XX Factor bloggers Ann Hulbert, Rachael Larimore, and Emily Yoffe discuss Sarah Palin.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
Sept. 4 2008 2:36 PM

Parsing Palin

XX Factor bloggers take readers' questions about the Republican vice-presidential nominee and her speech.

"XX Factor" bloggers Ann Hulbert, Rachael Larimore, and Emily Yoffe were online at Washingtonpost.com to chat about Sarah Palin and her speech at the Republican Convention. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.

Navy Yard: Children with Down's syndrome require an awful lot of attention. The role of vice president, it seems to me, would take up an awful lot of Palin's time, and it raises the issue of how much time will she have to dedicate to her newborn child. Did neither she nor McCain consider these issues?

Emily Yoffe: This is such an interesting issue. Do male candidates get asked such questions? On the other hand, I don't think it's off limits, either. I felt John Edwards shouldn't have continued his presidential campaign after Elizabeth had a recurrence of her cancer because of the age of their children (turns out he should have dropped out for other reasons). The thing about running for vice president it that she basically has to say goodbye to her family until early November. Then, win or lose, she's going to have a lot more free time. In fact being vice president might mean more free time than being governor.

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St. Louis: I was torn between McCain and Obama, until McCain chose Sarah Palin to be his VP. I too am pro-life, but I am also pro-parenting as too many "heroic" couples choose to have children that are raised by hired help or the television.

And yes, I know that a woman with five children CAN be the VP, my concern for her family is SHOULD she pursue such a position in light of recent revelations. All things lawful, aren't prudent (that's biblical scripture). Besides, I don't believe that my concern for what's best for her family should outweigh HER concern for her family or MINE.

I love my family and sadly I haven't heard anything from McCain/Palin that would improved the average American's life in the future! There are difficult days ahead and I want McCain/Palin to speak about their plans to improve the national/international issues that affect all American Families not just more hooplah about Gov. Palin's.

I'm already sick of hearing about her family, what about MINE! And please MEDIA, don't take it easy on Palin because she's a hockey mom. As a self-proclaimed pitbull with lipstick, she should know that if you rumble with the Big Dogs you should EXPECT to get bit.

Although I believe ONE day with more national/international experience Mrs. Palin could be prove to be a great political leader, TODAY is not that day. McCain should have chosen the best VP pick with the wellbeing of the American people in mind. Instead he chose a good puppet for his own political gain. I'm sad to say he almost had my vote.

Ann Hulbert: You're not the only one to have balked at what looks like political cynicism in the choice of Palin by McCain, who proclaims he puts the country ahead of political calculation. A recent poll showed more women considering Obama's choice to have been motivated by concern about qualifications than felt that way about the Palin pick. Some prominent Republican commentators expressed dismay, too, at the brazenness of the political ploy. But it certainly seems to have paid off in energizing the Republican base! You make an interesting point about how the focus on Palin's own family has overshadowed much talk of what, exactly, she'd do for other families-or of the differences of life for families like hers in Alaska, and in the rest of the country. But there are still plenty of days left in the campaign.

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Columbia, Md.: Governor Palin's speech last night was first rate. Who wrote it?

Emily Yoffe: My understanding is the main speech writer was Matthew Scully, a former George W. Bush speechwriter—who wrote an interesting piece in the Atlantic last year about the speech writing business.

I agree, it was tremendously well written and superbly delivered. Listening to the other speakers made you realize being able to give a speech well is not a talent everyone possesses.

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Princeton, NJ: On the previous chat, Paul Kane said: "I don't think having a 17-year-old pregnant daughter makes her a hypocrite." It's not having the pregnant daughter that makes her a hypocrite, it's all the pious statements about morality, about waiting until marriage, and about only funding abstinence programs. It's Dan Quayle damming Murphy Brown. It's statements about her daughter's "choice" when she wants to deny others "choice." It's saying you are "pro-life" when study after study shows that making abortions illegal does not reduce the abortion rate, it just kills more woman who have to get back-alley abortions. It's refusing to support measures that do reduce abortions, like condoms, birth control, sex education and Planned Parenthood. That's where the hypocrisy lies.

Emily Yoffe: It was striking that Sarah Palin did not mention abortion in the speech last night—since her pro life credentials are one of her major selling points to McCain and being pro-choice knocked off a bunch of other candidates. Several commentators mentioned that this clearly was a ploy to appeal to Hillary's rural voters and not to the base.

