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What's Fair Game With Sarah Palin?
And the sort of media-bashing that thrilled the GOP faithful last week may not play as well with the independents McCain hopes to win over. In an overnight ABC News poll taken before McCain's speech Thursday, 50 percent of respondents said that the media has treated Palin fairly, while 40 percent said it had not -- and among those who faulted the coverage, more saw political bias as the root cause than blamed sexism.
Still, in her first week on the national stage, Palin and her surrogates have brandished the sexism charge more unabashedly than Clinton has over the course of two very public decades. And Palin has not yet even faced serious questioning in person, in an interview or in a one-on-one debate. If Clinton's message was that she was a survivor -- that she had been vetted and tested, her viewpoints scrutinized, with all of her personal problems known to the country -- Palin's has so far been that she has, by virtue of being nominated, already passed every test that Clinton took. Palin's mantra, it seems, is that women no longer need to surpass men in their achievements and qualifications in order to win; they simply need to object when the question of their preparedness is raised.
And that makes me wonder: What would Clinton say to that?
Clinton has been surprisingly quiet in the days since Palin was nominated. She issued a bland statement the day McCain announced his surprise pick: "We should all be proud of Governor Sarah Palin's historic nomination, and I congratulate her and Senator McCain. While their policies would take America in the wrong direction, Governor Palin will add an important new voice to the debate." Last Thursday, Clinton put out just her second statement about Palin, saying she wanted to "slightly amend" one of her best zingers in Denver: "No way, no how, no McCain-Palin." And while Clinton is scheduled to stump in central Florida Monday on Sen. Barack Obama's behalf, the trip is not, according to people in both Democrats' camps, designed as a direct response to the debut of the second female vice presidential nominee in U.S. history.
It doesn't exactly add up to a resounding attack, especially during the heat of the campaign. Former Clinton advisers offer various explanations: She would only energize the Republican base if she criticized Palin; she doesn't want to diminish her own stature by attacking McCain's rookie understudy rather than McCain himself; she is not on the ticket, so why should she intervene? Still, the result is a strange silence from the woman who, until just two weeks ago, had arguably the most powerful female voice in American politics.
Palin, on the other hand, has invoked Clinton several times, welcoming the senator's voters to her own effort to shatter the glass ceiling that Clinton "put 18 million cracks in." And yet America's two most famous female politicians were not always so simpatico. As recently as the primary season, Palin said that she was sorry she could not vote for Clinton (presumably because she was a registered Republican) but added that she regretted Clinton's "whining" about sexist treatment toward the end of her 2008 bid. "When I hear a statement like that coming from a woman candidate with any kind of perceived whine about that excess criticism, or maybe a sharper microscope put on her, I think, 'Man, that doesn't do us any good, women in politics, or women in general, trying to progress in this country,' " Palin said.
"I think that's reality, and I think it's a given, I think people can just accept that she is going to be under that sharper microscope," Palin went on. "So be it. I mean, work harder, prove yourself to an even greater degree that you're capable, that you're going to be the best candidate. . . ."
One senior Clinton adviser I talked to this past week called it understandable that the Alaska governor felt that way -- until she got into the white-hot glare herself. Another said that it is probably easier for Palin to take on the role of vice presidential nominee, and to push back against the questions that truly are offensive, because the path has been paved for the last several years by Clinton.
In some respects, the Clinton loyalists are sympathetic toward Palin and about the hardships she will face in largely uncharted territory as a woman running for national office. They lived through the excruciating moments of unfairness that Clinton endured during the campaign -- MSNBC's Chris Matthews's saying that Clinton won her Senate seat only because of her husband's infidelity is one particular favorite -- and some are still smarting from Obama's decision to tap Sen. Joe Biden as his running mate. That may very well not have been a sexist choice, but from a certain angle, it could be seen to have carried a tinge of old-boy networking -- the kind that Palin said in her acceptance speech she had busted up in Alaska.
Which is why so many Clinton loyalists believe -- and I believe they really believe it -- that Palin could help McCain draw some voters from the Clinton base. The GOP may have its work cut out for it here: According to the ABC poll, 47 percent of women view Palin favorably. (She does better among men, who are more apt to be Republicans; 54 percent of men viewed her positively.) Still, the fact that a spokesman for Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid used the word "shrill" to describe Palin's speech on Wednesday night only made Clinton's camp more convinced that the hockey mom from Wasilla really could win some women over. And that is why Palin's emergence has given the increasingly tight 2008 campaign a kind of symmetry that the "Iron My Shirt" boys, whoever they were, could never have imagined.
Anne E. Kornblut covers politics for The Washington Post.