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What's Fair Game With Sarah Palin?

By Anne E. Kornblut
Sunday, September 7, 2008

Watching Gov. Sarah Palin explode onto the national scene over the last week got me thinking back to a cold evening earlier this year, just before the New Hampshire primary. I was half-listening to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton speak at an auditorium when a strange noise interrupted the event: two young men shouting, in muffled voices, "Iron my shirt!"

At first, Clinton seemed as taken aback as the rest of the audience, unsure of what was going on. Then she saw the yellow "Iron My Shirt!" sign one of the young men held, figured out what was being shouted and brushed the interruption aside. "Ah, the remnants of sexism, alive and well," she said, then continued with her remarks. When security officers removed the young men from the audience, I joined several other reporters in following them outside to find out who the hecklers were and what had motivated them to make such a spectacle.

Little did we know that the bizarre incident was a precursor of what was to come -- of the debate over sexism, feminism and the role of women in public life that would emerge as one of the defining aspects of the 2008 campaign. My fellow reporters and I never really did resolve the mystery of the "iron my shirt" episode; the two young men refused to give us their names and offered strangely vague reasons for being there. But we were put on notice that night: Gender politics was going to be a part of this race in ways that no one could foresee.

After following Clinton on the campaign trail for more than two years, I have been watching the Palin story with some wariness -- especially the conservative charges that the treatment she's received has been overwhelmingly sexist. With each new development, I keep wondering: What if?

What if, back in the 1990s, Clinton had announced the pregnancy of an unmarried, teenaged daughter? Would the Republicans have declared it an off-limits family matter and declined to judge her, or would it have turned into a national scandal that hurt her chances as she decided to pursue her own career in elected office?

What if, instead of the GOP's new vice presidential candidate, Clinton had been the one to run for national office without any international experience to speak of? (After all, Clinton's rivals diminished the relevance of her eight years as first lady, saying they counted for little on her résumé.)

And what if Clinton had rejected questions about her record by calling such lines of questioning sexist? What if she had refused to name any national security decisions she had made, as a spokesman for Sen. John McCain did on Palin's behalf last week, on the grounds that the question was unfair?

What if, simply, the roles had been reversed?

Howard Wolfson, Clinton's former communications director, said he is confident that the Republicans "would have attempted to destroy her" if she were in Palin's shoes -- as, in fact, some Republicans tried to do to Clinton throughout the 1990s, and were preparing to do again if she had won the Democratic nomination this year.

At the same time, Wolfson said, Republican attempts "to defend Palin from sexism lost a fair amount of credibility when Carly Fiorina refused to acknowledge that her party had ever been sexist toward Hillary Clinton." (Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard chief turned McCain economic adviser, told a "hear-me-roar" press conference with other Republican women Wednesday that Republicans were not responsible for any mistreatment of Clinton.) I have had my share of major disagreements with Wolfson over the last few years, but on this one, he is probably right.

It may seem a pretty pointless exercise -- envisioning the "would haves" if Clinton and Palin had somehow swapped roles, parties and lives. But it is a useful tool as a reporter, a way of contemplating what is fair game now by comparing it with what was fair game then. Even the issue of "Would you ask a man the same question" (raised so indignantly last week by senior McCain adviser Steve Schmidt and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani) falls slightly short, simply because there are so few templates for female candidates running for higher office -- and the ones who have, including Clinton, Palin and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have tried to use their roles as mothers and women as part of the overall package in ways that men do not.

That is not to say that every awkward detail of Palin's personal life is an acceptable target -- or that Democrats, reporters and bloggers ought to pursue Palin in all of the aggressive ways that Clinton has been grilled for most of her political life. It is also not to suggest that Clinton always openly answered questions about her own record or did not manipulate her femininity to her advantage when it suited her political needs.

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.

kornbluta@washpost.com

Anne E. Kornblut covers politics for The Washington Post.

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