Jennifer Senior and Dahlia Lithwick on Palin’s ‘SNL’ Appearance and McCain’s Problems With Women

Reverend Wright
Reverend Wright Photo: Courtesy of NBC

Every day (or close to it) until November 4, a series of writers and thinkers will discuss the election over instant messenger for nymag.com. Today, New York's Jennifer Senior and Slate's Dahlia Lithwick discuss Sarah Palin's Saturday Night Live appearance, how McCain and his campaign relate to women, and the trap of becoming a "mean girl."

J.S.: Say, Dahlia, did you catch Sarah Palin on SNL this weekend? I'll confess I had to YouTube it, because I fall asleep most nights before 11:30 ...

D.L.: I watched the first skit live and collapsed after the painfully bad skit that happened directly after — the one at a restaurant that involved a lot of hollering? Me to husband: "Did Sarah Palin write this skit?"

J.S.: If only she could write a bad SNL skit. I dream of a Sarah Palin that can write a bad SNL skit.

D.L.: Let's start with the slightly less horrifying first skit. The punch line of which appeared to be: "Heh heh, I don't hold press conferences." Er, am I wrong that it is not really the best idea for Palin to point that out explicitly, much less to riff on it?

J.S.: No, you're not wrong. I thought she was surprisingly passive in her role there. People praised her for being a good sport, but I thought it was more than that — I thought she sorta rolled over. Which, given my own ideological leanings, is fine by me. But I wonder what made her say yes to that ... the same instinct that makes progressives go on O'Reilly's show, maybe?

D.L.: I think she wanted to show she was a good sport. That she did. But then in the spirit of being a good sport she let Tina Fey annihilate her; Alec Baldwin insult and ogle her; and then basically announced that she is too scared to do a straight press conference before the election but will do a comedy show. I don't see how that nets out to her benefit, at all. But then I am baffled by her entire campaign. Last Friday a woman asked me after a conference if I think a Palin loss would be bad for future women candidates. All I could say was "who could possibly argue that Palin says ANYTHING about women candidates." She is an object lesson in unprepared candidates. That's all.

J.S.: I actually think a Palin loss would be good for women candidates; it will show that simply being a woman isn't enough to get you elected.

And on that note, I was trying to decide the other day what it was about Palin that infuriated me so much — why, for instance, I find her lack of curiosity and verbal clumsiness so much more infuriating than George W. Bush's. I think it's because she's the kind of woman who makes men say, "That gal's such a pistol!" (Yeah yeah, I know, and Sarah Palin can tell you which kind.) That kind of thinking pains me more than I can possibly say.

D.L.: I have been thinking a lot about Palin Derangement Syndrome myself. My own hypothesis is that any woman who has struggled to balance a family, a home, and a stressful career owes it to other women to admit it's hard. When Palin brags about firing the cook or not needing babysitting, or reading all newspapers, it's infuriating. It suggests the rest of us, who are constantly in a state of near-madness, are somehow weak.

It occurred to me after the SNL sketches that Palin and Harriet Miers both suffered from the same flaw: They couldn't magically prepare themselves in a few short weeks for one of the hardest jobs in the world. In both cases, their sponsors insisted they were "teachable." But who the heck is "teachable" under this set of facts? A little Pygmalion, anyone?

Picking unqualified women in the hopes they can be transformed (by men) into something flawless in a matter of days is irrational AND sexist. Then the woman is blamed.

J.S.: I'm not sure that this is a Pygmalion fantasy. Palin reminds me as much of Dan Quayle as of Harriet Miers (though I appreciate the parallel). I think this is pure political thinking, a hasty move designed to attract female voters (like Quayle). Choosing Palin, in other words, wasn't about underestimating her, it was about underestimating female voters, just as choosing Quayle was about underestimating female voters — "Sure, I'll vote for Quayle! He's cuuuuuuute!" And: "That Sarah! She's just like me!"

D.L.: But the idea that women would just vote for a woman doesn't explain the selection of a wildly unqualified woman. I fear that is where 'enry 'iggins comes in. You have a raft of qualified GOP women but you pick the blank slate? Why? I fear it's because they thought they could smarten her up right quick, and that makes my blood boil.

J.S.: Yeah, but I could see how they thought she was smart ENOUGH — the same way they thought that George W. was smart enough. I'm curious which GOP woman you think would have been a better selection ...

D.L.: I guess I'd offer up the standard troika of Olympia Snowe, Kay Bailey Hutchinson, and/or Condoleezza Rice. I get where they would have done nothing to reel in the base, but seems to me that the Palin choice aggressively antagonized independents and won a base that would have pulled the lever for McCain at the end of the day anyhow …

J.S.: Kay Bailey has the years under her belt, but is she any … er, brighter than Palin? I wouldn't say so. Condi's not interested, or so they say. And I like Olympia, but … well, I've never quite understood why a pro-life candidate can't choose a pro-choice veep, but apparently, he cannot. So that disqualifies her.

D.L.: In fairness, I am guessing that the men McCain would have liked to tap for veep were also ruled out because of their views on abortion. Which continues to astound me, because what percentage of Americans oppose abortion in cases of rape and incest à la Palin? Maybe 9 percent?

J.S.: You're right, a crazy-small number, though I think the nation is evenly divided between pro-choice and pro-life right now, a fact that never ceases to amaze me.

D.L.: Okay, so I'm wrong. I guess approximately 20 percent of Americans would oppose abortion under ANY circumstances. That is a lot. But I wonder if it means 80 percent of Americans would find the "air quotes" around the words "health of the mother" kind of horrifying in last week's debate???

J.S.: Yes, I think they would ... and by the way, that's exactly the way to alienate women, is it not? Which might explain why the ladies, according to the CNN opinometer (I want one of those things for my house) kept giving such high marks to Obama.

D.L.: One more question about Palin for you: Is she to be blamed for the tone of her rallies? For the (few) instances of violence and the death talk? Is she inciting this or just smoking out a sentiment that is already there?

J.S.: I blame her. The fact is, the McCain campaign was supposed to be making an effort to woo centrists and Reagan Democrats and WOMEN — former Hillary supporters. (Though I suppose Hillary herself was saying things like "hardworking white people" by the end of her campaign. Ack. Is it possible some of these people were Hillary supporters...?)

Anyway, it wouldn't take much to change your message and attract those people. You talk about work-life balance and health care and your kids' education ... you don't talk about palling around with terrorists — which, let's face it, is racially shaded.

D.L.: I think Palin went out of her way to trash-talk and polarize and I worry that this is a "mean girl" mode that is scarily comfortable to some women. Look at Ann Coulter. Look at Minnesota Representative Michelle Bachmann, who has been unhinged of late. Why is it so easy for women to fall into the trap of thinking they can get away with talking smack because they have toned thighs and outstanding long-wearing mascara?

J.S.: During the 1994 Gingrich revolution, there were a whole bunch of female aides on Capitol Hill who were just in that mode — they thought the Republican party was a style, a fashion choice, complete with leopard-print leggings (whaaaaaaa?) and red shiny pocketbooks. I'm hoping that Palin is the last gasp of this trend.

Earlier: Craig Unger and Jennifer Senior on the Debate, and How Little We Really Know About Barack Obama

For a complete and regularly updated guide to presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain — from First Love to Most Embarrassing Gaffe — read the 2008 Electopedia.