Joe Biden’s campaign, in conjunction with influential women’s groups, is preparing to blunt “sexist” attacks aimed at his prospective running mate. That’s all well and good, but where does Sarah Palin go to recover her career?
If I didn’t know any better, I’d think the Democrats (and women’s groups, and liberal elites in the media) are a bunch of hypocrites. After all, their sexist attacks helped batter a young female rising star deemed as an existential threat, and now they’re warning that the same thing might actually happen (gasp!) to them?
Don’t get me wrong. Pushing back against sexism is good. But it also strikes me as a bit self-serving, coming from the party that has been less than chivalrous to women who got in the way of their liberal agenda (see Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky, and—most appropriately—John McCain’s running mate).
In case you’ve forgotten, a reminder is in order. Liberal radio and TV host Ed Schultz used the words “bimbo alert” when discussing Palin. Harry Reid’s press secretary described her as “shrill.” Then-CNBC host Donny Deutsch spent lots of time talking about her “sex appeal.” And Martin Peretz of The New Republic said, “…she is pretty like a cosmetics saleswoman at Macy’s.” Bestselling author Joe McGinnis moved to her town of Wasilla, Alaska. (Stalker much?) And who could forget the wardrobe controversy, the unflattering Time magazine photo, or the “Trig Trutherism” conspiracy theory led by Andrew Sullivan?
“It actually was pretty deep-seated misogyny embedded deep within supposed progressives’ hearts and minds behind some of these attacks,” recalls Liz Mair, who served as RNC online communications director in 2008.
Other slights were more nuanced. “You know you can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig,” said Barack Obama.
Going the opposite direction, Joe Biden said: “There’s a gigantic difference between John McCain and Barack Obama and between me and I suspect my vice presidential opponent… She’s good looking.”
(Note: Biden’s comments strike me as complimentary, self-deferential, and harmless, but would it be acceptable if directed by a conservative at Biden’s running mate? According to a letter recently sent from a new group called “We Have Her Back” sent to prominent media outlets, commenting on “on a woman’s looks, weight, tone of voice, attractiveness and hair is sexist news coverage” unless applied equally.)
Interestingly, some of the harshest Palin criticism came from other women.
“Her first priority has to be her children,” wrote Sally Quinn. “When the phone rings at three in the morning and one of her children is really sick, what choice will she make?”
Likewise, Norah O’Donnell questioned whether a mother of five could handle the VP duties. And upon hearing that McCain had tapped Palin as his running mate, an award-winning Arizona journalist wrote that her first thoughts were, “[W]hat the fuck does this woman think she's doing; does she have any idea what it takes to raise a kid with Down syndrome? She thinks she can be vice president and take care of that baby?”
Women’s groups were generally out to lunch when it came to defending Palin (“Turns out old feminism is really just a bunch of good ol’ girls telling you what to think,” liberal columnist Kirsten Powers wrote at the time). And former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright even took back her quote (which, at the time, adorned many Starbucks coffee cups) that said, “There’s a place in hell reserved for women who don’t support other women.”
To rationalize the abuse, some observers also suggested that Palin was fair game—since Republicans were weaponizing Palin’s status as a wife, mom, and politician as a selling point. “You can’t have it both ways,” said Ruth B. Mandel, a founder of and senior scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
These reproaches were vicious—which makes it both prudent and ironic that Team Biden is preemptively pushing back against these exact kinds of attacks. After all, Biden is about to name someone who is, at least partially, an identity-politics pick. We know this because Biden has been transparent about considering only female running mates.
I’m sick of living in a world of retaliation, where the attacks on Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas lead to Republicans refusing to even consider Merrick Garland’s nomination (which leads to maybe packing the courts?)—and where accusing Mitt Romney of not paying taxes and waging a “war on women” leads Republicans to back someone like... Donald Trump.
If we are going to fix our politics, we have to stop this negative feedback loop. And while this is a good time to force Democrats to grapple with what they did to Palin, my hope is that the 2020 Republicans surprise me by behaving with more class than the 2008 Democrats.
In the coming weeks, we’re surely going to see some ugly and sexist attacks on Biden’s veep from some on the right. People on the left will get on their high horses, and they’ll be right to do so. But just remember 2008. I know I will.