July 12, 2012
Ann Romney is on the record: She would like to see a woman as her husband's running mate. And so would any number of Republicans who are concerned about their party's standing with female voters. But for all the excitement that the topic stirs up, don't hold your breath: It's unlikely a woman will share the spotlight at the top of the GOP ticket.
It's not for lack of qualified candidates — former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina and Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman are often mentioned — but because of the tortured legacy of one former nominee: the inimitable, unpredictable, irascible and, oh yeah, female former governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin.
This is the quote that turns up most often in response to the female veep question, from a source typically identified as an "unnamed informal Romney advisor": "Unfortunately, Palin poisoned the well on that."
Palin has had more staying power than initially anticipated, but is she really potent enough to poison an entire well? Are we still operating under the bizarre — and blatantly sexist — assumption that American women are such a monolithic entity that Palin, whose fame is largely the result of her celebrated incompetence, is interchangeable with, say, Whitman, who's one of the most powerful executives in the world? Is the Republican Party turning into an angry bachelor who chooses the wrong girl, gets burned and, rather than trying to love again, just writes off the whole gender?
Not that there's anything exactly new about Republicans thinking all girls are the same. After all, Palin made it to the national stage in the first place because someone made the gross miscalculation that, as a woman, she was somehow interchangeable with Hillary Rodham Clinton and would inherit (or co-opt) Clinton's voters after the 2008 primaries.
Despite John McCain's continuing insistence that he picked Palin because she was truly qualified, it's hard not to suspect the campaign was more interested in finding someone who would have the fewest ideas, wield the least influence, steal the least thunder.
As we know, Republicans turned out to be spectacularly wrong on nearly every front. They not only lost an election, the party conveyed the idea that any GOP woman who deserved to be a heartbeat away from the presidency would get there not on substance but on a particular kind of easily recognizable and (to some) highly palatable style, one characterized by a generic suburban glamour and a bullying affect often passed off as spirited or gutsy. Think helmet-like hairdos; think Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer with her finger in President Obama's face. It paved the way for Michele Bachmann and made the road too rocky, finally, for a veteran such as Olympia Snowe. The GOP made a mockery of its female leaders while pretending to elevate them.
It's interesting to note that, amid the relative dullness of the post-primary 2012 campaign, there's been an uptick in chatter about Hillary Clinton vying for the presidency in 2016. Despite her insistence that the end of her tenure as secretary of State will be the end of her political career, despite her not always polished appearance and the curiously tenacious memory of her 2008 campaign missteps and stinging defeat, Clinton has never been more popular. A recent poll put her favorability rating at 65%.
Of course, at this point Clinton has the benefit of solid, unassailable qualifications. But she also has the benefit of belonging to a party that hasn't made women into pawns.
For all of Palin's antics, she ought to be a blip on the GOP's screen, a passing amusement. She tweets for the party's reliably rootin' tootin' margins, but she isn't enacting legislation or setting policy. It's not even clear she's been instrumental in getting anyone elected. But if the GOP dismisses its top female vice presidential candidates because of the specter of 2008, it will have turned Palin from a sideshow into a serious liability.
The term "gender gap" may sound like a cliche, but it's also real. If Romney knows what's good for his party, he'll start dipping a little deeper into the well. Maybe the last thing he wants in 2012 is a female running mate, but down the line, the GOP will need all the girl power it can get.
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