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