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Thursday, September 11, 2008

McCain's choice won't fool women

Sarah Palin is a woman. Hillary Clinton is a woman. Women just love voting for other women. Women candidates are interchangeable. Therefore, women who would have voted for Clinton are obviously going to vote for Palin.

If this syllogism strikes you as stupid, that's because it is. Not to mention cynical and not a little bit sexist. Yet it also appears to be one of the reasons behind John McCain's choice of a running mate.

Oh, lots of alternative explanations for his decision are floating around: McCain chose Palin because her staunch anti-abortion stance bolsters his case among Christian conservatives; he chose her because she personifies youthful energy while he, well, doesn't. Possibly the Palin decision was a big Bronx cheer meant for strategist Karl Rove, who pushed hard for Mitt Romney (over Joe Lieberman, McCain's rumored first choice). Then again, maybe the Republican candidate for president of the United States plucked his running mate from relative obscurity because he's desperate for the moose-hunting vote. (But really, who isn't?)

Setting aside for a moment the political clout of America's moose-hunting bloc, let's take a closer look at one of the more plausible reasons behind McCain's peculiar pick: He's tipping his cap and winking at disconsolate Clinton supporters, hoping he'll pick up a few all-important Lady Votes from the pool of Still Undecideds who monitored last week's events in Denver but remain unconverted—and unconvinced.

Let's be honest: If McCain really wanted to wow Evangelical voters, he could have gone with any one of the roughly 87 Republicans currently in national office whose politics are virtually indistinguishable from Palin's. If his goal was to lower the average age of the GOP ticket, the only real requirement is that the candidate be alive. So why on earth would he overlook dozens of far more qualified candidates ( Tim Pawlenty and Lieberman, for example) only to choose Palin, whose national experience could be described (kindly) as negligible?

Because Palin's a woman. And because Rove, currently serving as an "informal adviser" to McCain's campaign, once read a book about women that convinced him the only thing women love more than a good white sale is casting a vote for another woman. (OK, I just made that up. I have no idea whether Karl Rove has ever read a book).

Here's something McCain might have considered during the 45 minutes his aides apparently spent vetting Palin, whose slowly expanding biography keeps yielding unpleasant surprises: Women aren't interested in voting for just any woman. They want to vote for an experienced, competent woman whose accomplishments can stand up to any man's, not someone they have to make excuses for. ("Oh, you'll have to excuse her lack of understanding of NATO's operational plan in Afghanistan. She's a woman.") Hence the allure of Hillary Clinton, whose positions—whether you agreed with them or not—have been articulated clearly (and often at stupefying length) over the years.

Palin, who has been governor of Alaska for about a year and a half, has clear positions on policy issues related to her adopted state (Drill in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge? Yes, please! Put polar bears on the endangered species list? No, thanks! Rack up $27 million in federal earmarks for her hometown of Wasilla? Oooh, yes!).

She's rock solid on conservative hot-button social issues (pro-life, pro-gun, pro-abstinence-only sex education). But when it comes to issues with national or international implications, Palin can rest easy. She won't be called on to defend a single position, mainly because she doesn't appear to have any.

Publicly, the GOP faithful is rallying around Palin, but scratch the surface, and you'll find rumblings of discontent—and even disbelief—over McCain's choice. Perhaps the most delightfully candid assessment of Palin's dismal lack of experience came from Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan. During an off-camera moment on MSNBC, Noonan, a former Reagan speechwriter, was asked whether the Alaska governor is the most qualified woman McCain could have chosen. Her blunt response: "The most qualified? No. I think they went for this—excuse me—political bull . . . about narratives."

Back in the public (on-camera) realm, Republicans have spent the last 10 days hurling charges of sexism at the so-called "liberal" media. Given that this is the same party that has dedicated the last two years to attacking Hillary Clinton based on little more than her gender, the GOP's newfound respect for women feels hugely disingenuous.

And the Republican case is not helped by Palin's nomination, which fairly reeks of sexism.

Women, the Republican Party seems to be saying, are interchangeable. Worried about a weak ticket? Concerned about voters losing interest? Just stick a woman in there. Pretty much any woman will do. And by choosing Sarah Palin above the dozens of far more qualified women in their party (Sens. Olympia Snowe and Kay Bailey Hutchison, to name just two), John McCain and the Republicans have exposed every future female candidate to the same creeping, dangerous suspicion feminists have been fighting since the first female politician stepped forward: She's at that podium for all the wrong reasons: novelty, or shock value, or because her X chromosomes make her a politically expedient choice. Not because she's the best person for the job.

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