A Conservative Woman's Problem with Palin
Sarah Palin, the woman who put enough sizzle in McCain's 2008 presidential bid to make Republicans think they were finally cooking, now finds herself a few matches short of stoking her own political fire. Palin has managed to maintain the conservative and national spotlight for three years since that failed White House bid. She has won over the Fox News Channel, Rush Limbaugh, the Tea Party, and Glenn Beck. Yet a coveted demographic in her camp continues to elude her: the conservative woman.
Sarah Palin is smart, pretty, and adventurous -- a strong red-white-and-blue conservative. Truth be told, conservative women do like and indeed love Sarah Palin; ask several genres of conservative women, from the stay-at-home mom to the working mom to the conservative youth leader at your local college campus, about Sarah Palin, and you'll find that the common sentiment goes something like this: "I love Sarah Palin and I think the world of her. I wish her success in bolstering the conservative cause, but I don't think she should run." There are many other votes conservative women would cast for her if possible -- U.S. senator, RNC committee chair, NOW president -- but president of the United States is just not one of them.
A self-proclaimed "Rush baby raising five more Rush babies" called into Rush Limbaugh's show recently, offering a simplistic but widely held notion about why women -- including conservative women -- would not vote for Sarah Palin. The caller boxed this phenomenon neatly into the "mean girls" category, where we regular girls don't like the popular all-American knockout with the QB boyfriend so we vote for the girl with the glasses as homecoming queen instead. Sarah Palin has it all: Palin is a wife and mother (including of a special needs child); she hunts, fishes, and does things even men cannot do; she plays several sports; and, as if to put the ribbon on top of it all, she is beautiful. With all this in mind, it follows that conservative women, like liberal women, hate her.
But not so fast.
Conservative women adore all of these things about Sarah Palin in the same way we adore a diamond. Much as we love these jewels in our lives, we also admit that their brilliance doesn't illuminate every corner of our being. Sarah Palin is such a jewel.
As much as conservative women admire and respect Sarah Palin, Palin's intellect and intellectual stamina stops short at her own base and platform. The brilliance does not translate beyond her (and our own) comfort zone. She lacks the ability to cross over and present herself in the wider social and political strata. Just as love isn't enough to sustain a marriage, Tea Party-speak isn't enough to win the presidency. The depth required of a president and commander in chief is missing. Further, Palin has other problems to overcome before she can win over conservative women and other voters. The bad news is that many of Palin's problems, as unfair as this may be, are somewhat out of her control.
The Couric Interview
Palin has never recovered from that introductory primetime interview with Katie Couric. While Couric has since been given a mulligan on the many ways she failed to live up to her journalistic promise at CBS, she will forever be the woman who took the big, bad Sarah Palin down with an apple-pie smile and a simple question: "What do you read?" Palin's befuddled and diffuse reply -- as if trying to work out quantum physics -- has lingered with her publicly and in the hearts of conservative women ever since.
Palin's frequent appearances as an expert in the safe waters of Fox News Channel have done nothing to overturn the initial picture of her as a lightweight intellectual. Sure, Palin has made a media comeback, but even this comes off as coddled and artificial.
Not to mention that with each appearance on Fox News Channel, Palin's hair rises in height, her eyelashes thicken, and her cheeks redden...but her rhetoric remains callow and jaundiced. Not only has she not ripened in poise and communication, but she has left behind the fresh-faced natural beauty we fell in love with when she was on the stage with John McCain in 2008. Our bespectacled wonder has been traded in for an overly coiffed, stiffed-faced...well, stiff. One wonders if she is capable of having a voice true to herself in the midst of fitting in.
The TLC show Sarah Palin's Alaska came off as a contrived attempt to garner public adoration. Were her comments that she would "rather be doing this than in some old stuffy political office" meant to confuse her fans about her intentions in politics, or were they meant to confuse Sarah herself? She seemed more a pop-culture celebrity than a reflective political contemporary on the ascent. She sprinkled in poor political metaphors about mama grizzlies protecting their cubs through self-reliance and independence as a way to connect with conservative voters. These attempts fell flat. The show depicted a woman more interested in being seen and heard than a woman with an indispensable voice on the subjects that really matter.
