Bear Market

How can female Democratic pols advertise themselves in the age of Palin?

Sarah doesn't speak for me. Click image to expand.
Mama Grizzlies from Emily’s List

Even before Palin’s five-for-five sweep Tuesday, there were signs that Democrats were worried that the Mama Grizzly narrative might be the only one resonating with voters: Last week, the pro-choice activist group Emily’s List released a cringeworthy video featuring women— wearing “bear suits”— explaining humorlessly that the “real” Mama Grizzlies are the liberal mothers who want to protect their children’s present and future. The video fell a galaxy or two short of subversively clever. But it made clear that these days, everything is reflected through a Palin-prism. So how should Democratic female pols market themselves in the Mama Grizzly era?

Just a bit more than two years ago, Hillary Clinton released her infamous 3 a.m. ad. There were kids and a mother in it, sure, and Hillary was watching over them—but not in a very maternal, comforting way. The world was a scary place, and she was woman-of-steel enough to deal with it. A few months later, Palin surrounded herself with her kids at the Republican National Convention in a very natural way and then released her Mama Grizzly video defining a new era where maternal instincts became an asset in politics. Democratic women had spent decades neutering their public image in pantsuits, asking that the conversation be directed to the issues, not whether they had one child or six. And they were pretty sure they owned—lock, stock, and barrel—the issues of most interest to women. Now they had to adjust.

So far, their attempts have been somewhat scattered. Jari Askins, an Oklahoman Democrat who’s been something of a feminist trailblazer and isn’t afraid to say so, is locked in a tight gubernatorial battle with Mary Fallin, Palin endorsee and mother of a huge brood. Askins happens to be childless and unmarried, but that hasn’t stopped her from titling an ad “Your Family—and Mine,” in which she explains that certain traits often ascribed to women in business and politics—a willingness to listen to either side, a mediating presence—will make her a success. It’s a similar tack to the one taken by Democrat Alex Sink, “a wife and a working mom,” in her Florida gubernatorial bid. * In one ad, two petty men argue in the background vigorously, while she, balanced, salmon-clad, tells us calmly that she’ll actually get things done. In another spot, she delivers a mom-lecture, scolding the state of Florida for its partisan squabbling.

In other quarters, Democrats have explicitly connected toughness with manliness—”Tell Rick Perry to stop cowering and face Texas like a man,” mocks an ad taken out by a liberal PAC. Perry will face Democrat Bill White in November, after easily trouncing Kay Bailey Hutchinson in the primary despite apparently not bringing the right gonads to the gunfight. The implication, of course, casts the fairer sex as the weaker sex—something that would have been anathema to Democrats in the Hillary age.

Republican women who don’t automatically fit the “Mama Grizzly” billing by virtue of their personal history are also under pressure to conform. Brenna Findley, an unmarried, Palin-endorsed Iowa AG candidate, noted on her official bio that “she spends her free time trying new recipes, reading and quilting.” Karen Handel, a Palin-endorsed Georgia Republican who lost her gubernatorial primary, might not have kids, but her official bio doesn’t neglect her nurturing side: She and her husband care for their two cavalier spaniels, Maggie and Mia. And in a campaign video, she explained that only one of the four candidates wears lipstick (that we know of, Karen!), and coincidentally, only one of the four really cares for you.

Republican Susana Martinez of New Mexico, married with one stepchild, has embraced the Mama Grizzly label—her latest ad, for instance, shows her in a pink button-down (she wears a matching blue one elsewhere in campaign materials—two-for-one special, that mom-version of fiscal conservatism?) walking through a classroom, smiling warmly at children while espousing draconian testing measures for those adorable flawed products of the “culture of failure.” In another, she reveals that in her office she keeps a photo of a baby whose abusers she prosecuted—an odd combo of maternal and avenging. Her opponent, successful businesswoman Diane Denish, isn’t going down without a grizzly fight: Her short bio uses a form of the word family eight times and a form of child six times. In her video “What Really Matters,” we soon find that it’s … fighting for your family. Guess the theme of her spot “Familia.”

