Palin, Obama & Affirmative Action

The first CNN poll taken after both the conclusion of the Democratic National Convention and the surprise selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to be John McCain’s running mate showed surprisingly little movement. The race remains essentially tied despite record viewership for Obama’s speech and the countless commentaries about how choosing Palin was a "game changer." This election is not a game and little has changed.

But, there is a deep irony in Obama’s and Palin’s inability to move their numbers and it has to do with affirmative action. The real reason Obama is lagging behind the rest of the Democratic Party in national polls is because he is black. And a large number of people, especially white, ethnic Catholics, argue that their forefathers, and foremothers, came to these shores with nothing and made a life for themselves and a future for their families. They did not need government hand-outs or affirmative action. The resentment at affirmative action was encapsulated in the famous "white hand" ad run by North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms in which a white hand held a rejection letter while the voice-over intones, "You needed that job… but the company had to hire a minority." Helms won the election.


This "noble immigrants v. ignoble recipients of affirmative action" storyline is not entirely accurate for a variety of reasons. The GI Bill may not have been a hand-out but it was definitely a government hand-up. And, white, ethnic immigrants did not come with the burden of slavery weighing down their history, a history of families torn apart, a history of being robbed of all personal power and autonomy. And, once they acclimated, they also blended in. Affirmative action may have been unfair to some. It may not even have worked. But, there is a reason it corresponded to a felt societal need to repair the damage done to black Americans by slavery that was different in kind, and not just in degree, from the damage done to white ethnics by the various traumas of immigration. Most importantly for this election, the narrative fails because Barack Obama did not get into Harvard Law as a result of affirmative action: He got into Harvard Law because he is smarter than the rest of us.

So, along comes Ms. Palin. What precisely qualified her for her job? Writing in The New Republic, Marty Peretz commented, "To have dug so hard and to have come up with such circumstantial assets as being a woman and an evangelical Christian is really not much. There are millions of them, even pretty ones, which speaks to another political asset." It is this last asset, prettiness, that jumped to my mind when the CNN poll reported that 38% of those polled viewed her favorably. Not one of those questioned, I suspect, was well informed about how the Alaska Governor had handled budget negotiations with the legislature in Juneau, nor whether she hailed from the isolationist, Pat Buchanan wing of the conservative movement or the neo-conservative imperialist, Bill Kristol wing of the GOP. But, she sure is pretty.

Pretty. Born-again. Most of all, a woman. If the selection of Palin doesn’t count as affirmative action, I don’t know what does. You can picture the ad. A man’s hand putting down a cell phone. Voice-over: "You wanted that job…but they had to give it to a woman." The camera pulls back and shows a disgruntled Mitt Romney, still looking at the phone. He turns to the television which shows Palin arm and arm with McCain. "Here’s looking at you sweetheart," Mitt says bitterly, crying in his Arnold Palmer.

The polling numbers will not change much unless events intervene because the polls tell us less about Palin and Obama than they do about ourselves and our prejudices.

