The Political Power of the Coffee Klatch

With at least 8 percent of American voters still undecided and less than a month left in the most watched, worried, and wild-card election cycle in decades, it's apropos to consider which TV outlets might have the power to push those coveted "uncommitted voters" to one side or the other.

Campaign ads? Perhaps. The economy is in shambles and the candidates disagree sharply on everything from national security to health care, so they're well-served to discuss the issues. But their position papers have been available online and their talking points unchanged for months, and that 8 percent of voters remains undecided.

The network news? Maybe. Although it seems like the initial fervor to see Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin stumble over the vaguest answers in electoral history was exhausted by her interviews with Katie Couric. A lot of Americans, especially the undecided type, are sick of Q-and-A's with the candidates that don't amount to much.

The partisan shows like The O'Reilly Factor and Keith Olbermann's Countdown? Not likely. These guys aren't shy about their allegiance to one version of the truth and I would imagine that most undecided voters would simply feel bullied by them.

So where can an undecided voter find relatively astute, but not wonky, fresh debate about the candidates from all different perspectives?

I never thought I'd say this, but the answer is The View. That's right. Barbara Walters' coffee klatch happens to have become one of the most radical spaces for political debate this side of the mainstream divide. From the moment the primaries heated up, Joy Behar, Whoopi Goldberg, Sherri Shephard, Elizabeth Hasselbeck, and Barbara Walters have been analyzing much more than the potential first ladies' outfits. They've been picking apart the candidates' histories, positions, and campaign strategies. The conversation, in fact, has been so intense that last week Shephard prefaced her comment about the ongoing hot topic of Obama's relationship with 1960s radical William Ayers with, "This is so draining."

It's draining because it's shockingly substantive and authentically passionate. These women aren't scripted, and they're not policy wonks. While the majority have showbiz chops, they're all known for being markedly off the cuff (although I sometimes suspect that Hasselbeck has a conservative strategist who feeds her lines). Walters may have a reputation for being careful, but the rest are refreshingly unguarded -- like when Shephard lost her temper last week at Hasselbeck's claim that Obama has bad judgment and urged her to consider McCain's behavior after returning from war and ditching his first wife and child. Hasselbeck responded, "This is getting personal."

Indeed, the personal is the political -- especially when a group of women from different generations, ethnic backgrounds, and party affiliations get together and duke it out on national television. A couple of things make the conversation especially unique at this critical time.

These are women, people. According to Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), only about a quarter of the pundits on Sunday morning's powerhouse political talk shows are women. In one study of a six-month period, there were only two women of color -- Gwen Ifill and Donna Brazile -- on any show at any time. Women are simply not being asked to analyze and impact the election in the same numbers that men are, even in the era of "18 million cracks in the glass ceiling" and Sarah Palin's so-called red-state feminism. The View provides an all-female panel of women asserting political opinions that, each and every day, matches the Sunday morning shows' racial representation combined over six whole months.

And it provides this conversation without the limitations of a sound-bite format, which brings me to the second fascinating factor in The View's rise to political significance. Unlike almost every other political show on weekday television, The View's "Hot Topic" segment, featured at the start of every broadcast, allows for long, generous slots for discourse. There is legitimate back and forth between the entire table of opinionated women on one topic -- be it Jeremiah Wright or Roe v. Wade -- for up to eight-minute stretches at a time. Shock-jock conservative darlings like Laura Ingraham melt in this format because they've rarely been forced to have an actual conversation on air; the other shows are just about spitting fire and embarrassing the other side.

The ladies of The View are, by definition, accessible and easy for the average American to identify with. Unlike the pundits, mostly products of Dartmouth, Harvard, and a thousand early mornings with the Wall Street Journal and a cup of bad coffee, the hosts of The View are as informed (Goldberg predicted our economy's collapse before McCain did) or uninformed (Shephard became the butt of many a late-night talk show joke after questioning if the world was round) as the rest of us. I would guess that their accessibility actually makes them more effective than the average polemicist in swaying swing voters because Americans are more comfortable with them.

And finally, it's significant that a group of women can disagree on national television and not get written off as a bunch of drama queens with jealousy issues. Deborah Siegel, author of Sisterhood Interrupted: From Radical Women to Grrls Gone Wild, put it this way: "Historically, when women have disagreed in public, the media has framed it as a catfight. Of course, when men disagree, it's called conversation. The View is challenging the implicit sexism in this framing by putting women's disagreements front and center and not shying away from controversy."

It seems the lack of cattiness may be a new thing, however. As novelist and New York Times writer S. Courtney Sullivan points out: "Yes, the women seem to disagree quite a lot yet remain civil, however let us not forget all those who have crossed the line and gotten the ax. The way so many hosts (Lisa Ling, Rosie O'Donnell, Star Jones) have been so unceremoniously fired kind of reminds me of my dorm at Smith: All would be well in our little all-girl world as long as no one rocked the boat too much. Then one day there'd be drama, and you'd find out that So-and-So had moved across the Quad, never to be spoken of again."

Here's hoping that the women of The View have turned over a new leaf as they direct their energy towards the politicians on their couches and in the news. Just in the last few months, they've had more than a few fierce feminist moments:

  • The hosts of The View, including, shockingly, Elizabeth Hasselbeck, blasted Rush Limbaugh, calling him "un-American" for his laughter about the possibility of a Democratic ticket with -- gasp -- "a black" and a woman.
  • When Joy Behar went after John McCain about his so-called maverick reputation and deceitful campaign ads, he struggled to respond and finally settled on, "It's a tough campaign." When McCain said he would like to appoint a Supreme Court judge who aligned his or her views with the founding fathers' ideals, Whoopi asked him if she should be worried about a return to slavery? He practically crawled under the couch.
  • Though Palin has declined offers to stop by the show (oh, wouldn't that be something), she has been the topic of much heated conversation around the "Hot Topics" table. While Hasselbeck continuously defends her experience as governor of Alaska, Behar and others lay bare how totally unqualified she is to be the vice president of the United States, much less the president.
  • Both potential first wives have co-hosted the show, presenting some of the most unscripted moments for public consumption to date, especially from camera-shy Cindy McCain.

It's not exactly the Third Estate that our forefathers might have imagined, but it might be closer than we think to the one our foremothers might have hungered for. And I have a suspicion that this show -- conceived of as great entertainment for stay-at-home-moms folding laundry in the late morning hours -- might just play a significant role in the final hour of this all-important national election.