Democrats need to FORGET ABOUT SARAH PALIN. This race is about McCain and the Republican record of failed policies. Keep it about that. The economy sucks, and we are in one of the most precarious national security positions in recent history. Who cares if Palin is a "hot chick" or "doable" when we have a Democratic candidate for President who desperately needs to bolster his own persona as a capable Commander in Chief?
Focus, focus, focus: Obama needs to be out there building his street cred as someone capable of defending our nation in a time of crisis. The Republicans have tipped their hand as to their predictable playbook for the campaign when, in their opening video, they included images of the Twin Towers coming down and Bush with his bullhorn on the Pile. In follow up to that, they mentioned 9/11 and Islamic fundamentalist terrorists repeatedly - continuing to feed the lie that our war in Iraq was related to the attacks on our country. Then there was Giuliani as the keynote speaker. Enough said on him. Finally, if we've heard it once then we've heard it a thousand times, McCain served in the military and was a POW. When someone tells you what they're going to do, listen.
Along these lines, I am not fond of conspiracy theories, but, in this case, the saying "just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you" applies. It would be highly surprising if there were NOT an "October surprise" involving a foreign relations or national security crisis - or perceived crisis - of some kind. To help give you some perspective on this, I suggest you read the interview with Dennis Kucinich in the August 24th edition of the New York Times Magazine in which he discusses how the recent events between Georgia and Russia were manipulated in a timely way.
So, we need to forget about Sarah Palin, and we need to be proactive and building our case for Obama as Commander in Chief - while simultaneously working to pull aside the curtain on the created persona of McCain as some kind of benevolent warrior. Seriously, the man has a well-known temper and is highly impulsive in his decision-making. While I respect his service to our country and his suffering, I fail to see how having Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder serves as a positive qualification for the office of President. We need to get on the ball here. Obama needs to build his Commander in Chief persona and credentials, and his surrogates need to stop being so deferential to McCain.
Now, on to how NOT to forget about Sarah Palin: last week, the Republicans successfully chose the battlefield and lured in gleeful and unsuspecting Democrats waltzed right in to the ambush. Palin's speech at the Republican Convention was a wake-up call for Democrats. This woman is dangerous. She is a extremist Messianic Christian conservative idealogue who is unqualified for the office for which she is nominated - yet she is capable of being charismatic and likeable and of making people identify with her. Sound familiar?
Sarah Palin has proven herself to be a compelling persona as a mother, and many people will identify with both her and her family. When her youngest daughter licked her own hand and used it to slick back the hair of the baby (something we know she did because it has been done to her and she has seen her mother do it), the action resonated with anyone who remembers their mother doing that to them or who has themselves parented a young child. The fact that her own teenage unwed daughter is pregnant also resonates with many families - as it did with Barack Obama himself. She is highly telegenic and has the ability to seem personable and likable via television - a vital skill in this age of political campaign by media appearance.
So, how do we Democrats go about neutralizing this self-professed "pit bull with lipstick"? Two principles should guide our efforts: attack, attack hard, and attack now - but NEVER criticize, mock or otherwise belittle her as a woman, her personal choices as a mother or her family members. When we do so, we implicitly criticize all of those who identify with her or her family. Our efforts need to focus on showing those Independent and undecided women and working class folk that we are MORE representative of them than the Republicans are and that we will BETTER DEFEND their rights and interests.
First, we need to bring out the Clintons. Bill can reach the working class demographic to whom Palin appeals. Hillary can as well, but she can also reach the women and mothers in particular. And no one argues the Democratic case for the economy better than the Clintons. They have proven themselves to be ready and willing surrogates for Obama - he needs to put his ego aside and use them. Let the Clintons handle Palin. It'll be fun to watch.
Second, we need to begin coaching Joe Biden NOW on tone. The idea of Biden and Palin in a debate is terrifying - not because of her, but because of his propensity for putting his foot in his mouth and making accidental sexist remarks that alienate women voters. It will be easy for Biden to want to be belittling of Palin's comparative lack of experience - and I imagine that she will taunt him with her sarcasm when they appear together. However, in this case, what's good for the goose is NOT good for the gander. If he is drawn in to responding in kind, he has lost. Like it or not, it would be one thing for Hillary Clinton or some other woman to smack down Palin, but it is a whole different dynamic for a man to do so.
Third, we need to watch our own language and approach in criticizing Sarah Palin. Words like "shrill" are being used today to attack her - well, I ask you, what woman with a voice has NOT been called "shrill" in her lifetime? Notice the lack of hands being raised. Male pundits and Democratic surrogates in particular need to watch their tone and their messaging here.
So, my fellow Democrats, to paraphrase the great poet and activist Audre Lorde: forget about Sarah Palin and never forget about Sarah Palin. And let the battle for the shape and character of the next American generation begin.
Leah McElrath Renna is a Managing Partner with Renna Communications, a progressive public interest consulting firm, and a practicing psychotherapist.
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