Whoa, Mama

"There is a bear in the woods," goes the voice-over on a classic 1984 campaign ad of Ronald Reagan's. "Some people say the bear is tame. Others say it's vicious and dangerous. Since no one can really be sure who's right, isn't it smart to be as strong as the bear?"

Twenty-six years later, the bear is back, courtesy of Sarah Palin, but the metaphor is entirely different. In a video posted to her political action committee's website in July, she heralds the arrival of the "mama grizzly," explaining that "this year will be remembered as the year when commonsense conservative women get things done for our country." I'm not sure about the commonsense part, but an unprecedented number of conservative women are indeed on the 2010 ballot. Fourteen Republican women are running for U.S. Senate, and 94 are seeking House seats. This, Palin declares in the video as photos of smiling white women flash across the screen, is a "mom awakening."

While I don't agree with the candidates' politics, I do applaud the increase in women's prominence in the Republican Party. Of course, Palin and her ilk are not the only politicians to cite motherhood as an inspiration or credential for holding office. Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, who's running for re-election in November, touts her perspective "as a mother and grandmother." Nancy Pelosi was sworn in as the first female speaker of the House surrounded by her grandchildren. Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, who was elected in 1992 as "just a mom in tennis shoes," is now having to defend that image of herself. A new ad from a conservative business organization accuses, "You wore your tennis shoes out on our backs." The narrator, naturally, is female.

At first glance, the mama grizzlies appear to be using the classic conservative "family values" narrative, repackaged with a distinctly female bent. But while these candidates are indeed socially conservative -- most are proudly anti-choice and anti-gay -- this time the core narrative is fiscal, not cultural. These women insist they care about "the country we're leaving for our kids," which is why they vehemently oppose "government spending." After watching enough of their ads and campaign speeches, you start to get the idea that, when they gaze into their children's eyes, all these mothers can think about is the deficit.

Where do these candidates stand on children's health insurance? On family-leave policies? On consumer product safety? On early childhood education? We can make some inferences based on their anti-government talking points, but their campaigns don't even touch on these issues. When they do weigh in, they offer opposition, not solutions. They're against "Obamacare." Against cap-and-trade. Against spending. The campaign website of Sharron Angle, the extreme right-wing challenger to Harry Reid in Nevada, was recently scrubbed of calls to completely abolish the Department of Education.

Palin's mama grizzlies don't speak for all Republicans. They certainly don't speak for all moms. But despite their lack of real policy solutions, these women are arguably doing a better job than many progressive candidates of selling themselves as pro-parent. Especially in the pre-Obama years, Democrats had a hard time countering Republicans' specious claims as the party of "family values." Now Palin is giving them another chance to push back. When the mama grizzlies claim to speak for moms across America, we should point out that they don't offer any policies to help for working families.

These women's very political careers are made possible by the flexible hours, health-care access, and other benefits that they do not want to extend to other mothers. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, one of Palin's mama grizzlies who is an incumbent from Washington state, was pregnant the last time she ran for re-election. At an event in 2007, a young woman asked McMorris Rodgers how she balanced her career with caring for a newborn. "I quite honestly am guilty of putting most of my time and energy into career for most of my life," she responded. "A key factor for me is that I have a wonderful husband. He's retired and he's at home right now with Cole." What about the majority of American families that can't afford to have one parent stay home? McMorris Rodgers' party doesn't have an answer to that question.

The message of Reagan's 1984 scaremongering ad, of course, was that even if you aren't sure about the threat, it's good to be prepared to counter it. Whether or not the mama grizzlies are dangerous, they're worth pushing back against. Not just because they're wrong but because their mother -- centric framing offers progressives an opportunity to talk about policies that have, for far too long, been lost in the woods.

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