In 1980, the course of national politics may have turned on one brilliantly framed question: Are you better off than you were four years ago?
Now, with the crucial midterm elections less than three months away, we’re being asked, in essence, another question – one that could resonate through the 2012 presidential campaign: Who’s your Mama Grizzly?
Unlike Ronald Reagan’s classic query, which he offered during his final televised debate with then-President Jimmy Carter a week before the 1980 election, the Mama Grizzly battle is being played out on YouTube, in a sign of the times.
Here’s another, perhaps more telling, indication of the state we’re in: the fight over the meaning of feminism and motherhood – and quite possibly the direction of the country – may very well revolve around competing conceptions of ursine imagery.
EMILY’S List, a liberal group dedicated to electing pro-choice Democrats, posted a video last week called “Sarah Palin Doesn’t Speak for Me” – a humorous, but pointed response to the Republican pol’s June video in which she created something called the Mama Grizzly movement and essentially declared herself the leader.
Palin’s video has spurred a debate, as silly as it might seem, over what defines a Mama Grizzly. In a somewhat strained interview with fellow Fox News employee Bill O’Reilly last month, Palin described a Mama Grizzly as “someone who is watching what is going on that is adversely affecting our cubs, our children, the future of America. And there are a lot of common-sense, constitutional-conservative women who are willing to put it all on the line and run for office… to take this country back.”
In the EMILY’s List video, women from various walks of life don cheesy bear masks and makeup, joke and mug for the camera – and tell why they’re true Mama Grizzlies: “Yeah, I attack when my cubs are threatened. But want to know what threatens me? My daughter not having the right to choose.”
The EMILY’S List video benefits from a clarity of message, which is something that Palin’s video, with its generic images of women waving signs and its vague odes to motherhood (“Moms just kinda know when something’s wrong”), lacks.
There are other differences: Palin’s video is slick, complete with music and a campaign ad feel, while the EMILY’S List effort has a homemade look – attributes that will play in different ways to different audiences. The liberal group has the advantage of taking a shot at a Palin strategy that’s already earned her some mocking.
But the EMILY’S List video, perhaps more than anything, shows the enduring power, presence and influence of Palin nearly two years after John McCain tapped her to become the GOP’s first woman vice presidential candidate.
Like her hero, Reagan, Palin is framing the debate. And she’s doing so by using the Internet more effectively than any politician since Barack Obama, while largely avoiding any direct contact with the press and carefully controlling her message.
But the EMILY List’s campaign might have annoyed Palin enough for her to tweet an apparent response last week, earning her some new jibes for her increasingly creative verbiage: “Who hijacked term:"feminist"? A cackle of rads who want 2 crucify other women w/whom they disagree on a singular issue; it's ironic (& passé)”
In the end, this battle may be as much about winning hits as it is winning hearts. Palin’s “Mama Grizzlies” video has attracted about 450,000 views in two months, compared to more than 186,000 in a week for EMILY’S List.
EMILY’S List is extending the Net turf battle by starting a website with a says-it-all URL – www.sarahdoesntspeakforme.com – that solicits pledges to vote in November and seeks stories, pictures and videos of Americans “speaking out against Sarah Palin and her allies or (describing) why voting in November is so important to you.”
Meanwhile, check out the dueling Mama Grizzly videos below – if you think you can bear it:
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.