06.01.11

Run, Sarah and Michele, Run!

Who says there's no room for both Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann in the 2012 presidential race—men? Michelle Cottle on why it is important for women to run and why we shouldn't dismiss a potential matchup between the two GOP pols as a catfight.

Run, ladies, run! That’s my mantra for the 2012 presidential campaign.

Sure, I grasp the political calculus that says there’s not room for both Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann in the Republican primary: As two bomb-throwing, tea-partying, socially conservative, screw-the-establishment mama grizzlies, these GOP soul sisters would be battling over a very similar slice of the base.

Likewise, I sympathize with the angsty grumbling I’ve heard among those who fear that two such colorful women out there frenetically chumming the waters could reflect poorly on the gender. With so few gals having braved this particular arena, there is an understandable anxiety about any female contender who could be dismissed as a lightweight or ruthlessly mocked for her, let us say, eccentricities.

I get it. All of it. And yet I cannot help myself: I want both of these women in the fight.

Thanks to Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, my 5-year-old daughter and her pals think it’s the norm for women to run for the White House. It will take more than one dizzying cycle, however, to lock in that lesson—much less alter the mindset of the post-Kindergarten crowd.

People need to get used to the idea of having women jump willy-nilly into the presidential pool the way the guys have long done. Herman Cain? Morry Taylor? Alan Keyes? Steve Forbes? Mike Gravel? Dennis Kucinich? Heck, in 1992, Ross Perot launched a third party and helped cost Bush 41 a second term, despite being as nutty as squirrel poo. And did we really need both Gary Bauer and Orrin Hatch in the 2000 Republican race? No. No we did not.

Hillary Clinton’s 2008 run “kicked open the door” for women of all ideological stripes, observes Deborah Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “Now the really interesting gender twist to this moment,” says Walsh, “is getting the electorate accustomed to the idea that you can have two women running at the same time.” A significant factor at play, she asserts: “How does the media deal with two women running against each other?”

People need to get used to the idea of having women jump willy-nilly into the presidential pool the way the guys have long done.

(Fun parlor game for those watching at home: Start a betting pool as to how frequently the phrase “cat fight” gets used if both Palin and Bachmann wind up running.)

Admittedly, neither Palin nor Bachmann has Clinton’s political or policy chops. But this is, in fact, part of why I want them in the fray: to help dispel the notion that women must attain some Hillaryesque superstature before making a run.

Time and again, research and anecdotal evidence tell us that women second-guess themselves and their abilities far more than do men. (Yes. Yes. I’m generalizing—and I remain eternally hopeful that this disparity will continue to wither.) They’re not as quick to take risks. They don’t self-promote as aggressively. They tend to worry more about being qualified for a job before they put themselves out there for it. By contrast, Barack Obama had barely finished his freshman Senate orientation before he began measuring for drapes in the Oval Office.

So when we’re talking about a run for the presidency—a venture requiring levels of ambition and arrogance rarely found outside of Donald Trump’s brainpan—I’m all for seeing the psychological bar lowered by greener and more unconventional female candidates. I want Carly Fiorina and Kathleen Sebelius and Christine Gregoire and Nikki Haley looking at Palin and Bachmann and thinking, well, if they can go for it…

In fact, I'd go so far as to argue that, because women tend to be more self-critical and risk-averse than men, we need gals whose spinal cords don't go all the way up to help make the sight of women White House contenders downright mundane. Thoughtful, self-aware, well-adjusted people rarely run for president. If we wait around for textbook-perfect female candidates to normalize this process, we will be waiting forever.

Do I want an unqualified (or unbalanced) woman to win? Of course not. When we’re talking about who actually sits in the Big Chair, quality is, obviously, paramount. But in getting people (including media types) comfortable with the very idea of something new, quantity has its place as well.

Thus, for now at least, I’m taking the more-is-more position. So what if Palin and Bachmann candidacies result in ideological overlap—or a glut of over-the-top rhetoric? Just having them both out there running with the big dogs will be a useful advance.

And next time around, maybe even more women will get off the porch.

Michelle Cottle is a Washington reporter for The Daily Beast.