Alex Massie

How to counter the Palin Effect?

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Democrats have abandoned the idea of avoiding Sarah Palin to concentrate on John McCain. Oh dear. Let's see what Joe Biden has been up to:

Exhibit A: In Wisconsin, Biden is asked if Sarah Palin represents a step forward for women. His response: "well look, I think the issue is what does Sarah Palin think? What does she believe? I assume she thinks and agrees with the same policies that George Bush and John McCain think," Biden added. "And that's obviously a backward step for women."

Exhibit B: Biden, again, "I hear all this talk about how the Republicans are going to work in dealing with parents who have both the joy, because there's joy to it as well, the joy and the difficulty of raising a child who has a developmental disability, who were born with a birth defect. Well guess what folks? If you care about it, why don't you support stem cell research?"

Now, Democrats will doubtless say that Biden is arguing about policy in each case (abortion and stem cells) and clearly there's something to that. But I'm far from convinced that's how voters will interpret his remarks. The average voter sees a woman on the ticket and thinks of course that's a step forward, not backward for women. The people who see Palin and think "anti-woman abortion restrictionist" are already firmly inside the Democratic camp. There's no need to go after them. More important by far, are the women who may have mixed feelings about this sort of attack. They may not agree with Palin on policy, but they have, I suspect, a certain sympathy for her and are put off by the tone - and the ontent - of some of the attacks she has been subjected to.

She may not always be their idea of a feminine standard-bearer, but they can't help feeling, at least in part, that some of the attacks on Palin are, in some sense, attacks on women more generally. Clearly this is supposition on my part, but I rather think women would more readily assent to the criticism Biden makes here were it offered by a Hillary Clinton or a Nancy Pelosi.

Exhibit B is much worse however. Again, you may think it a policy matter but voters, I suspect, are more likely to see this as Biden calling Palin a hypocrite and, consequently, trying to make political hay out of her Downs Syndrome infant. But, Democrats may squeal, she's making capital out of it? Well, yes, in one sense she is. but its her baby. She's allowed to. You may not like that, but the rules are different for her than they are for you. Man up to that. At best, Biden here comes across as clumsy, at worst as a hectoring bully. But what about the policy? Well, yes, polls suggest more people take the Democratic view of stem cell research than agree with George W Bush. But that's not the issue here. Here the issue is the perception, and the perception works entirely against Biden and the Democrats.

The same may be said of this "lipstick on a pig" stramash. I don't for a moment think that's what Obama really meant. (Though it was an obvious and surely easily-avoided blunder.) And, as Dave Weigel points out, everyone likes to use this phrase. Worse, I'd have thought is Obama's demeanour: tired, puzzled, hesitant, frustrated in a bad "why do I have to be talking about this" kind of way and, then, at the end, the Gore-esque sigh: "These people..."

This is an election between Obama and McCain. Palin should not be the issue. If she is then I guess it's now obvious that the Democrats haven't yet found a coherent, plausible wa of attacking her that doesn't also insult large swathes of the American population. Until they manage that they'd be better off training their fire on McCain.

It must be frustrating for Obama to be facing all this. Much of it is indeed witless and tendentious. But as a Democratic pal said to me today, "Republicans play for keeps, we don't". Obama, to his credit, took that attitude during the primaries; he could do with showing glimpses of it again now. If pressed I think I still think him favourite to win, but he's had a terrible ten days and he needs to get back on track. And, like, fast.

PS: McCain-Palin are advertising on day-time TV. Smart move! Audience of pensioners and mothers. (And, er, layabout students...)

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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