I learned the hard way about two weeks ago that when you have an idea, especially a good one, you'd better not sit on it too long because someone else will beat you to the punch.
As all writers, I keep a list of long-term post ideas. And on my list (really, I swear) was one about how Democratic women need a Sarah Palin of our own if we want to give our national political aspirations a good jump start. Not a Sarah Palin who isn't sure what newspapers she reads or the Sarah Palin who can't keep three key points in her head at a time, but the Sarah Palin who seems to excite the women of her political party beyond any logical explanation.
Unfortunately, Rebecca Traister and Anna Holmes beat me to the punch. Of course, because of who they are (Traister has a new book coming out that I can't wait to read and interview her about), they were able to get an op-ed placed in the New York Times entitled "A Palin of Our Own." But their point deserves a little more discussion.
The reason I hadn't written about this theory yet is because I was still thinking about who our Sarah Palin should be. Would identifying a Democratic woman as our Sarah Palin be an insult? Or would it serve as a notice to Democratic women that, for better or worse, it's not a bad thing to combine some folksy, down-home soundbites and good, old-fashioned girl connections as a way to connect with voters on a more visceral level?
There are plenty of Democratic women who are well-known and well-respected, even by their conservative opponents, like U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar from Minnesota, U.S. Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida and U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand from New York, just to name a few. These are amazingly talented, intelligent and insightful politicians. And there are plenty of us wonky types who have political girl crushes on all of them! But, sadly, I don't think any of them have that elusive Sarah Palin quality that makes the screaming masses go wild when she walks on stage at a speech or a rally.
One thing Klobuchar, Wasserman Schultz and Gillibrand share with Sarah Palin is that they are all mothers. And Palin has played the mother card for all it's worth for reaching out to her loyal minions. But it's not just her motherhood experience that has made the former Alaska governor the popular phenomenon that she's become.
Palin is a combination of things that many women aren't -- she works that "I'm just a woman of the little people" angle like nobody's business, she enjoys playing the victim in the childhood haves vs. have-nots debates, she proudly wears her opportunism on her sleeve and she isn't afraid to get out there and sell her persona and political messages at some of the off-the-radar events. And, somehow, that approach has successfully tapped into some voters' personal issues in a way that makes many see Palin as a woman of the people, regardless of whether she really understands anything about how the economy works, the history of the Middle East or nuclear disarmament.
Perhaps even more importantly, Palin has become a symbol to so many Republican women who've been fighting for a place at the political table, but never quite seem to be able to elbow their way in. Regardless of how she comes across in terms of experience or intellect, for many GOP women, Palin was, and remains, a long drink of cool water in the desert of national Republican political involvement.
While women are still the vast minority in Congress, Republican women are the minority of that minority. All women have a long way to go on the national political stage, but at least Democratic women have seen a couple of examples before Palin made her way out of the Alaska frontier to know that it's possible for women to break through. Republican women, not so much.
Traister and Holmes conclude that the left wing is overlooking the appetite for female leadership in this country. I learned from the research on my Mothers of Intention book (I hope I can send Traister a copy!) that they hit the nail on the head -- but it's really both major political parties that aren't seeing it, not just the Democrats. Another equally important factor that the Democratic leadership is ignoring is this -- there are plenty of women who don't care whether the next woman who runs for the White House is a Democrat or a Republican. If there's a woman candidate on the presidential ticket, they'll vote for her (even if it's Sarah Palin) regardless of whether there's a (D) or (R) after her name.
I spoke those words to room full of serious politicos at the Netroots Nation conference this summer and received a round of shouts as if I'd just said I would vote for Palin myself. I understand that reaction, but if we ignore the reality that women have reached the end of their ropes about a lack of high-level female leadership in both parties, we Democrats will deserve what we get next time around.
I'm not saying I want any of my favorite women politicians to turn into slightly less annoying versions of Sarah Palin. I don't need to see any of them fishing for salmon, hunting for moose or getting all defensive about their reading material. But for more Democratic women to move up in the ranks of leadership, we need a woman who somehow finds a way to resonate with people in the way that Palin does, and in the way that Bill Clinton and George W. Bush did for their respective fans.
We don't have to make ourselves out to be "mama grizzlies," but if women want more places at the political table, we need to accept the fact that whether we agree with Palin's politics or not, we might be able to take advantage of her populist playbook to take our rightful places at the table of political leadership.
Joanne Bamberger writes the political blog PunditMom, as well as a weekly political column at The Stir called Speaker of the House. Joanne's book, Mothers of Intention: How Women and Social Media are Revolutionizing Politics in America will be published this winter.
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