The LA Times DIsh Rag blog crafts the perfect lede for the story that Sarah Palin installed a tanning bed in the Alaska governor's mansion at a price of up to $35,000: "What's the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? A tanning bed!"
It's impressive that in just one day the story has already jumped from something called Narco News to Politico, Us, and a few other sites. Now we'll see if it gains real traction.
Should it? In one sense, no. It tells us nothing important about Palin's qualifications for office. But that's completely beside the point, seeing as how the mainstream media spent several months of 2007 justifying their extensive coverage of John Edwards' $400 haircuts.
It's not a perfect analogy. The Edwards haircut was first reported because he paid for it with campaign funds (before reimbursing the campaign). But that's not why it blew up, as Roger Simon explained in Politico.
The cost of the haircut was the issue... because no normal person -- man or woman -- could possibly pay $400 for a haircut. And even though the American people are used to rich people running for office, when a person is that extravagant, it turns off voters... [one voter wrote]: "Spending $400 for a haircut shows a lack of judgment. I don't care how wealthy he is, Edwards cannot be expected to carefully steward the public purse when he obviously cannot control his own spending."
The News & Observer also turned to a reader to justify its coverage: "A man who claims to be of common stock with deep mill-town roots gets haircuts costing more than his old country barber made in a week and lives in a gaudy manse that would have made that mill owner green with envy."
There's a lot more like that out there. You'll also find the excuse that Edwards opened himself up to this criticism by positioning himself as a champion of the poor. Now it's absolutely true that there's no indication whatsoever that Sarah Palin gives a shit about poor people, so she's off the hook there. But this line of argument against Edwards was almost always paired with the one about him having, in the words of the AP's Ron Fournier an "everyman image."
Sarah Palin's everywoman image -- including her alleged "frugality" -- is pretty much the entire justification for her spot on the ticket. That makes the tanning bed story fair game, especially in combination with the per deims and other things that have bubbled up. (Speaking of those per diems, why did Palin buy a tanning bed for a house she rarely stayed at? Doesn't that make this even more outrageous? Does she have a second tanning bed in Wasilla?) Really, there's no excuse for this not to be all over the cable news today. Especially since, as this very post makes clear, it lends itself really well to cheap puns and exploitative visuals. And I haven't even mentioned John McCain's medical history.
Lastly, there was one more angle on the Edwards story that is worth noting here. Susan Estrich put it this way.
In high school, when you call someone a "pretty boy," it’s not a compliment. Unfortunately for Edwards, the same is true in politics. The reason his haircut has stuck, where Bill Clinton’s fancy one didn’t, is because it captures the flip side of Edwards’ boyish good looks. The flip side is the pretty boy, which is not what a country focused on terrorism and looking for toughness wants in a candidate.
Eric Alterman translated: "the haircut obsession is designed to feminize the candidate and thereby undermine his credentials as macho-man for President--which are, by the way, those deemed to be the most important by the media. Ann Coulter calls him a "faggot." Maureen Dowd, Chris Matthews and Joe Scarborough, among many others, use the term "Breck Girl." The wording is more polite, but the effect is the same."
Now we're in a tricky spot: It's OK to demean a man by calling him girly, but if you call a woman girly, that's sexist. Seriously, watch for this argument by Palin apologists, including ones who were among those calling Edwards girly a year ago.
I did a very quick Google search to prepare this post, but I know there's a lot more out there that can make the case for pushing tanning bed-gate overwhelming. Readers are encouraged to find examples pundits and right wing bloggers attacking Edwards using language that should apply equally to Palin.