I agree, Princeton, that you have nicely addressed the hypocrisy of her position.

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Question of Gender: Do you suspect Palin was chosen not just because of her gender, but also because of her pro-life stance? Peggy Noonan probably realizes that Kay Bailey Hutchison wasn't chosen for the VP spot because Hutchison is pro-choice. This would also rule out Olympia Snowe, Christine Todd Whitman, and probably Condoleezza Rice.

Ann Hulbert: It certainly seems as though the choice of Palin was motivated as much by a desire to mobilize evangelical Christian voters as to lure undecided women. That's a constituency that had been notably unenthusiastic—downright hostile, in fact—and had made it clear they wanted a signal of McCain's commitment to their family values agenda. It seems to have worked: James Dobson on Focus on the Family promptly reversed his vow never to support McCain.

Rachael Larimore: I agree with Ann. Palin was the rare candidate who can energize the more conservative segment of the base as well as possibly appeal to women who were alienated by Hillary.

I think we're seeing that the latter gamble is not paying off. I feel women on the left might be resentful that Palin hasn't worked as hard as Hillary to get where she is, because she didn't plan for this her whole life. But as we saw in the speech last night, the base is surely energized.

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Malvern, PA: I thought Palin's speech last night was perfection for the people in the room and for some segment of voters.

Given the jolt of energy she seems to have sparked (and the potential flood of money that could follow as a result), do you think the McCain campaign will come to regret taking federal funding?

Rachael Larimore: On a personal level, McCain might regret taking the federal funding, but I don't think there's anything he can say outwardly. He criticized Obama for not taking it, and let's remember that he is the same McCain of McCain-Feingold fame. People would howl if the author of campaign-finance reform opted out of a system he had committed himself to.

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Falls Church, Va: How long before the media covers Gov Palin's environmental views? She approved aerial hunting of wolves and sued to keep polar bears off the endangered species list. I'd like to know what her plans are if she makes it to the White House.

Emily Yoffe: I'm sure we're going to be hearing a lot about this. Already one environmental group has put out a video about the horrors of aerial hunting. The Wall Street Journal today mentions her opposition to putting polar bears on the endangered species list and her reasons—the polar bear population in Alaska is doing well and such a listing has widespread implications for development and drilling.

But I'm sure the Democrats will hit all this hard as well as her doubts about global warming.

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Fairfax County, Virginia: Peggy Noonan used a choice swear to describe McCain's motives for choosing Palin. Krauthammer pointed out that by appointing Palin as VP the GOP admits to having lied to us all for the last six years—the threat of terrorism and the command of two foreign wars aren't important to them.

Inside the Beltway the general bi-partisan feeling is one of sympathy for Palin and intense criticism for McCain.

What is the mood and atmosphere like at the convention? Are the attendees uniformly impressed? Are there factions within the GOP that are privately expressing misgivings?

Emily Yoffe: None of us were at the convention—but hearing from people who were certainly the place was blown away by her. Sitting in my den, I was too. I thought she announced herself as a figure to be reckoned with. I haven't read Noonan today but Krauthammer last night highly praised her performance but said there is no cure for her lack of experience and how that gives an opening to the Democrats to rebut McCain on the importance of experience.

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Virginia: After Palin's incredibly nasty speech yesterday, you can expect Biden will take the gloves off. The Ds now have the green light to go after her hard. The Republican base will like it, but her nastiness turned off lots of independents.

Ann Hulbert: Thanks to its we're-not-about-politics-as usual ethos, the Obama-Biden ticket will invite charges of flip-flopping if suddenly they get vicious. In any case, Biden will have his chance to respond in a debate, which is a very different format, and one in which Palin has yet to show herself. I would think he'll be capitalizing on his foreign policy expertise, and figuring that even the most feisty and charming candidate won't be as confident as she was amid an adoring crowd when she's on a stage with him, working from a very recently mastered briefing book. Time limits should help limit Biden's worst habits—though maybe he should be working on that smile of his, because hers is a killer.

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St. Mary's City, Md.: In your view, are Palin and the McCain campaign using Palin's family situation in an exploitative way? I'm generally uneasy with any politicians dragging families into the debate, either their opponents' or their own. I would be especially uneasy if the McCain campaign were using Palin's daughter and grandchild used to bolster their candidate's pro-life credentials.

