The 'cat fight' as dumb politics



As soon as Sarah Palin surfaced as our new national novelty, a hue and cry was heard in certain liberal quarters: "Where's Hillary?" Or, as a poster on the Daily Kos website preferred to put it, "Where the hell is Hillary????"

The implication, of course, was that Hillary Clinton needed to stride to the forefront, rip the feminist banner from Palin's clutches, and expose her as a fraud who has no business trolling for votes among the Hillaryites. And by climbing into the arena, Hillary presumably would be doing Barack Obama a big favor, since it didn't yet appear that Obama had a clue about how to high-stick a hockey mom.

So went the frequent liberal argument, anyway, as days passed without even a public word from the woman whose entire agenda, everything she'd long worked for, now seemed seriously imperiled. But Hillary has wisely held back. As her former spokesman, Howard Wolfson, points out, "Every day we are focused on Palin is a day we are not amplifying the Obama campaign's message that Senator McCain simply represents four more years of President Bush."

The Clintons may be exasperating figures to roughly half the Democratic electorate, but they do know a few things about politics and how to play the game. The McCain people have made a politically smart move by picking Palin - her lack of preparedness is another matter entirely - because they have created buzz for the Republican ticket, allowing the GOP to focus on personality and thus distract voters from the Republican policy record of the past eight years. If Hillary was to take on Palin directly, in a battle for the sisterhood, she would be fighting dumb, on the new Republican turf - personality versus personality - while failing to focus voters on the Republican policy record of the past eight years.

And consider this: If Hillary went mano a mano with Palin, how long would it take for this kind of imagery - courtesy of James Bond cinema - to be the talk of the nation?

Wolfson, wise to the imperatives of popular culture, and the allure of so-called "cat fights," put it this way: "For whatever reasons, editors and news executives are convinced that two women fighting sells magazines and attracts eyeballs. You can imagine the thinking. If Angelina Jolie vs Jennifer Aniston, and Britney Spears vs Christina Aguilera sell copies, what could be better than Hillary Clinton vs Sarak Palin...(That) might drive ratings and sell magazines, but it wouldn't be good for the Democratic party or the cause of women's rights."

Hillary probably got it right yesterday; while stumping for Obama in Florida, she parried audience questions about Palin by saying, "I don't think that's what this election is about. Anybody who believes that the Republicans, whoever they are, can fix the mess they created probably believes that the iceberg could have saved the Titanic." She stuck to policy, contending that an Obama regime, as opposed to a McCain regime, would give women a better shot at pay equity and progressive health care.

Framing the '08 election as a contest of competing party visions is not very scintillating, but it's arguably her most substantive strategy. And besides, she's not the nominee. Ultimately the Obama campaign will have to make its own case, and argue persuasively (if possible) that Palin's "maverick" packaging is manifestly fraudulent - starting with the well-documented fact that, contrary to false claims in the new McCain campaign TV ad and the lie that Palin uttered yet again this morning in Ohio, she was never a crusader against the Bridge to Nowhere (as The Wall Street Journal details today); and that she has never been a crusader against federal pork-barrel earmarks (on the contrary, her latest gubernatorial requests total $750 million, reportedly the highest per-capita requests of any state).

But if a pivotal number of swing voters are ultimately mesmerized by the idea of a pit bull with lipstick, as opposed to the less buzzworthy details of factual reality...suffice it to say that there's nothing Hillary Clinton could ever do about that.