Posted by: mutantpoodle | October 22, 2009

Sexism, Sarah Palin, and Leslie Sanchez’s blind spot

Leslie Sanchez is a GOP Political consultant, CNN contributor, and author: her latest, You’ve Come a Long Way, Maybe, looks at how Sarah Palin, Hillary Clinton, and Michelle Obama were treated during the 2008 Presidential campaign.

The book is well worth reading for its look at the sorry level of sexism that so many women in politics face.  And while I disagree with Sanchez on numerous political issues, I do think it would be nice if campaigns didn’t get sucked into gender politics. But one element of her book bothered me, related to Sarah Palin.  So either (a) I have Palin derangement syndrome, or (b) Leslie Sanchez has a blind spot.

Since this is my blog, I’ll go with (b).

For what it’s worth, I have gone back and forth with Ms. Sanchez on Twitter. She is smart, funny, reasonable, and open-minded. The GOP needs more of her and less of the angry southern white guys who have come, in the past years, to personify the Republican Party.

Furthermore, Sanchez is dead-on in her cataloging of sexist slights against Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin throughout 2008: Hillary’s accruing through the summer; Palin’s coming as the fall campaign began in earnest. And she correctly places some of the blame for Palin’s treatment on the way several right-wing opinion-makers sexualized Palin right off the bat.

[Fred Barnes] also noted that [Palin] was “exceptionally pretty.”….[Victor Davis] Hanson recalled that on the day of their luncheon, Palin was wearing high heels…[Bill] Kristol referred to her as “my heartthrob.”

Jay Nordlinger, a senior Editor at National Review who also met with Palin, summed up the general consensus in his online column, writing of Palin that she was “a former beauty pageant contestant, and a real honey, too.  Am I allowed to say that? Probably not, but too bad.”

Sanchez loses me, however, in her defense of (a) the selection of Palin and (b) Palin’s value as the Vice Presidential candidate generally.  This defense takes three forms:

  1. Palin was a breathtaking fundraiser and was enormously successful at energizing the GOP base.
  2. Her selection had worked to vault McCain-Palin into a tie with Obama-Biden, which fell apart when the Lehman Brothers collapse came and the economy obliterated all other issues on the campaign trail.
  3. Her everywoman appeal could have been very powerful, if her rollout hadn’t been so horribly bungled.

Now, all of those points are true, to an extent. I’d argue that the McCain convention bounce would have faded eventually, but still: if Election Day had been September 10, Palin may well have been a brilliant political pick.

Election Day was November 4th – and I’m pretty sure the McCain campaign knew it. So any hope that the Palin bounce would survive scrutiny was just that – hope.  And as any good General will tell you, hope is not a plan.

For reference: here is the Sarah Palin Favorable/Unfavorable chart from from last fall:

Sarah Palin Favorability - Election 2008 via

Sarah Palin Favorability - Election 2008 via

The story behind those lines is not so much about sexism as it is about raw incompetence.

To her credit, Sanchez doesn’t gloss over Palin’s horrific performances in her Charlie Gibson and, in particular, Katie Couric interviews (see clip above).  But she seems to believe, somehow, that these aren’t, in fact, revelatory.  Instead, Sanchez drank the Sarah Palin is a fresh-faced bipartisan reformer koolaid, long after it passed its sell-by date. Because while there was ample sexism directed at Sarah Palin during the 2008 Presidential campaign, the bottom line is that she was spectacularly unqualified to be Vice-President, and that became abundantly clear to people as the campaign progressed.

This is not to say that Palin caused John McCain to lose. 2008 was going to be a bad year for Republicans no matter what; McCain ran an uninspired and ultimately cartoonishly desperate campaign, and revealed himself by his very pick of Palin to be a reckless, impulsive man when Americans had eight years of the fallout from a reckless, impulsive President.

And Palin? When the mythology was replaced with an actual history, her record wasn’t so spiffy after all.

