Published September 12, 2008
This election isn’t about Sarah Palin. It isn’t about John McCain, or Barack Obama, or Joe Biden.
It’s about you. They all are. The candidates who forget that, or get sidetracked from focusing on that, generally lose.
There has been a lot of talk in the press over which of the candidates is more like the proverbial “average American.” Is it “lunchbucket Joe,” who has been eating in the Senate dining room for 36 years, or the soldier John McCain, who grew up the son of an admiral? Is it Barack Obama, who keeps getting described as a Harvard graduate (so was George W. Bush, by the way), even though the white grandmother who raised him sounds more like Bill than Hillary Clinton’s. Or is it Sarah Palin, the new winner in the contest of being just like us, even if half the women I know would kill for a husband who does as much around the house as Todd, not to mention the fact that she’s a governor—and all but 49 other people in the country aren’t.
Most people who run for president are not just like us. If they were, they’d be working at some boring and underpaying job, not running for president. They’d be trying to convince the phone company to fix their service, standing in line at the grocery store waiting for the supposed extra checker who is never there, swearing at the gas pump, instead of having their calls “placed,” their food prepared, and their persons escorted everywhere they have to be.
The question is not which candidate is most like us, but, to paraphrase a line that became trite only because it was so right, which one “feels our pain.”
It is not about their lives, ultimately, but about ours.
Ronald Reagan won not by framing the question around who was smarter or better qualified to be president, but whether “you” were better off than you were four years ago. You. Not him. He was fine.
Back in 1992, a few days before the California primary, I was sitting next to Bill Clinton at a private birthday party. He was running third in the public polls at the time, behind both George Bush and Ross Perot. Even though he had the nomination clinched, there was talk that he could be embarrassed in the coming primary by Jerry Brown. He had plenty to complain about and, since we’re old friends, he gave me a fair sample.
Finally, with a few glasses of wine in me, and the frustration of a mother of a then-young child (oh, how fast they grow) with whom I’d fled in fear to a friend’s house in the hills (with a trunkful of diapers) only a month before when my city went up in smoke, I turned to the future president. Enough about you, I said. This isn’t about you. It’s about me, and tens of millions of other people like me, who are nervous and scared and insecure, worried about their future and their children’s, worried about sick parents and relatives who may get laid off any day and all the other stuff of life that doesn’t penetrate the cocoon of successful politicians.
Just do this, I said. Tell me three ways my life will be better if you’re elected president. Tell me three ways my brother’s life will be better, three ways my sister’s life will be better, three worries that you’re going to take off my mother’s plate. Not twenty. Not a hundred. Not a book’s worth. Just three.
He took out a piece of paper. He called over George Stephanopoulos. Three things, he said to himself. He made a note. He started making the list. He was, and is, the smartest politician I have ever met. He always listened. When you were right— whoever you were, ambassador or Dunkin’ Donuts clerk—he got it.
My Democratic friends are obsessed with Sarah Palin. Much of their obsession is turning her into a larger-than-life figure, an icon for regular women, a person above politics. I was at a panel this week with two distinguished, smart, celebrated members of the liberal media elite, as they are so fondly called, and one of them called her “Governor Gidget” and the other the “Caribou Barbie.” I wanted to scream. I came close. They were offended when I called them on it, suggested that they were helping her and not hurting her, looking sexist and not smart. You should hear the names we call the men, one said to me. I don’t care. Men have not spent the last two hundred years feeling, and being treated, like second-class citizens. Men do not generally identify with other men when they are belittled. Women do.
Democrats will not win this election by calling Sarah Palin names. Leave her alone. Remember James Carville’s famous words. He didn’t say, “It’s Clinton, stupid.” He didn’t say it’s “youth” or “looks” or “moderation” or “Arkansas” or whatever. It was the economy. And health care. And bailouts for billionaires. And putting government on your side in the fight for safe planes and safe food and clean air and water.
This election is a long way from being decided. But if it turns on lipstick, or lipstick jokes, the Democrats will lose.
Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first female president of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.
Estrich's books include the just published "Soulless," "The Case for Hillary Clinton," "How to Get Into Law School," "Sex & Power," "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System" and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women."
She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the "Blue Streak" column for FOXNews.com.