Hillary Clinton and Palin

A Palin of our own or a charismatic H. Clinton?

Rebecca Traister and Anna Holmes want a progressive Sarah Palin to rise up from the Democratic doldrums and said as much in this Sunday’s New York Times, two years to the day since Palin first appeared on the political scene. This swoon-worthy duo of feminist thinkers is critical of the Democratic party, which they feel hasn’t cultivated enough female leaders in prominent positions and consistently asks women to hide their feminism under a bushel and compromise on feminist issues (ala healthcare reform and abortion). They write:

But as women of a different generation — of, gulp, Sarah Palin’s generation — we wonder if Democrats shouldn’t look to her for twisted inspiration, and recognize that the future of women in politics will be about coming to terms with (and inventing) new models.

I’m with them on just about every account. As I wrote in a column ages ago for the American Prospect, there’s no doubt in my mind that the same feminists who bemoan Sarah Palin’s vacuous spunk have a lot to learn from her about how to preach to the unconverted. But there was a word missing from Traister and Holmes’ column that I see as imperative: performance.

The question, to my mind, is not: do we have something to learn from Sarah Palin, as both feminists and Democrats? The question is: how can powerful women perform an authentic, inspiring politics? Palin’s got the performance part down to a science, but there’s no substance behind it. Is there a way for female politicians to affect people, as she has, to feel heard, seen, and galvanized to more engaged citizenry, without appealing to the lowest common denominators of fear and hatred?

One of the key reasons that Obama defeated Clinton in 2008 was because he was better at projecting a refreshing, relatable politics. I could write a Ph.D. dissertation on why Clinton failed at this–one part innate personality, one part voters’ sexist subconscious, one part husband’s shadow etc. I, personally, don’t want a progressive Palin–all performance and no integrity; I want a charismatic Hillary Clinton.

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  • http://cabaretic.blogspot.com nazza

    A certain amount of it is, I think, purely a matter of luck. Both Barack Obama and Sarah Palin captured the Zeitgeist. They were the perfect person for the times.

    Most female politicians I have encountered at that level are often not the most approachable. They’re competent at policy, but the have little to no charisma. Part of it might be that they’re of the school that feels a need to overcompensate and be like a man to survive in a male-dominated field. And in all fairness, lots of male politicians have zero charisma as well.

    I wonder if a new generation of female politicians can provide a telegenic presence along with a command of their profession. It may be that Democratic female politicos need to adopt a different model or a different kind of woman needs to consider politics than never would have done so before.

  • http://feministing.com/members/kaelin/ Matt

    The more time Hillary Clinton works with other people (Barack Obama and his administration), the less her work is framed around her husband. She will also benefit from working a job where she does not have to campaign — she can focus on the job, accumulating experience, and strengthening practical negotiation skills as Secretary of State rather than expending energy doing something she isn’t really good at: spinning.

    As time wears on, even though people may have certain preconceptions or confusion regarding the merits of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, them serving in their respective roles gives people a better opportunity to judge them by their actions and character. A big reason for women not having their contributions respected is because those contributions lack(ed) visibility. Now the country sees them (well, these two women anyway) in leadership roles, and we have some information to judge them by. In the absence of information, many people do revert to stereotypes, but they tend to be more objective when they know more about the targets — and I think that information puts Hillary Clinton (rode her husband’s coattails a bit to reach the Senate, lost a Presidential race, but nevertheless served office in the Senate for eight years and will most certainly have served well as Secretary of State for 4-8 years) as demonstrably more suited to office than Sarah Palin (rode her charisma to be Governor of Alaska, quit after two-and-a-half years to work as a talking head / political boss for however long she does so) and about anyone else in political circles.

    Charisma can count for something. At times in his campaign, Barack Obama articulated concepts and goals very compellingly (so much that his wrap-ups were jarringly discouraging in contrast), showing leadership on the fly to help compensate for his lack of prior experience. However, in an absence of charisma, experience works, too. By working in two contrasting high-profile positions, Hillary Clinton should have that well-covered, especially if she can continue serving beyond 2012.

    I don’t think Democrats necessarily need a “different kind of woman” in politics. Whether someone is a man or woman, the person is going to be judged according to a combination of charisma and experience. Hillary Clinton can be very electable in 2016 through the sheer power of experience (she’ll only be months younger than Reagan, but it’s not like it stopped the Republicans from nominating McCain in 2008) — it’s not like she was that far off in 2008. If Democrats want to have a woman who can win with charisma, I don’t think that necessarily requires a particular brand of charisma — it merely comes down to whether a particular person’s background, their policy, and their framing of their campaign resonate with the population. I think there may be multiple ways women can accomplish this feat, as not all women are the same, and they’ll need different framings for their respective histories for those backgrounds to “make sense” to a voter.