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Leah McElrath Renna

Leah McElrath Renna

Posted: September 2, 2008 03:56 PM

The Palin Puzzle: What's Fair Game?


As Sarah Palin's personal situation continues to unfold on a national stage, Democrats are spending a good amount of time arguing about how exactly to respond and asking ourselves, "What's fair game?"

Some of us want to take the high road because doing otherwise violates the values of the Democratic Party. Obama chose this approach in his statement about Palin's daughter's pregnancy saying, in part, "How a family deals with issues and teen-age children - that shouldn't be the topic of our politics." These people want to approach the situation with empathy and respect for Palin and, in particular, her children.

Others of us want to go on the attack and fall on these contradictions like piranha in order to exploit them the way that - we know from history and our experiences at the hands of Karl Rove - the Republicans would not hesitate to use them against us if the situations were reversed. Many in this group rightfully point out that the stakes in this election are very high and argue that the ends in this situation would justify the means. These people want to go on the attack, attack hard and attack now.

Both empathic understanding and the desire to attack are misguided approaches: I suggest a realpolitik perspective, if you will. The reality is that, despite Obama's desires to the contrary, how a family deals with issues and teenage children is a topic of politics. It is, in fact, an important point of policy divergence between Democrats and Republicans. However the other reality is that, in this particular situation, going on the attack would be self-defeating for Democrats.

What is different and not being recognized about this situation is that the contradictions here are self-evident and irreconcilable. We do not need to go on the attack because the Palin's life situation is already at odds with the political stance and professed values of the Republican Party. We can trust that - as long as the issues remain visible - people within her own party are judging Palin themselves. One thing we know for sure is that many Republicans simply cannot help themselves from judging others' personal lives through a punitive lens. Palin will not be exempt from this mental habit. Rest assured that there are thousands of Republicans and Independents out there thinking critically to themselves, "The woman is going on the campaign trail with a four month old baby? And now her teenage daughter is pregnant?"

In addition, if we do go on attack, we are likely to do achieve the opposite of what we intend. Those voters who are on the fence in this election are more likely to "unite in opposition" in response to any attack because that is an automatic response when vulnerability is real - as it is in this case. You cannot get more vulnerable than a pregnant teenager and an infant with Down syndrome. As a result, an attack will evoke a protective response from others, especially working parents.

For example, if we call into question Palin's judgment for getting on a plane to try to return home when she realized she was in early labor, it will trigger feelings of identification in other women who have given birth and experienced a similar homing instinct (raising my hand here). If we call into question her decision to return to work when her son with Down syndrome was only a few days old, it will trigger feelings of identification in other parents who either voluntarily or out of necessity have made similar arrangements. And most strikingly, if we are seen to be "picking on" Palin's teenage daughter, it will trigger feelings of identification from parents of teenagers everywhere who cannot help but realize how little control they actually have on their children's choices at this age. There is no winning at this level,

Just to be clear, I completely understand the righteous desire to go on attack against the Republicans. After all, this is a party that has historically idealized stay at home mothers and demonized mothers who work due to choice rather than necessity (Hillary Clinton anyone?) and now presents Sarah Palin as its first woman candidate on an executive ticket. Attacking the hypocrisy is almost impossible to resist. But doing so in regard to this situation will not get us what we want, and the stakes are too high to spend energy counter-productively.

Instead, our responsibility is to keep the relevant issues in the spotlight and to criticize the Republicans at a policy level only. We need to highlight the fact that they are responsible for slashing funding for programs and services for children with special needs. We need to speak out about the reality that abstinence-only education does not work and in fact keeps vital information from vulnerable young people. We need remind people that the Republicans have continually belittled the fact that affordable quality child-care is an economic necessity in order for the nation to be optimally productive. And so on.

If we do that, while simultaneously treating Sarah Palin and her family with respect, we will be giving the Republicans all - or at least the rest of - the rope they need to hang themselves. That's fair game.

Leah McElrath Renna is a Managing Partner of Renna Communications, a progressive public interest consulting firm, and a practicing psychotherapist.