Coddled by Fox
Palin became a Fox News staple immediately following the end of the presidential election. Fox stretched out the big, brawny arms of an overprotective father, to which Sarah Palin came running as if to be rescued from the big-bad-wolf leftist media on the other side. When Palin's own show on historical stories didn't pan out, she was given infomercial-like slots on all the heavy-hitting news programs. She promoted her second book, her reality TV show, and her speaking appearances, and she bolstered the arguments of the Fox News Channel's hosts. She came off like the queen of the Republican scene and the Tea Party movement.
Still, regularly appearing as a self-appointed expert on conservative values is not enough to give her credibility on issues of finance, national defense, or our nation's history in the hearts and minds of conservative women and most other voters.
Another problem, indeed, is that Palin still bumbles without apology. Palin was clearly caught on tape saying that Paul Revere "warned the British" by "ringing those bells." Even Chris Wallace of Fox News Sunday graciously gave her an out to correct her words. Instead, Palin persisted that she did not get the history and the story wrong on Paul Revere. Whether she said it accidentally backwards or not, she conveyed the focal context incorrectly. Why not simply explain oneself without a defensive "I know my history"? [Editor's Note: the Boston Herald put out an article wherein at least two historians grudgingly admitted that Palin had the right of it vis-à-vis Paul Revere.]
While she passes the test of social and conservative convictions with flying colors, Palin simply does not excel in the hot seat. And while there is no great sin in that (certainly many of us also crumble at an attempt to accurately recall and recount pertinent parts of American history), one cannot hope to be taken seriously as the first female president of the United States while being unable to stand up to friend and foe alike on political history.
It isn't enough to say that the media prejudices the public against Sarah Palin. If she's smarter than Katie Couric and Rachel Maddow, and more of a man than Chris Matthews, then she ought to be able to prove it on the spot. Shooting the breeze with Sean Hannity as he cocks his head adoringly to the left and asks rhetorical questions on liberty and fiscal responsibility simply doesn't do. If Palin really wants to prove that fat meat is greasy, she will (fair or not) have to stretch herself beyond those who already accept her.
Believe it or not, Barack Obama is a problem for Palin. Because Americans have already taken a chance on the outsider who promised that charm and wit could make up for lack of experience in the line of fire and depth and expertise in foreign affairs, the conservative voter is especially turned off to this strategy of going with a candidate who lacks a serious résumé. In the game that is the presidential election, you must not only be the able to show us the how, what, and why, but you must also be able to explain all of them convincingly and without defect.
Conservatives understand just how important it will be for the 2012 GOP candidate to be able to face Obama and articulate from every narrative -- present, social, historical -- with cunning ability so as to not allow the Democrats to run loose on flowery prose, false achievements, and enticing promises. The conservative candidate will have to be so masterful at language, expression, and self-assured knowledge that she can speak candidly and from the bowels of her being without a hiccup or a worry of who thinks what. She will have to know herself, trust her thoughts, and feel the gravitas of her candidacy.
Though Barack Obama was able to pull off the allure of the unknown in 2008, the conservative nominee will not be romanticized as the promising underdog whom we must fight for in order to set the stage for a new day. She will have to package, introduce, sell, and defend this new day in a way that no one can deny. When conservative women ask each other (without really putting into words all the questions in our minds) if Palin can do all that, our answer is that we love her, but she cannot.
What Conservative Women Want
Conservative women want what all conservatives want and need in our 2012 candidate: answers and accountability. Unfortunately, Sarah Palin has raised a lot more questions than given sufficient answers. And many of the questions seem deliberate: What's up with the bus tour? What's up with showing up in New Hampshire while Mitt Romney was announcing his bid? What was up with the reality show? All these questions keep stockpiling like old newspapers.
As Palin continues to play these mind games -- either in an attempt to create buzz and mystique or to test the water -- she further distances herself as a sincere and genuine contender for the conservative nomination. These questions lean toward the juvenile context which that Rush caller suggested; they cast Palin as a candidate for high school prom queen, not president of the United States.
Lisa Fritsch is a talk radio show host and author of Obama, Tea Parties and God: What It Means to be an American, a Patriot and a Christian. Find her at www.lisafritsch.com.