"I am shocked," says Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), after learning of top Democrats' remarks that Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin is selfishly seeking office at the same time she is mother to a Down syndrome baby. "Their comments are contrary to what women have fought for," continued McMorris Rodgers who 16 months ago gave birth to a son, Cole, diagnosed with Down syndrome. Of all the attacks against Sarah Palin since John McCain named her his running mate August 29, the most vicious have been accusations that Palin is sacrificing family for career--remarks that conjure not signs of change but the reactionary language of a bygone era.
The accusations have been all the more extraordinary because they have come from Democrats and media allies closely identified with women's independence. Republicans have angrily responded that the Democratic offensive is sexist. Fearful of a backlash from women voters, the Obama campaign and others distanced themselves from such remarks--even as Democratic surrogates continued to plant the poisonous seed in the media.
The question of whether a woman must choose between career and family has been taboo in politics. Not one of the politicians interviewed for this article has encountered the question in their own campaigns, or any other for that matter. Indeed, the Democratic veep nominee, Joe Biden, has been praised for heroically raising his two young children as a single father after the death of his first wife, even as he kept his Senate seat and commuted 3 hours every day to his Delaware home.
"The rule in the office was if the boys called, he was to be interrupted no matter what he was doing or who he was talking to," an approving Los Angeles Times story quotes a close friend as saying about Biden's dual roles as parent and politician. "He was never out of communication with them."
But the taboo has been shattered since McCain named Palin. True, the Obama campaign officially declared the Palin family off limits. The candidate himself, at a Monroe, Mich., campaign stop, said that "if I ever thought it was somebody in the campaign that was involved in something like that they would be fired." But that promise has sounded increasingly hollow.
North of Monroe in Lansing, Mich., Dan Mulhern--the husband of Michigan Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm--ripped into Palin on Detroit talk radio the morning of Palin's convention speech. "She's got a five-month-old Down syndrome baby and a 17-year-old daughter who's pregnant. This girl is going to go through a lot and does she know what she's putting her family through?" Mulhern said to incredulous host Frank Beckmann, who noted that Mulhern's own wife had three young children when she first ran for governor just seven years ago.
Through a spokesman, Governor Granholm confirmed that the issue of managing family and career had never come up in her campaigns for office. Ironically, she thanks her husband, who scaled back his own career, for helping take care of their children, saying being a working mother "requires a partnership." Like Obama, Granholm says "family is off limits" when it comes to assessing Palin, yet she would not criticize her own husband's assault on her fellow female governor.
Republicans in this key swing state were enraged by Mulhern's comments. "Marianne Weiss, acting chair of the Macomb County Republican Women's Club, said Palin can do the job and it is sexist to think otherwise" reported the Detroit Free Press. "Would they ask a man should he take this job because he just had a Down syndrome baby--or any baby?" commented Weiss.
Obama ally Howard Gutman, an original member of the campaign's finance committee, appeared on Laura Ingraham's radio show to criticize Palin before a national radio audience. As the show's phone lines lit up in protest from female callers, Gutman announced that "the proper attack is not that a woman shouldn't run for vice president with five kids, it's that a parent, when they have a family in need, a Down's baby who needs them--(needs) a father or mother."
Washington Rep. McMorris Rodgers thinks the Democratic attacks are an odd way to celebrate a Congress that boasts "a record number of women." She sees Palin's ascent as another milestone. "We should be celebrating (Palin's nomination)," says the two-term representative, adding that she has never heard criticism for serving in Congress after giving birth to her son. "I'm excited about having a person who's been touched by a Down syndrome child as vice president."
McMorris Rodgers is echoed in her disgust with Democratic tactics by other members of a bipartisan House Down Syndrome Caucus. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D- Washington D.C) says that "no decisions are more individual and tailored to specific families than decisions regarding our children.Those who offer criticism or advice to Gov. Palin are both invading her privacy, and speaking without knowledge of her family or family support system."
WomenCount, a group formed this year to support Hillary Clinton and that has not yet endorsed Obama, also weighed in on the issue. "The very notion that Sarah Palin should not have accepted this nomination because she is a mother with demanding challenges underscores just how far we have to go," said a spokesperson.
In their zeal to destroy Sarah Palin, Obama's allies may have done permanent damage to his campaign for the independent women's vote.
Henry Payne is a freelance writer and an editorial cartoonist at the Detroit News.