I'm less interested in Palin's family and more interested in her views on the church/state separation. Her positions on many social issues match those of the religious right. Certainly some of those positions could be argued on secular grounds, with the exception of teaching creationism in public schools. But the religious right believes that scripture should be the sole basis for secular law. Do you know if Palin believes this?

Emily Yoffe: All campaigns always use candidates families, then declare the families are off limits when it suits their purposes. I think one has to have respect for children dragged into this through no fault of their own. On the other hand, when they embody issues their parents want to make policy—the right to abortion, say, or abstinence-only education—then they can't have it both ways.

I read an account of her brief remarks about creationism and as I recall she said, "Teach both" (which is ludicrous) then added that her father was a high school science teacher and she believes in science education. So she doesn't sound as if she wants a creation-based curriculum.

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Betterton, Md.: Glad to have a trio of women who can raise these issues today... It was really noticeable last night how almost ALL the political commentators were male, and none addressed the obvious: This woman has got some really severe family problems on her hands! I'm a working mother, and I struggle every day to meet everyone's needs when things are stable. Imagine how much worse it must be to have TWO troubled children simultaneously. She's a damaged candidate from the get-go. Then it made it even scarier when McCain appeared on stage with her looking disabled, and pretty old, himself. I have admired John McCain, but the decision to name Palin makes him seem fundamentally clueless to me—even if he get some votes out of it.

Emily Yoffe: Is there any woman who doesn't wonder at how you manage five children AND run a state? It's astounding. But if her husband Todd were the candidate, would you feel he shouldn't run because of his family obligations?

I agree about the contrast with McCain when he got up on stage with her. He seemed ancient. But he also was clearly thrilled at how well she did and how she appeared to vindicate what had appeared to be a capricious choice.

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Savage, Md.: When Sarah Palin advocated teaching creationism in public schools, was she aware that the Supreme Court had outlawed that practice back in 1987? (Edwards v. Aguillard,482 U.S. 578)

Rachael Larimore: I believe Palin answered a question off the cuff saying she'd suggest teaching both evolution and creationism. Not sure if it was a debate or an interview.

When she had the chance to clarify, she said she would not suggest that creationism be added to the curriculum, merely that she supported the idea of debate, and that students who wanted to discuss creationism should be stifled. Not that teachers should have to teach it.

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Raleigh NC: Has anyone talked about how bizarre the response to ugly rumors about Bristol was? Wouldn't a release of family photos that included one of the family in the hospital with the newborn have defused the rumors without throwing her daughter under the bus?

Emily Yoffe: You're talking about the now-discredited rumor that Sarah Palin did not give birth to Trig, but that the real mother was teenager Bristol, and Sarah pretended to be pregnant to protect her daughter.

Yes, the instant announcement in response that Bristol was pregnant was a way of killing that rumor. But seeing Bristol on stage last night, unless they had decided to send her to sit out the campaign with Aunt Edna in Kodiak, there is no way to hide that fact that she's pregnant.

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Washington, DC: Did Nancy Pelosi, who is also the mother of 5, ever face criticism for campaigning for office with that many kids at home?

Emily Yoffe: I believe Pelosi waited until the youngest was at least school age before she began her political career. I'm not saying Sarah Palin shouldn't be having a political career, just that the two made different decisions.

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Philadelphia, PA: I wasn't happy reading all the discussions about who was the parent of Palin's youngest, and would have been quite happy if everyone had left her underage daughter alone once Palin made the announcement about her pregnancy and the McCain campaign asked she be left alone—as did the Obama campaign.

However, as Palin has made being a "hockey mom" her key identifier, how can she turn around and ask the country to leave her family out of any discussion? It's not just the hypocrisy of praising her daughter's choice (and her own) to bear the baby when that's a choice she wants to prevent anyone else from having, or the fact that she's cut funding for programs to help teenage mothers, it's that she wants people to identify with her as a parent. And if that's the case, then she is inviting scrutiny of her parenting, which means scrutiny of her children.

If she had real, positive political experience (Something that wasn't a disaster—how do you manage to run up a $20 million deficit in a small town in just a few years? How do you make it so a small town that's survived quite well with just a mayor suddenly needs to hire a town manager to take care of the problems you've created? How do you turn a state that's survived quite nicely on its oil money to one dependent on absurd earmarks? How does selling a plane on eBay translate to good governance—what sort of vetting process is involved to make sure, for example, that the plane is being bought by someone who won't use it to fly into a building?) or in foreign affairs or in the military or in education she could perhaps have something else to use as her tag, but she doesn't. So she calls herself a "hockey mom" and we're supposed to ignore her family.

