During the presidential campaign two years ago, when certain more exercised opponents of Barack Obama went out of their way to use his middle name—Hussein—even other Republicans chastised them for Islamic fearmongering. After talk- radio host Bill Cunningham repeatedly mentioned Obama’s middle name at an event for John McCain, McCain himself called it “totally inappropriate.” When the Tennessee Republican Party issued a press release that expressed concern “about the future of the nation of Israel if Sen. Barack Hussein Obama is elected president of the United States,” Republican National Committee chairman Mike Duncan said the “RNC rejects these kinds of campaign tactics.” And after Florida sheriff Mike Scott used Obama’s middle name when introducing then-vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin at a rally, Palin’s spokeswoman said her campaign does “not condone this inappropriate rhetoric.” But last week, Palin herself dropped the H-bomb—and nobody on the right seemed to mind.
In a discussion with Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren about the media’s treatment of Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell, Palin remarked, “Funny that we are learning more about Christine O’Donnell and her college years, her teenage years, and her financial dealings than anybody even bothered to ask about Barack Hussein Obama as a candidate and now as our president.” Never mind that this argument is coming from someone whose slapdash vetting by the McCain campaign before she was selected to be next in line for the presidency provided all sorts of surprises.
It’s actually an unexpected tactic for Palin, who has an interest in not becoming too fringe-y for the American middle, what with her presidential aspirations becoming ever more apparent. Most of the time, she’s been more than satisfied with referring simply to “President Obama” and avoiding insinuations that he might, in fact, be a Muslim (which almost a quarter of Americans believe anyway).
But Palin’s remark does certainly fit within the shifting bounds of what’s acceptable in political discourse, as arguments against an opponent’s platform have often been replaced with attacks on his Americanness. Or, if you’re running against some standard white guy whose citizenship or religious beliefs are not in question, his masculinity.
Take New York Republican gubernatorial nominee Carl Paladino. In a letter released to the press, he wondered whether his Democratic opponent Andrew Cuomo had “the cojones” to debate him, which was followed by the injunction to Cuomo to “be a man.” Florida Republican congressional candidate Allen West, responding to his Democratic opponent Ron Klein’s contention that some of his more violent language was “offensive,” said, “That’s how men talk,” and told Klein to “man up.” But this kind of rhetoric isn’t coming just from angry-man protest candidates. O’Donnell commented on a complaint filed with the FEC by the Delaware Republican Party thusly: “You know, these are the kind of cheap, underhanded, unmanly tactics that we’ve come to expect from Obama’s favorite Republican, Mike Castle. You know, I released a statement today, saying Mike, this is not a bake-off, get your man-pants on.” And Palin has been an integral player in the trend: In August, she observed that female Arizona governor Jan Brewer “has the cojones that our president does not have to look out for all Americans, not just Arizonans, but all Americans.”
Such insults illustrate the extreme nature of this campaign season, in which politicians are heeding voters’ calls for a “revolt” to “take back government.” Not the kind of task you entrust to a bunch of pansies, the Republican Party insists. And thus has this November become a referendum on, among other things, what the American voter thinks of women with testicles.