Monday, November 23, 2009

Parallel Lives

The recent release of Sarah Palin's memoir, "Going Rogue: An American Life," has made me ponder the course of her political career and that of the other woman who was a running mate on a major party ticket a quarter of a century ago, Geraldine Ferraro.

Certain similarities jump out at me, starting with their ages. Both were in their 40s when chosen to be running mates. Ferraro was 48, which was within the range of most previous Democratic running mates. Palin, on the other hand, was 44, the youngest Republican running mate in 20 years (considerably younger than Dick Cheney or Jack Kemp had been).

Initial surveys indicated that both were popular choices, although they ran into trouble once their conventions were over and the campaigns began in earnest. Palin's problems in the 2008 campaign have been well documented, but, in case you need a reminder (or you are too young to remember the 1984 campaign), not only was Ferraro criticized for a style that was regarded by some as reckless and defiant, but she had problems with her family as well. Less than a month after being nominated, Ferraro had to face relentless questioning about her and her husband's finances.

That was a distraction, but Ferraro wasn't helped by her shoot–from–the–hip style. After telling reporters that she would release her tax returns but her husband would release only a tax statement (his explanation to her, she said, was "Gerry, I'm not going to tell you how to run the country, you're not going to tell me how to run my business"), she made a remark that dogged her: "You people married to Italian men, you know what it's like." Republicans sensed a gender–neutral opportunity to attack and they didn't let it go to waste.

Both Palin and Ferraro had somewhat limited political careers prior to being nominated, and their lack of experience frequently was compared (unfavorably) to the abundance of experience possessed by their opponents. After Ferraro's debate with George H.W. Bush and Palin's debate with Joe Biden, both were said to have performed better than expected, but they were hammered, nevertheless, by the opposition for their "extremist" political views, and both lost the general elections by wide margins — even though it could be rightly said that the opposition's presidential nominees were more popular personally than their policies.

Ferraro and Palin were chosen in large part to appeal to female voters. It was a roll of the dice that didn't pay off. They may well have attracted some female voters, but exit polls indicated that neither succeeded in winning the women's vote. After the 1984 election was over, most political observers agreed that no potential Democratic ticket could have defeated Ronald Reagan, and, following last year's economic meltdown, the same probably could be said of any potential Republican ticket in 2008. Blaming the female running mates strikes me as convenient but ultimately indefensible.

Like Palin, the year after the campaign, Ferraro published her memoir, "Ferraro: My Story," which was a bestseller. There was talk about her political future, and she was labeled a "rising star" in party politics, but, beyond founding a political action committee that had as its mission the goal of electing 10 women in the 1986 Congressional elections and two unsuccessful bids for the Senate in the 1990s, Ferraro's political career was over.

There is talk today about Palin's political future as well. What that future holds has been debated since Palin's resignation as governor of Alaska a few months ago, but she still clearly appeals to some Republican voters.

I hear some of today's Democrats fretting about Palin. What will become of the nation, they ask, if Sarah Palin is nominated for president in 2012 — and, God forbid, actually wins? I've heard some cite, as an ominous sign, reports from the Des Moines Register that suggest that more than two–thirds of Iowa Republicans have a favorable opinion of Palin.

"That's close to the 70 percent who hold favorable views of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won the 2008 caucuses," writes the Register's Thomas Beaumont, "and it's higher than the 66 percent who view former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich favorably. Palin's number is also higher than that of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, runnerup in the 2008 caucuses, who is viewed favorably by 58 percent of the state's Republicans."

I would give a lot more credibility to those numbers if this were November 2011 and the Iowa caucuses were a few weeks away. But even that couldn't be viewed as conclusive. In mid–November of 2007, polls indicated that Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney would win the Iowa caucuses.

I may be wrong, but my inclination since July has been that, unless she runs for and wins a seat in the Senate or the House next year, Palin ultimately will not pose nearly as much of a threat as many Democrats fear. She will have no recent achievements to bolster a political record that was — to put it charitably — quite thin in 2008, but it was acceptable for a vice presidential nominee. It will be far less plausible for a potential president.

Beaumont quotes a former director of the state's Republican Party, who claims Palin is misunderstood and has been victimized by mistakes that were not hers. Therefore, this isn't about achievements. "She's getting the chance to set the record straight."

Fine. I'm all in favor of personal redemption. But my belief has been that resigning her post will work against her when many Republicans ask themselves the tough questions that caucus participants must ask about every candidate. Typically, if you don't have recent achievements, you'd better have a record of achievements. Palin doesn't have the latter and she quit the former. That's not exactly a bumper sticker slogan.

Even today, more than two years before the next Iowa caucuses, there are signs that decision will hurt a potential Palin candidacy. A GOP activist told the Register that Palin "needs a policy platform, with a conservative organization or media outlet, to boost her credibility."

And, even though she enjoys high favorable ratings from Iowa Republicans, Beaumont reports, "24 percent of Iowa Republicans view Palin unfavorably, compared with 12 percent for Huckabee." Party activists told Beaumont they believe the decision to resign has a lot to do with that.

Democrats who are worried about 2012 are getting ahead of themselves. They need to be promoting the idea of getting all their senators and representatives on the same page.

History says the party in power will lose ground in the midterm elections. Lately, public opinion surveys are saying the same thing.

Without the bullet–proof majorities in Congress, how much of his agenda can Barack Obama expect to push through in the last two years of his term? How will his record of achievements look then? I suppose that depends on exactly how much ground is lost in 2010.

See, that achievements thing works both ways.

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