I just feel sorry for her kids. I questioned her judgment when I first heard what she'd named them, and not one single thing she's said since has made me stop questioning her judgment.

Ann Hulbert: The question of how much intrusive scrutiny Palin's family should have to endure is a tricky one. Her husband, of course, was quite aware that his jobs, activities, driving record etc would be open for discussion; Geraldine Ferraro's experience made that perfectly clear. The treatment of kids in the political limelight is a much blurrier business—both in campaigns, and in office. The Clintons barricaded Chelsea against the press, and often got criticized for it. The Bush girls, who were older, came in for some I'm sure unwanted exposure. For the Palin, a key part of whose appeal is her maternal competence and her family values, the issue is front and central. A pregnant underage daughter can't be off bounds entirely, and at least so far Palin has tried to set the terms of the scrutiny—and for all the Republican complaints about a media with animus, I would say there has been surprisingly little prurience (or at least I've missed it), or even extended focus in the mainstream media on the issues it raises. It will be very interesting to see how this plays out.

Rachael Larimore: I think our introduction to Palin's family is part of the rollout—a rollout that was certainly bumpier than many of us could have predicted. (And maybe they didn't intend to discuss quite this amount of information!) As Ann points out, her family life is part of her appeal. Now that we've seen her at the convention, and as soon as the storm over her pregnant daughter passes, I think the McCain campaign will try to steer the conversation more toward her other qualifications. Both because McCain has largely kept his children out of the spotlight, and because America needs to learn more about Palin on substantive issues.

If the scrutiny on the family continues, though, I do think that Palin has an obligation to address things as they come up.

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Los Angeles: I have read a lot today about the "passion" of the crowd during last night's Palin speech. I actually watched the speech, and it seemed to me that the people in attendance were "going through the motions," e.g. cheering on call and chanting USA, etc. Did anyone else sense this as well? Where was the passion that everyone is talking about?

Emily Yoffe: I have to disagree. From my perspective on the couch, they seemed galvanized. Slate's John Dickerson, who was there, also reported that the crowd was wild for her.

I had been thinking this choice was lunatic on McCain's part, but last night, at least, she came off as a serious, capable, and fresh person. There's a long way to go, however, especially when the teleprompter disappears.

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Concord, NH: I've noticed that most of the comments on whether or not Gov. Palin can juggle her family demands with her public responsibilities seems to come from women. I'm not sure that men (as a group) are as concerned about this. Would you agree?

Emily Yoffe: Great point. Aren't men too intimidated to weigh in? This "Mommy War" dialogue has been going on for a long time. So much of it involves defensiveness and projection about one's own choices. Maybe men don't even think about these things in the same terms we do.

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Springfield, VA: Barack Obama has two young daughters. How much time can he spend with them as POTUS? Will he be able to help them with homework, tuck them in a night, take them to a doctors appointment. Oh, I see, he has a wife to do all that. So I guess a woman with children can't run for public office...only men.

Emily Yoffe: That's exactly the other side of the "How can she do this with five kids?" argument. Obama has talked about how painful it is to be away from his kids—yet he's made the sacrifice. Although if John McCain is elected and remains healthy, Sarah Palin will have plenty of free time as vice president for the PTA.

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Bethesda: "The Clintons barricaded Chelsea against the press, and often got criticized for it."

Not that it stopped Rush Limbaugh from criticizing the 13-year-old's looks, or John McCain from saying she was so ugly because Janet Reno was her father.

Emily Yoffe: I don't think the Clintons got much criticism for protecting young Chelsea, and the incidents you cite were ugly and repulsive. Hasn't McCain expressed regret for his remarks (not sure about Limbaugh!).

However, at the beginning of Hillary's campaign they were clearly so used to Chelsea being in a bubble that the campaign was acting as if it was still out of bounds for the press to ask any questions of this now adult woman hedge fund employee. Finally, Chelsea started speaking. And she was an effective campaigner for her mother (better than her father!).

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SSMD: There has been a lot of talk about Palin's choice energizing the Republican base, but from what I've heard from friends around the country, it's energizing the Democrats too (to work for Obama.)

