Sarah Palin has been grabbing headlines and endless amounts of analysis lately with her invocation of “mama grizzlies” to characterize female Republican candidates this cycle—women forced by some ill-defined threat (but with insinuations in the direction of the President) to rear up and protect their cubs with violence. But images of motherhood aren’t the only ones defining Republican women this year. If anything, the struggles of the party to find its new path are better illustrated in images of daughterhood. The daughters of the 2008 presidential and vice presidential candidates have shown themselves adept at capturing the public imagination. But while Bristol Palin and Meghan McCain have this much in common, they differ in dramatic ways, ways that are easy to map onto the different factions struggling for control of the party.
Meghan McCain presents herself as a new kind of Republican, but in reality, she’s much more representative of the old guard—a Republican party that cast itself mainly in protectionist terms, catering to corporations and the rich but indifferent to many social issues. Up through the 70s—and in some places much longer—there was plenty of room for socially liberal Republicans in the party. In that tradition, McCain has published a new book called “Dirty Sexy Politics”, where she spells out how she supports gay marriage, amongst other things. McCain has publicly stated that she opposes abortion rights, but in the past her father suggested that if she got pregnant as a teenager, abortion would be on the table as an option. This tailors neatly with old-fashioned class-based conservatism, one that would have abortion be illegal to keep it out of the hands of the hoi polloi, but quietly available to the privileged.
Just as her mother was able to join John McCain’s ticket as his second and eclipse his fame anyway, Bristol Palin has mostly overshadowed Meghan McCain in terms of media coverage. Palin is making a neat little living representing the hopes and the ugly realities of social conservatism—she gave birth at a young age because of a life shadowed by anti-choice ideology, but sadly for her followers, she was not able to produce what they would consider a fairy tale shotgun wedding to make the fantasy complete. Palin isn’t an angry person, but otherwise she stands in as a symbol for Tea Party politics—her image as a right wing hero owes little to any politically coherent things she’s said and everything to her reproductive life and the whiff of Alaska redneck that clings to her. Palin could also represent the way the Republican party is in thrall to the religious right. After all, the public seems to believe that she doesn’t even have a choice to make up her own mind about her beliefs, and that her public statements are tightly controlled by her Christian right mother.
These two women are only six years apart in age, but of the two, Meghan McCain comes across as the grown-up, even though Palin is the one who is a mother. Before she got heavily involved in politics, McCain had jobs in the music industry, and she conducts herself with confidence while in the spotlight. Palin, on the other hand, continues to come across as wet-behind-the-ears, naïve, and still under parental control. McCain pushes back against her father by disagreeing with him calmly on political issues. Palin pushes back against her mother by having an adolescent-style drama with her on-again, off-again boyfriend and the father of her child.
McCain seems more mature, but also more sophisticated. She interacts with the public by writing, she’s interested in portraying herself as someone with good taste, and she’s got a degree from Columbia University. And even though McCain is often teased about having a silly side, she insists that her world is the same world of tasteful urban sophistication that her liberal critics spring from. Palin dropped out of college, and is currently participating in the show “Dancing With The Stars”, a bit of hokey American kitsch.
In the symbolic contest between these two, Palin is the clear winner. Catering to the tabloid media and becoming a punch line because of an incoherent public persona (the abstinence-only queen who didn’t and probably still doesn’t abstain) may seem more childish than McCain’s methods, but it also means you have more popularity and esteem with the public. McCain is treated like she’s silly and kind of dumb in liberal circles and absolutely loathed by the conservative base, which calls her a RINO (Republican In Name Only). Palin, on the contrary, makes liberals feel like she’s mostly off-limits because of her youth and obvious feelings of being in over her head, but tends to mostly be well-liked by the conservative base.
The difference reflects the sense that the grown-ups have lost control over the Republican party, and a bunch of brats have come in to the house to destroy the place. Tea Partiers have a tendency to get together and make a lot of bold statements about nothing in particular—opposing “socialism” while angrily defending Medicare against imaginary threats, suggesting the President isn’t an American citizen, panicking about threats they don’t dare spell out for fear that they’re politically incorrect. Palin doesn’t have that kind of anger about her, but when she makes her occasional stabs at saying something meaningful in public, you walk away with the same sense that she used up a lot of air in saying nothing of substance at all.
Sometimes I look at Bristol Palin, and my heart goes out to her for feeling like she has to talk at length about stuff she either doesn’t believe or care much about. I wish she’d take a page out of Meghan McCain’s book, and start living her public life more as the adult she is. Right now, she stands in for a new politics that are sweeping the nation, one where identity and image matter so much more than substance that they completely wipe out any relevance that substance may have once had.