women feel badly about themselves."
What Ziegler said out loud, millions of American women discerned for themselves: Here was a woman candidate chosen by men who do not respect women. No surprise what happened next.
And unfortunately — it's still happening.