The top two Republican women who have made the most news recently have been Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann – the latter for a recent rise in several Iowa polls, the former because… well, because Sarah Palin seems like she will be a political headline fixture for the next few months at least. But there have also been a few rumblings about South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley playing hardball in her state government – rumblings which are becoming more relevant as Haley becomes a short-lister for the 2012 Vice Presidential spot and a potential 2016 candidate.
The stories about Bachmann and Palin are familiar; both are treated like intellectual lightweights. Bachmann’s campaign was picking up some steam when she derailed her own momentum with an unfortunate accidental reference to a serial killer in her announcement speech (though, to be fair, she may just be a fan of creepy clown paintings). It’s familiar territory for Palin, who has been mocked for being vacuous since she failed to make fun of Katie Couric for thinking newspapers still matter.
A completely different story is unfolding about Haley. Republicans and Democrats are both painting her as a shrewd and deft politician wearing ambition on her sleeve, a sort of center-right Hillary Clinton with clear goals, an idea of how to get there, and the willingness to carry out an aggressive (or even ruthless) plan to do it. The derogatory term for a woman like those qualities rhymes with “witch,” and it looks like her opponents are ready to hang the scarlet B around Haley’s neck.
The Bachmann/Haley stories lead to a disheartening observation: women in politics tend to be portrayed as either airheaded or hardheaded, with very little middle ground. It isn’t a case of anti-conservative media bias, either. When George W. Bush tripped over his words, the mistakes were evidence of the former President’s folksy charm. Barack Obama’s admonitions to his political opponents to “get serious” by acquiescing to his demands receives praise for taking charge. Each has their detractors, but neither has received the same level of caricature as Palin or Clinton.
So if one has to choose, which is better? Palin and Bachmann are discovering the pitfall of being a populist woman. Their ability to boil down issues to sound bites has seemingly backfired; their less-than-favorable coverage playing on their supposed intellectual shortcomings has made them almost impossible to envision as winning national candidates.
Maybe, for the sake her political future, it’s not such a bad thing for Nikki Haley to channel her inner Meredith Brooks.