Is Sarah Palin the new Clarence Thomas?


For days, I have been wondering why the Sarah Palin Experience has seemed so maddeningly familiar. Last week, I suggested this was all an an echo of the Harriet Miers debacle back in 2005. Well, strike that. Hit the reset button. After Palin hit the ball out of the park at her nomination speech last week, those comparisons left with it. Palin has revealed herself to be a master politician–at least on the stump. (We still don’t know about the press, but why is there any reason to think she can’t handle it?)

This morning, it hit me. This is Clarence Thomas’ nomination fight all over again. 

You will recall last week when GOP pundit Peggy Noonan was caught on an open mic in St. Paul saying that the Republicans were going to push narrative in this campaign instead of experience. That, in a nutshell, was the White House strategy after Thomas was nominated to the Supreme Court by the first President Bush back in 1991. 

Thomas had only been a judge for a brief time on the D.C. Circuit appeals court, and before that had been an administrator at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. And while Justice Thomas wrote in his recent autobiography, My Grandfather’s Son, that Bush told him he was chosen because he was the best qualified candidate at the time, few believed it then or even now, 17 years later. 

Instead, it looked like a race-based pick. Thurgood Marshall had retired from the court and the thought of turning the bench back into a whites-only club may have seemed unpalatable to Bush–much less to civil rights advocates. But the truth was that Thomas opposed the agenda of those civil rights advocates in almost every way.

Regardless, Thomas was an almost bulletproof selection. Criticize his record and one opened himself to charges of racism–or at the very least, standing in the way of social progress. And as his critics tip-toed softly, afraid of stepping on land-mines, Thomas after his confirmation aggressively embraced and advanced the legal conservative agenda–and does to this day. 

The McCain campaign will tell you until its talking points scream for mercy that Palin wasn’t chosen because she’s a woman, that it was purely because of her record. Even if that was so, since she was tabbed, no one has forgotten for one second that she is a woman, not the press, not the McCain campaign, not anyone. And it appears she is benefitting politically because of her gender, if the polls are to be believed.

So her gender has becomes an inseparable part of her political self. And as we have seen now repeatedly, when Palin’s record is attacked, cries of sexism quickly follow. And, like Thomas, Palin isn’t the stereotypical female or minority trailblazer; she’s the antithesis of the classic my-body-or-my-life feminist. Last week, she declared herself to be part of a new breed, the conservative ceiling-crasher. In the meantime, she’s turned women’s advocates into pretzels as they try to separate their politics from their identity.

Like Thomas, Palin is young. She is 44. Thomas was 43 when he was nominated. And like Thomas, the fundamental question that must be asked is: Is she the vanguard of a new generation of leaders, or is Palin a vessel of subversion, here to undermine the very demographic she purportedly represents, a bomb-thrower in designer specs? She, actually, could be both. 

Biden chairing the Judiciary Committee in 1991.

Even before Anita Hill’s allegations were inserted into the drama of Thomas’ nomination hearing, it was clear that the Thomas’ path to the court lay in his history-making life as a resident of tiny Pin Point, Georgia, his difficult childhood, and his self-made ascent to law school, Washington, and the ranks of the Republican Party–not in his jurisprudence. (He testified as to never discussing with anyone ever whether the decision in Roe v. Wade is constitutional.)  Then Anita Hill surfaced and all hell broke loose, transforming an already contentious nomination into a full-scale (and tawdry) cultural war — not unlike the furor last week over Bristol Palin’s pregnancy and the media criticism of Palin’s qualifications.

Right in the middle of the Thomas affair, ironically, sat Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, who chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time. Biden was, and still is, criticized by both sides for his role in the proceedings. Thomas’ supporters believe Biden went way too far in giving Hill’s allegations legitimacy. Democratic critics point to Biden’s refusal to allow testimony from other accusers and some still blame him directly for Thomas’ confirmation. Biden has said he was intent on protecting Thomas’ privacy and not allowing special interest groups to take control of the proceedings. Biden told that very thing to Thomas in a phone call, according to the justice’s autobiography. Thomas, certainly, didn’t believe Biden then and does not now. 

What few remember now is that Thomas was going to be rather securely confirmed before Hill’s allegations surfaced. No one wanted to take on the race card. (Biden’s staffers later told journalists that there was political danger in making Thomas look unqualified.) But once Hill went public, Thomas played it himself:

This is not an opportunity to talk about difficult matters privately or in a closed environment. This is a circus. It’s a national disgrace. And from my standpoint, as a black American, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you. You will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate rather than hung from a tree.

Sarah Palin has been careful not to accuse Democrats or the media of sexism. She has let surrogates such as Jane Swift, the ex-governor of Massachusetts, do that for her.  But like Thomas, she’s not talking about her experience or claiming she is fit to be president. As a self-styled pit-bull-like “hockey mom,” she’s pushing her biography in the same manner that Thomas did. If a scandal erupts out of Alaska, expect a full-on attack on the scandal-mongers as a defense–and it could work, as it did in Thomas’ case. In ’91, Thomas ultimately squeaked out of the Senate by a 52-48 vote, a four-point swing as they would say today in the presidential context, the very four-point advantage McCain-Palin enjoys today.

A final point. David Bernstein, a law professor at George Mason University in Virginia, last year wrote this provocative post on The Volokh Conspiracy, a popular legal blog, suggesting that the attacks on Thomas actually pushed him to embrace the Right in a manner he may not have had his nomination fight gone more smoothly. 

In short, by treating Thomas as an enemy, and not just someone with whom they had sharp and sincere disagreements, Thomas’s harsh critics made him into an enemy. Thomas, who had a wild ideological ride for many years, seems to have settled into his current worldview (including his newfound religiosity) just after, and a result of, his confirmation hearings. Given that he has essentially no respect for the legal establishment (such as Yale Law School, which he refuses to visit or allow to honor him), mainstream civil rights organizations, or the mainstream media, all of whom he blames for his confirmation ordeal, he’s not in much of a position to be influenced by any of them. Meanwhile, the ordeal seems to have bonded him with various friends in the DC conservative establishment who supported him through the confirmation.

It’s entirely possible that Palin, as somewhat of a neophyte politician in a state far from Washington, doesn’t have a highly-defined ideological center either. While undoubtedly a social conservative (though the book-burning and creationism stuff, right now at least, appears to have been overblown), there’s also a bit of the hippy-dippy mentality to her. She’s an admitted former pot smoker who never denied inhaling. And who named her kids Track, Bristol, Willow, Piper and Trig. So there’s a subversive in there somewhere. And a few weeks before being picked by McCain, she actually praised Obama for holding his own in solidly-Republican Alaska. 

But Palin has beaten Thomas in one aspect alreadyZ: by declaring war on the media right out of the box. In Nixonian fashion, she’s got her enemies lined up even before they have a chance to bring her down. Does that mean that if she gets to Washington, she, like Thomas, will have some scores to settle? Will the media swarm transform her into a fully-formed cultural conservative war machine?

Wait. Maybe Sarah Palin isn’t Clarence Thomas after all. Maybe she’s Joan of Arc.          



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Filed under 2008 Election, The Sarah Palin Experience

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