Even men are falling under the spell. There was a Ben Quayle ad that showed him hanging out with a couple of cute kids, resplendent in his dadliness, although he has no children (plus a habit of blogging under a porn-star inspired name about his hunt for a hottie). No matter. His strategy seems to have worked, as he won the primary with 22 percent of the vote. Sean Duffy, who appeared on The Real World: Boston in his 20s, now lumberjack, father of six, and a Palin endorsee, is often referred to as a Papa Grizzly.

So what about the candidates who aren’t going the play-up-my-femininity route? At the extreme, there are women who are choosing to position themselves as tough despite their gender, not because of it. Take, for example, two very similar TV ads that hit the Web last week, from Democratic candidates for attorney general in New York and California, Kathleen Rice and Kamala Harris, respectively. As an Albany Times-Union blogger notes, Rice wants to telegraph that she’s “so tough that she’s the only woman who appears in the man’s-man’s-man’s world of the ad except for a blurry dispatcher-looking police officer on the left in one brief shot … She’s so tough that the first line in the script is, ‘If anybody though [sic] Kathleen Rice would be a pushover as Long Island’s first woman district attorney, they were wrong.’ ”

Harris and Rice share a political consultant, but there are other, real similarities between the two women: Neither former prosecutor, at least according to official biographies, is married or has children. Contra Rice, there are plenty of women and children in Harris’ ad, but they show up in the wake of ominous sirens, accompanied by an ominous male voice-over extolling her excellent record locking up child-assault offenders. They aren’t Mama Grizzlies—they’re knights in shining armor. It’s the same tactic Hillary Clinton used in the 3 a.m. ad, but suddenly, it seems painfully anachronistic. (Yet Rice was name-checked in a little piece on vanguard women who wear the political It Girl wedges, the hip “shoes of a circle of younger women aspiring to power or already in it.”)

Of course, it’s true that the office of attorney general is one in which a kind of traditionally male brand of toughness and experience is considered crucial. These women, too, are running in coastal states, full of urban centers. They’re playing to a different audience than, say, a Midwestern or Southern candidate. And an established female candidate, or even a newcomer like Carly Fiorina, say, with a track record of business or political achievement, is far less likely to get traction from this sort of maternal messaging than, perhaps, a woman making her first leap into national politics. Still, though, compare Rice and Harris’ spots with those of Pam Bondi, the Palin-endorsed AG candidate who won her Florida primary, also unmarried. She, too, talks about locking up murderers, but delivers her experienced tough-gal lines in the wavering-with-feeling tone of a rom-com heroine, above a swelling soundtrack, her Fox News anchorbabe mien framed by soft lighting. One ad ends with a low-angle shot of her comforting a small child.

Republicans, who haven’t historically embraced feminism, are a little ideologically freer to play around with the notion of what it looks like. The result is that in a weird way, they’re using a more fluid definition of gender, a counterintuitive development to be sure. Or maybe I’m just seeing the Democrats as rigid and uncreative after watching hours of folksy Mama Grizzly video and seeing the latest election results—but that’s exactly what Democrats should be worried about.

After all, Sarah Palin didn’t invent the notion of the tough-mom-politician. Blanche Lincoln, just 38 in 1998 when she was elected as a Democrat to the Senate, campaigned with ads featuring her twin babies on her knee. According to the conventional wisdom, that should have turned voters off. But Lincoln used much the same line Palin would 10 years later, referring to herself as “just another working mom,” sparking an instant, easy resonance with women.

Back to that flop of an Emily’s List video: The execution was wretched, but the idea behind it seems like the right one. To compete with Mama Grizzlies, Democrats need to be unafraid of that “just another working mom” folksiness, while still making crystal clear that you can’t be “just another working mom” without policy that provides the scaffolding for that existence. Even the instinct to go for hip and subversive was the correct one—if you want to paint your opponent as backward and yourself as forward-thinking, it doesn’t hurt for the medium to fit the message. (Step 1 might be hiring better comedy writers—we’ve got ideas!) A makeover might seem a cartoonish prescription for female candidates, but we’re in the age of Palin now: Democrats need to figure out how to dress second-wave feminist values in third-wave clothes, whether that means Kate Spade wedges on the East Coast or pink button-downs in New Mexico.

Correction, August 26, 2010: This piece originally referred to Alex Sink’s Florida gubernatorial bid as failed. In fact, Sink won the Democratic primary. Return  to the corrected sentence. Like DoubleX on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.