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The Un-Hillary

Why watching Sarah Palin is agony for women.

Emily Bazelon chatted online with readers about Sarah Palin and the vice-presidential debate. Read the transcript

Sarah Palin. Click image to expand.
Sarah Palin

When Harriet Miers blew her murder boards—days spent grilling in preparation for her Senate confirmation hearings—she yanked her own nomination to the Supreme Court. Her “uncertain, underwhelming responses” made her handlers panic, and so Miers and the Bush administration called off the show.

Sarah Palin’s murder boards have taken place in public. We’ve all watched her stumped and stumbling in her interviews with Katie Couric. Tuesday’s tidbit, not yet on the air but courtesy of Howie Kurtz, is that when asked about the Supreme Court, Palin mentioned Roe v. Wade and then couldn’t name another case. This time, she didn’t repeat stock phrases. She just went silent. Kathleen Parker at the National Review Online and Fareed Zakaria in Newsweek have called for her to follow Miers and pull out. But Palin isn’t expendable—the Republican base that mistrusted Miers loves her. So instead of bowing out, she heads into her debate with Joe Biden with expectations so low either she or her opponent seems bound to trip over them.

For women who are watching this all unfold, this means a lot of analysis, much of it angst-ridden. Conservatives express straightforward disappointment. “I watch her interviews with the held breath of an anxious parent, my finger poised over the mute button in case it gets too painful,” Parker writes glumly. “Unfortunately, it often does. My cringe reflex is exhausted.”

Many more-liberal women, meanwhile, make the point that Palin’s poverty of knowledge is a big reason to doubt John McCain’s judgment, as Ruth Marcus drives home in her column in the Washington Post this week. The problem is that Palin is a vice-presidential candidate who is not ready to be president, not that she’s a woman who isn’t ready. Given that, let her fail now, before she does real damage in office.

But Palin’s gender is at the center of another set of reactions I’ve been hearing and reading among women who don’t support her ticket, filled with ambivalence over how bad she is. Laugh at the Tina Fey parodies that make Palin ridiculous just by quoting her verbatim. And then cry. When Palin tanks, it’s good for the country if you want Obama and Biden to win, but it’s bad for the future of women in national politics. I’m in this boat, too. Should we feel sorry for Sarah Palin? No. But if she fails miserably, we might be excused for feeling a bit sorry for ourselves.

Palin is the most prominent woman on the political stage at the moment. By taking unprepared hesitancy and lack of preparation to a sentence-stopping level, she’s yanking us back to the old assumption that women can’t hack it at these heights. We know that’s not true—we’ve just watched Hillary Clinton power through a campaign with a masterful grasp of policy and detail. Clinton lost in part because she was the girl grind. Complex sentences, the names of Supreme Court cases, and bizarre warnings about foreign heads of state invading our airspace weren’t her problem. The fear now is that Palin is the anti-Hillary and that her lack of competence threatens to undo what the Democratic primary did for women. Palin won’t bust through the ceiling that has Hillary’s 18 million cracks in it. She’ll give men an excuse to replace it with a new one.

Worrying about this can lead you to an odd, even self-contradictory amalgam of anger and pity. Judith Warner embodied this in the New York Times when she described watching Palin smile while sitting down with Henry Kissinger and feeling a “wave of self-recognition and sympathy” and an “upsurge of concern and kinship.” In the next breath, in proper feminist fashion she points out that glamorizing incompetence “means that any woman who exudes competence will necessarily be excluded from the circle of sisterhood.” But then Warner loops back to her opening sympathy and ends by casting Palin’s nomination as not only “an insult to the women (and men) of America” but “an act of cruelty toward her as well.” The suggestion is that John McCain inflicted the cruelty when he picked her.

As Rebecca Traister points out in Salon, there’s an obvious feminist comeback here. Shut down the “Palin pity party,” Traister urges. “Shaking our heads and wringing our hands in sympathy with Sarah Palin is a disservice to every woman who has ever been unfairly dismissed based on her gender, because this is an utterly fair dismissal, based on an utter lack of ability and readiness.” Good point. And an especially pertinent one on the eve of the vice-presidential debate. Traister’s argument refutes the McCain campaign’s effort to spin the justified attacks on Palin as sexism. The campaign can’t dismiss Palin’s critics as sexist for jumping on her thin, stock-phrase-laden answers to reasonable questions. It would be sexist—and destructive for the country—to demand less. But the answer isn’t necessarily to throw the sexism line back in the campaign’s face, as Campbell Brown did on CNN last week. Brown scolded the campaign for treating Palin as if she’s too delicate to handle the press. But where is Palin in this equation? Doesn’t she have to account for the way she’s been shielded from questions that shouldn’t be hard for her to answer?

Traister is right that this is on Palin at least as much as it’s on John McCain. Palin put herself in line for the presidency; she could have turned down the invitation to join the ticket. She gains from this campaign no matter what—before it, she had no national profile, now she has an outsized one, and all the criticism will just make her true fans love her more. (They’re ready to eat Kathleen Parker alive.) She has cannily based her appeal on scorning the media, so it hardly makes sense to feel pity for her because the media are actually scornful, given all the fodder she’s provided.

For all of these reasons, I should take Traister’s advice and stop agonizing. I’m not ambivalent about Palin’s positions on taxes, stem-cell research, or offshore drilling. Why should I be ambivalent about how she performs in the debate? What if Palin does unexpectedly well and gives McCain another boost in the polls? Better she should go down hard for knowing nothing about the Supreme Court than that the court should move ever rightward because the Republicans get to pick the next justices.

And yet. When I watch Palin, I can’t help but cringe along with Parker. Call it women’s solidarity, however misplaced. I keep coming back to this prim phrase: Please, don’t make a spectacle of yourself. String some coherent sentences together. Your efforts to wrap yourself in Hillary’s mantle make no sense in terms of what you’d actually do in office. But if you could pull off just a bit of her debating prowess—just a bit—I’ll step a little lighter when I wake up Friday morning.