  • She hadn’t really said “thanks but no thanks” to the so-call bridge to nowhere, and in fact had initially supported the project.
  • She left the town of Wasilla deeply in debt, largely due to the construction of a $15 million sports complex. That comes to $3,000 per person.
  • For someone who was supposed to have expertise in energy, she was wildly off in her estimate of how much of the U.S. energy supply came from Alaska – claiming 20% when it was less than 1/5 of that.
  • She worried that her first amendment rights were in jeopardy because people criticized her over her attacks on Barack Obama.
  • After the election, she tried to spin Katie Couric’s question about what she read into some kind of elitist condescension, when it was nothing of the sort.

In fact, what became apparent to most Americans is that this was a woman who not only had little relevant experience to be “a heartbeat away” from the presidency (of a 73 year old former POW!), but almost no real intellectual curiosity about most major issues of the day. She appeared to enjoy running, but not governing – an impression solidified when she abruptly resigned as Governor of Alaska this past summer. In that, Palin fits the dismissive stereotype of the GOP: good at winning elections, bad at governing.

Did Palin face unbelievably sexist questions? Sure – no man would have been asked about running with a very young child.  Did too many obsess on her looks? Sure. (I’d note, however, that in 1988 George Bush’s selection of Dan Quayle got some attention in the looks department, and don’t get me started about G. Gordon Liddy prattling on about George Bush in a flightsuit. So there’s been plenty of stupidity in our discourse – it’s not always directed at women.) On the other hand, Palin decided to wink during the vice presidential debate, blinding Rich Lowry with flying starbursts, so who was sexualizing her then?

At the end of the day, John McCain (after he gave up on picking Joe Lieberman) wanted to try to drive a wedge between women and Obama.  He couldn’t pick Republican women who had significant records of achievement, because they were all too “moderate”.  So he picked an unknown, unqualified – and, I’d say, unbalanced – woman from Alaska with a genius for self promotion and little appetite for the hard work of governing.  The campaign revealed her flaws in ways both fair and unfair, but the portrait that emerged was, in the end, pretty accurate. Did sexism hurt? Maybe. Do women, generally, deserve better in electoral campaigns? Unquestionably. Could a competent woman become President, today, even if none of this sexism went away? Absolutely. How do I know?

Because a competent woman would be President today if she’d run a halfway competent Democratic primary campaign.  And I’m sure, as she travels the world as Barack Obama’s Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton knows it.


  1. I agree with your review of Leslie Sanchez’s book: “You’ve Come A Long Way, maybe.”..perhaps because we are both liberals.
    I believe Leslie paints a very good picture of the history of Sexism in the workplace and of course, in politics.
    I have been at the effect of Sexism in the workplace and had to fight to get promoted into positions labeled ‘a man’s job’—and was successful because I pressed and asserted myself.
    Not too many women are willing to put up the fight…and that is the challange…to get women to put up the fight diplomatically.
    I liked Palin when she first burst on the scene and thought—well she is very pretty and cheerful. But when she spoke after the convention, I saw deeper than her skin deep beauty.
    And I did not see any threat to Hillary from her.
    I will watch her on Oprah.
    But as we know now, Obama was Hillary’s threat with his great Campaign on the ground and
    her not-so-great ground campaign.
    I look forward to something really good coming from the dialogue that Leslie’s book is stimulating. Ultimately it is up to us women to demand to be treated fairly, not just because we are women, but because we are women who have something to offer in the body politic and not just in the home.

  2. Thanks for your comment. I don’t think we agree because we are both liberals. I think there’s a quality about people who are serious about public service, and whatever attributes Sarah Palin has, that quality is missing.

    • You are correct, I was a little flippant in my remark about agreeing because we’re both liberals. That quality is missing in Palin. We shall see who shows up as Palin in the coming months, years.

  3. Good piece.

  4. Maybe to be more accurate, I would say that Hilary’s campaign was weak at the beginning — it picked up a lot in the later stages.

  5. Why am I just finding your blog? No matter, happy I did… I really like your fair and insightful piece on Leslie’s book on Sarah Palin, Hillary& Michelle. I have a lot of reading to catch up with you.. For now, that’s my feedback.;)

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