“Game Change,” HBO’s move adaptation of the Mark Halperin and John Heilemann book about the 2008 presidential election, has drawn criticism. But I found it quite a good film, and Julianne Moore’s portrayal of Palin, whatever your views, is just uncanny. The politics of Palin’s selection, and her campaign performance, was also believable. In fact, Nicolle Wallace, one of Palin’s main handlers in the film, played by Sarah Paulson, said on a Sunday morning talk show that the HBO film was “true enough to make me squirm.”
I squirmed too, though for perhaps a different reason. The movie forcefully reminded me that picking a woman as McCain’s running mate was not about Palin’s qualifications, but about saving a stalled campaign. As I was watching the movie, I experienced a dawning sense of “déjà vu all over again” in Yogi Berra’s inimitable phrase. McCain’s campaign advisors realized they needed a game changing maneuver because McCain was polling behind with women voters.
Where have we heard that recently? Oh, yes. The current GOP is rapidly losing women voters, especially centrist women and some self-identified Republicans.
That’s not good, because women vote.
It gets worse. The decision for Palin gets made because candidate McCain did not excite the conservative base. Neither does Mitt Romney with his by now well-known “enthusiasm gap.”
Where have we seen this movie before?
I ended up feeling some compassion for Sarah Palin as I watched. Yes, Palin is in many ways her own worst enemy, but she was thrust into national prominence in a negligent fashion and the film shows she is clearly way, way over her head. The McCain campaign picked her for VP with no substantial vetting. As portrayed in the film, after the decision is made to put a woman on the ticket, an aide does a Google search for Republican women. He sees Palin in a YouTube video and becomes fascinated. Palin is plunged, with no real qualifications, on to a national stage because she first looked good to an aide.
Of course, there is the irresponsibility: Even Dick Cheney is appalled, and said picking Palin for VP was a ‘reckless choice,’ a senior aide reports. Then, in what is widely regarded as the funniest line in the movie, this same aide comments, “When you lose the moral high ground of Dick Cheney, it’s time to rethink your entire life.”
But what is most significant about the careless choice of Palin is what it reveals about the attitude of the McCain campaign toward women overall. When polling shows that the McCain is doing poorly among women, the way Palin is picked as a “woman VP” candidate is a Google search for some woman who looked good. Really, it’s insulting.
And this mattered to Republican women. In one of the most poignant moments in the film, Sarah Palin is at a rally. Mothers of Down Syndrome children are moved by her speech and come up to Palin. They tell her they and their kids feel welcome at this rally. Palin, the mother of a handicapped child, matters to them. Palin started to matter to mothers overall. One woman says it best: “I’ve got five kids too. She’s talking to me, and nobody talks to me.”
These Republican women deserved to have a woman candidate who was better prepared for the job.
So, I started to worry. If ever there were a party in need of a “Game Change,” it is Republicans in 2012. Mitt Romney inspires no enthusiasm, and is still stalled by challengers Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. This slow-moving train wreck will continue until the convention, when it is likely that Romney will emerge the nominee. Romney’s vacuous response to Rush Limbaugh’s attacks on Sarah Fluke will continue to haunt him unless there is a change.
Clearly the GOP needs to get women back, but how? The current mindset that dominates the GOP, revealed in the attacks on birth control and women’s right to privacy, is a gross miscalculation about women today and their view of themselves. This becomes clear in a recent interview with a self-identified “old school” 57 year-old Republican woman who is a Christian evangelical. This GOP attack on birth control seemed to her “a throwback to 40 years ago.” This is a new realization for this retired teacher regarding the Republican presidential candidates. “If they’re going to decide on women’s reproductive issues, I’m not going to vote for any of them. Women’s reproduction is our own business.”
Many women, including this Christian evangelical woman, don’t want to go back to a time when their self-determination was subject to someone else’s control. In 2012 there’s a line in the sand emerging for women voters.
So the question for this presidential year is this: Will the GOP leadership be able to actually see this line in the sand and pull back? Can they start to respect women as self-determining, equal American citizens and voters who care about issues like the economy and health care? In faith terms, will they be able to see women as equally created in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:27), women who have religious freedom and can equally exercise religious conscience? Unless they do, the risk is the current GOP could once again regard a woman VP choice as just an attractive pawn to be manipulated in the game of politics.
I actually became concerned, in watching “Game Change,” that with the current GOP leadership seemingly unable or unwilling to see women as fully equal either in politics or in faith, another effort to “appeal to women” on the presidential ticket could produce another gross miscalculation in picking a VP. I hope not.