Observers of the 2008 presidential race have been told recently by a Republican strategist that this election “is not about issues,” but rather “a composite view of what people take away from these candidates.” To be clear, he meant it’s about people, not policy. Now that the GOP has its version of shiny and new, the party is refreshed and finally ready to fight for the White House. But its vice presidential candidate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, has been strangely and conspicuously absent from the public eye except for a few personal appearances alongside Arizona Sen. John McCain. Sooner or later (preferably sooner), Palin will have to stand up and speak for herself.
Sarah Palin talks a great scripted game, but it’s time for her to present as a capable, three-dimensional woman with a mind of her own.
The rollout of Palin as the first female Republican candidate for VP was enormously successful for the McCain campaign, but it effectively shoved her family into the world spotlight. It is understandable if Palin does not wish to subject her children to further media scrutiny but she is an adult running for vice president. She needs to be seen and heard. If the McCain-Palin campaign wants to emphasize identity, so be it. Right now, Palin appears to be a good public speaker with not much to say.
It is her prerogative to take measured steps back into the spotlight, but the public – especially American Indian voters – have a special interest in Palin’s voice. As governor of Alaska, her record and attitude toward Alaska Native peoples is of great significance. McCain did not purposefully choose Palin for her familiarity of Native issues, but instead for her appeal to the right-wing Republican base. Still, the bar was raised during the primaries for candidates campaigning in Indian country: If there is a record in Indian affairs, talk about it. If not, explain why. There is an opportunity here for Palin, and many hope the campaign will grasp it. If the goal is to persuade swing voters and undecided Clinton supporters, one by one, then exhibiting a working knowledge of Indian affairs and comprehension of tribal sovereignty is a good place to start with Native voters.
The debate over Palin’s record in Alaska regarding subsistence rights will continue with or without her participation. The GOP could at the very least appoint surrogates in the American Indian/Alaska Native community to speak on Palin’s behalf to address rumors and steer debate over her gubernatorial record. If Palin can “hit the ground running” in Indian country, as a supporter noted, her knowledge seems like an obvious positive. A governor is tasked with maintaining balance between many competing interests but when it comes to Native rights, there are no people more ready to fiercely defend subsistence rights than those who depend on them to survive.
We are waiting also for Palin to display the resilience it takes to not only be a working mother, but to be a working mother whose job it is to govern a state. Surely she’s handled tougher tasks than fielding questions from the media. Palin talks a great scripted game, but it’s time for her to present herself as a capable, three-dimensional woman with a mind of her own. That she was chosen for this position stings some voters who feel Hillary Clinton more than earned a spot on the Democratic ticket. A good strategy now is to prove that Palin is just as worthy. It will be a near-impossible task, but an essential one if the GOP wants working women to identify with Palin that way.
It is fascinating to watch reactions to Palin’s vivacious speeches about small-town life and small-town values. Her appearances recall another candidate eight years ago who fancied himself a rancher from a small Texas town who enjoys a good barbecue. The GOP’s strategy of erasing President George W. Bush from the psyche of the American public has worked amazingly well if the popularity of Palin’s projected image is any indication. Here’s to a deeper national consciousness of identity politics-as-strategy.