Country First

After watching the ongoing financial collapse, it is clear that the stakes in this presidential race have suddenly been double-downed. The failure of stewardship by the Republicans continues to be unprecedented, from Iraq to our environment to the evisceration of regulatory agencies that provide oversight for so many institutions to include Wall Street. The attendant blowback will be felt for years, if not decades.

And yet McCain and Obama continue to poll statistically even.

In Time magazine of last week there's a photograph of a large group of women waiting behind a rope line for the arrival of Sarah Palin. One woman is holding a "Country First" sign. Others are wearing red T-shirts saying "McCain-Palin." The look on their faces, to a person, is one of enthusiasm and hope. They are captivated. The caption reads, "Palin Power. More than 1,000 women turned up in Lebanon, Ohio, to see the Veep nominee — and her running partner."

Time quotes Suzanne Cook of Coatesville, Pa., who drove almost an hour to get a glimpse of Palin, explaining that it's the fact that "she's a woman."

The cover of Newsweek magazine, writ large in red lipstick, said, "What Women Want." Followed by, "The puzzling politics of gender."

Is it truly possible that this election will turn, in great part, on gender? And was the disappointment (and anger) felt by women when Hillary was not nominated by the Dems nor selected as Obama's running mate merely a precursor of emotions that the Republicans are now mining?

When Palin was selected, according to a Washington/ABC poll, there was a remarkable 20 point swing among white women toward McCain, pushing him slightly out front in some head to head surveys. It has been called the Palin Effect, and that reaction to her candidacy is still being discussed, though a recent New York Times/CBS News poll indicates that among women, Obama leads McCain, and among white women the candidates are now all but even.

Time quotes Charlotte Schworer, a retired third-grade teacher from Kentucky, who voted twice for Bill Clinton and traveled to Lebanon, describing her reaction to Palin's convention acceptance speech: "I sat there, tears rolling down my face, watching my TV. I felt energized for the first time."

Which begs the question: energized about what? When women stand for hours, waiting for Palin, what do they see and hear? Do they view her candidacy solely through a gender prism? Is their response to Palin deeply visceral, reflecting a long history of battling for equal opportunity and equal pay?

Perhaps the response to Palin, like that of Obama, all but constitutes a national Rorschach regarding our attitudes toward women. Clearly, as a nation, we are still conflicted about women's role in our society. Immediately after McCain announced his choice, pundits' commentary was peppered with reactions to her dress, glasses and highlights in her hair. There was concern that with five children and a husband she would be hard pressed, as vice president, to do it all. Examination of her qualifications became entangled with charges of sexism, misogyny and the ever-present double standard.

So, how can we understand this embracing of Palin by women? It can't be based on her record as mayor of Wasilla or governor of Alaska ... can it? Or her far right views on a woman's right to choose and her belief in abstinence education ... can it? It can't be the appeal of the Republican platform ... can it?

Will the Repubs once again persuade a demographic to vote against their own self-interest while resurrecting the culture wars and identity politics? They've done it before.

After watching Palin interviewed by Charlie Gibson, of ABC, one overriding thought came to mind which had nothing to do with gender or glass ceilings or backstory: When John McCain picked Palin, he did not put "Country First," or women first — he put his election first. She is simply too green. Gibson asked her about the Bush Doctrine and she was a deer in the headlights.

Now some might ask, in fairness, does anyone know what the Bush Doctrine is? But this is not a discussion about "anyone." It's a discussion about the depth and breadth of Sarah Palin, who might be president. Palin has never traveled on a national or international stage. She didn't have a passport until 2007. Her focus has been the sparsely populated state of Alaska.

It was a cynical pick by McCain of the first order, strategic and calculated, a choice wherein Republicans are willing to use Palin's gender and backstory in the hopes of moving women (be they Hillary supporters or Independents) into the Republican camp. The Repubs' defensive cries of sexism when Palin's record is scrutinized is manufactured and fraudulent. In truth, her selection is a disservice to her and to women. McCain could have chosen one of a number of highly qualified Republican women as his a running mate: veteran senators such as Elizabeth Dole, Kay Bailey Hutchinson, Susan Collins or Olympia Snowe. He didn't.

As well, McCain's pick all but ignores the reality that he is 72 and his V.P. may well have to step into the Oval Office and all of its daunting responsibilities.

This election is a defining moment in America. A moment which transcends. The stakes are high. We are at a crossroads. Will women truly conclude they want four more years?

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