The Palin Effect: Here to stay

Sarah Palin changed the game for women and power, and it’ll never be the same again. So say a few well-known women — Arianna Huffington, former vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, White House Project president Marie Wilson, and More magazine editor in chief Lesley Jane Seymour — who met in New York this morning for “The Spin Room: Gender, Politics and Media in the 2008 Election.” The lively panel was sponsored by New York Women in Communications. And the panelists, mind you, are more likely to loathe than love Palin (they lean left politically, after all), but their message is that the Palin Effect is a good thing for women in the long run.

Here’s why: First, Palin matters. “She’s the epitome of the celebrification of politics,” said Seymour, who finds such a trend distasteful yet recognizes that it validates and augments Palin’s power. “She ain’t goin away.” Palin’s popularity ratings have risen, in fact, since Election Day, as she has swarmed the airwaves. Back home in her kitchen, cooking up caribou dogs with NBC Today‘s Matt Lauer, the Alaska governor promoted her state and her stance on energy policy. If, as the panelists noted, Palin had performed as well during the presidential race, John McCain might be heading to the White House.

As for sexism — which, depending on your politics, poisoned the presidential contest or did not — Palin changed perceptions of that too. The media, tough on Hillary Clinton, reverted to chivalry with Palin. Remember the vice presidential debate, when Palin could have won simply if she didn’t bomb? Expectations were so low. (Huffington recalled live-blogging about the debate at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit and asking McCain campaign co-chair Meg Whitman, the former eBay CEO, how Palin performed. “Good enough,” Whitman replied.)

As it turned out, another famous woman nixed the paternalistic treatment of Palin: “Katie Couric was the first person who went after her without sexism,” Ferraro said. Couric’s hard-charging interview on CBS sunk Palin’s prospects. It also revived Couric’s flagging career.

Meanwhile, the panelists gave high marks to a little-known woman whom we’re sure to hear more about: Valerie Jarrett, a longtime confidante of Barack Obama who helped his campaign avoid the leaks that typically mar campaigns (and fatally damaged Clinton’s). No drama Obama: Jarrett was key. “I’ve never seen a campaign that’s so good as the Obama campaign,” Ferraro noted. “If he runs the country the same way, we’ll be in great shape.”

What about Hillary Clinton? Oddly, this group had little to say about the supposed first woman president. But don’t read too much into that. At the end of the hour, the panelists forecast that four years from now, America could have two women running for president. Palin vs. Clinton: Can you imagine that?

P.S. In mid-September, 126 participants of the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit responded to a survey that included this question: What role do you think Hillary Clinton will have in 2012? Sixteen percent predicted that Clinton will be president. 40% predicted that she’ll be Senate majority leader. The rest of the group said she’ll be neither. So what do you think?

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