How To Run Against A Woman

by | September 1, 2008

John McCain's selection of Sarah Palin as his v.p. has raised questions about how the Obama campaign should--and should not--attack the first female candidate on a GOP ticket. Specifically, the prospect of a Biden-Palin debate has Democrats worrying that the gaffe-prone Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee will appear patronizing in his attacks on the former mayor of Wasilla, Alaska. On that note, it's worth re-examining Michelle Cottle's excellent article from last May, "The XX Factor: How To Run Against A Woman." 

For as long as there have been women candidates, there have been rules about how to run against them--what to say, what to avoid saying, which stereotypes to use to undermine their credibility. The strategies themselves are banal: Don't be a bully. Do raise doubts about a lady's leadership ability. Don't come across as patronizing. Do paint her as soft on issues like crime or national security. To be sure, such stereotyping requires an increasingly light touch. (It was just 23 years ago that the host of "Meet the Press" had the cojones to ask Geraldine Ferraro--a former New York prosecutor, mind you--"Are you strong enough to push the button?") But even the stalest cliches (tough men are leaders; tough women are bitches) and prejudices (pretty women aren't smart) can still resonate on a gut level. Kenneth Baer, a former campaign adviser to Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, recalls how the Democrat's blonde beauty was an implicit negative in her 2002 race. Meanwhile, in his 2002 gubernatorial bid against Maryland Lieutenant Governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Republican Bob Ehrlich once serenaded a crowd with the pop hit "Livin' La Vida Loca"; when he got to the line, "She'll make you take your clothes off and go dancing in the rain," he paused dramatically to ask: "We're not talking about Townsend, are we?" (Stay classy, Bob.) Even against an opponent as famously tough as Hillary Clinton, certain rules still apply. In his 2000 Senate run against the former first lady, Republican Rick Lazio invaded her personal space during a televised debate, brandishing a pledge to renounce soft money. Viewers found the gesture menacing, and--wham!--just like that, Lazio proved himself a bully.

Read the whole thing here.

--Eric Zimmermann

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//blog/the-plank/how-run-against-woman