Emily Yoffe: If you're an ardent Obama supporter, I would think her speech would be energizing. I thought her attacks were so effective because she gave them with good humor and they hit at a real weakness: Obama's major accomplishment is himself. This can be an effective argument to make to undecided voters and something Obama has to artfully address.

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Laurel, Md.: Will anyone be asking Sarah Palin whether she still thinks that abstinence-only sex education is still an effective way to prevent teen pregnancies?

Ann Hulbert: A lot of people are talking about Bristol Palin as a "teachable moment," which should mean that a discussion of just how well different approaches are working could be aired. I know that the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy has tried to capitalize on headline out-of-wedlock pregnancies as occasions to push their message that it takes more than just abstinence classes or peddling of contraceptives to encourage kids to think seriously about their relationships, about parenthood, about their futures. The emphasis is always on the importance of parents talking about this with their kids, and surely that's an approach that has appeal across parties. And a slight uptick lately in teen pregnancies, after decades of decline, may well encourage more constructive discussion about the efficacy of abstinence education, you never know.

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Arlington, VA: Is it odd that Palin made absolutely no reference to important social issues such as abortion and marriage? Has she already given the 'secret handshake' with conservatives so she won't be talking about these topics so she doesn't turn off the moderates ?

Rachael Larimore: I've read that the speech was largely written before Palin had been named as a candidate, so the goal might indeed have been not to turn off the moderates to whom the McCain campaign must reach out if he hopes to become president.

On the other hand, we learned a great deal about Palin's views on abortion this week. I felt Palin used the speech to show us her views and thoughts on other issues. We saw that she can go on the attack, and we saw what being governor of Alaska has taught her.

I'm confident as the campaign goes on, she'll have a chance to talk more about abortion.

Ann Hulbert: I think she was counting on the family tableau to make her views clear for the time being.

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Richmond, Va.: I work. I think all Moms should work (at least part time, or when the kids start school, whatever) as an example to kids. But when your underage daughter gets pregnant, it's a sign you need to redirect your priorities back to the family. You need to cut back on work and fix your family. This is the pro-family candidate?

Rachael Larimore: Most of the moms I know do work, and some of them have found creative ways to have a rewarding career that also allows them to spend time with their children. I know other Moms who stay at home but keep their children busy with activities and sports. The wonderful thing about our society is that, aside from the "Mommy Wars" debates that occasionally crop up largely in the media, women in our society are rewarded for doing what appeals to them.

I think it's dangerous to say for one, that a family is "broken" when a teenager gets pregnant and secondly, that a mom needs to cut back on her work. Regarding the first point, the only way to keep teenagers from having sex is to keep tabs on them 24 hours a day. That's not going to help you develop a healthy young adult. As a parent, you have to allow your child some room to grow and learn and make mistakes. Sometimes these mistakes have serious consequences, as with Bristol Palin.

No doubt that some teenagers do act out in response to parents who aren't home enough, or who don't become emotionally involved in their kids' lives. But, as much as we've learned about the Palin family in the last week, I don't think we can say what their internal homelife was like, so it's hard to blame Sarah for her daughter's pregnancy.

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Indianapolis: A lot of people keep bringing up the point of whether or not people would raise these same questions if she was a man with the same family situation. But if she was a man then running for VP and going back to work 3 days after a special needs child was born wouldn't be so much against the family-first-religous-right agenda that she is supposed to be specifically reaching out to. And, I can't imagine that at some point, once the newness/novelty wears off sometime in the next couple of weeks, that those family-first-religious right voters wont take a serious look at those contradictions. By the way, I love the XX Factor.

Rachael Larimore: Thanks for your kind words about the XX Factor. we have a lot of fun on the blog.

I think there's no doubt that the religious right was pleased by the nomination and are feeling energized. As to whether that will wear off, we'll have to see. One thing we have to remember is that the conventions took place much later in the campaign than before, and there's only two months until the election.

I'm not a part of the "religious right" so I don't want to speculate too wildly. But I do think that some of the backlash from the left—the nasty rumors that Trig was born to Bristol, not Sarah; the tut-tutting about Bristol's pregnancy; the critiques that she's in way over her head—could make her supporters protective of her.

As strange as it might sound, I think there are a lot of parallels between Palin supporters and Hillary supporters. People have become attached to her quickly and will take umbrage the more she is attacked.

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Emily Yoffe: On behalf of Ann and Rachael, thanks for all your interesting questions. Obviously, this is going to be an extraordinary next couple of months.