Michael Sean Winters


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10 years 4 months ago
Isn't it interesting how this has become a contest between the presidential candidate of one party and the vice presidential candidate of the other party? Sarah Palin, if elected, will be ''a heartbeat away'' from the presidency, certainly, but she will not be president. Therefore, her executive experience will be of little use, unless or until... On the other hand, Joe Biden's wisdom and foreign policy experience will be an asset to Barack Obama throughout his presidency, increasing the experience factor of that ticket to a degree that makes Palin's executive experience completely irrelevent.
10 years 4 months ago
Mr. Obama's resume and world view are sufficiently corrupt to be rejected as a candidate for President without resorting to skin color preferences. Gov. Palin's resume and world view are attractive enough to gain my support... the fact that she's cute makes her all the more attractive to a white, ethnic Catholic like me. I'd choose her over Barack for the top job!
10 years 4 months ago
Mr. Winters, Did you really need to resort to this statement: "It is this last asset, prettiness, that jumped to my mind when the CNN poll reported that 38% of those polled viewed her favorably". What a reflection of the dim view you take of the American public! Could it be that Americans have heard the story of a woman and mother who has gone from the PTA to Mayor to Commissioner to Governor while bucking the status quo of her own party? Could it be that this is what has impressed them? I empathize with your desire to uphold your candidate of choice, but to paint Gov. Palin as just a pretty face reeks of sexism. You've been critical (and I think rightly so) of the McCain campaign's portrayal of Sen. Obama as a celebrity. I would think, then, that you would not resort to the same political stunts.
10 years 4 months ago
Mr. Belna's characterization of Gov. Palin and Senator Obama is perhaps a bit partisan. With due respect to her successes, the governor has some issues of scalability. Can she make the jump from a very small town and a thinly populated state to being a heart beat away from the presidency? Perhaps she can, but it is legitimate to at least ask the question. Senator Obama is a member of the US Senate, which deals with most of the major questions in the country. He has spent a couple of years running for the presidency, against one of the most skilled, tough, and well funded candidates. He's been vetted by a grueling and long campaign, and if nothing else, he has put together a brilliant political operation. I disagree that he is "by any measure the least accomplished" person to run. One can surely disagree with Obama and vote against him without this level of exaggeration.
10 years 4 months ago
''If the selection of Palin doesn't count as affirmative action, I don't know what does''. Can't argue with you there, Michael Sean - let's add this to the long and growing list of things that you don't know. Better yet, let's compare the experience and qualifications of Sarah Palin and Barack Obama for high national office. One has run a successful business, served as a mayor, ran a statewide commission, and is currently a popular elected governor. Oh, by the way, she did it the hard way - by taking on an entrenched old boys network within her own party. The other was a ''community organizer'' who owes his career to a corrupt Chicago political machine, and who paid his dues by serving special interests, including convicted felon Tony Rezko. He won his Senate seat only because his Republican opponent was undone by a scandalous divorce, and served less than 200 days in that office before deciding to run for President. He has never authored a significant piece of legislation, cast an important vote, or made an executive decision. By any measure he is the least accomplished person of any color ever to run for president of the United States. Here's a modest suggestion: examine your own prejudices.
10 years 4 months ago
The race card gets played again! Did you ever think that the reason many people are not voting for Barack Hussein Obama is because they do not feel he is qualified and that he is far too liberal. Senator Biden did not support Clarence Thomas' nomination to the Supreme Court. Is Biden a racist? Alan Keyes ran as an independent in 2000. I guess all who did not vote for him are racists. Milbo
10 years 4 months ago
What McCain did in selecting Governor Sarah Palin is the antithesis of affirmative action. Affirmative action programs call for recruitment and outreach to historically disadvantaged and underutilized women, minorities, persons with disabilities and veterans. The law requires that persons benefiting from affirmative action be QUALIFIED for the job. The essence of affirmative action is opportunity, not giving an unqualified individual the job. Senators Hutchinson and Dole, to name two Republicans, would have been credible candidates. Not Palin, in my humble opinion. This selection closely resembles that of Clarence Thomas who, although a jurist for only a few years, was selected over much more qualified jurists of any stripe. This is the cynical use of “preferences,” not legitimate affirmative action. To learn about affirmative action programs, go to or to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's guidelines on voluntary affirmative action, found on the commission's website at
10 years 4 months ago
Abraham Lincoln, arguably our greatest president, had little in the way of qualifications. He had no executive experience, unless you count, the small two man law firm that he ran. He only spent two years in Congress, and was better known for the Senate races he lost and the speeches he wrote. Would you consider Abraham Lincoln an affirmative action President? And certainly with the country on the verge of civil war, American was facing the greatest threat to its existence. Don't forget that South Carolina seceded from the Union within a month of Lincoln becoming President. So please think about that - Lincoln - our greatest President - was our least experienced.
10 years 4 months ago
Wow a vice presidential candidate picked for political reasons? Wow how shocking like that never happened before in history. Imagine someone picking a VP that can help them win, who would have thought it. And yeah Sarah Palin has no experience, after all she has never been a "community organizer" or part-time state legislature. She only has executive experience as a mayor and a governor. Surely not as good as a Senator who votes and attends meetings and manages nothing.


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