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The Back Room

A Commentary By Susan Estrich

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

I have one word of advice for the fancy folks at the Republican National Committee who shelled out $75,000 at Neiman Marcus and $50,000 at Saks Fifth Avenue, among other places, to dress Sarah Palin and family: Loehmann's.

And if you want upscale, consider the "Back Room" at Loehmann's, which carries all the top designers at a fraction of the price.

I don't begrudge the Alaska governor her nice clothes. Campbell Brown is right that there is a double standard when it comes to women in the public eye. Women are expected to look better. They are judged more harshly, scrutinized more closely, criticized more intensely. So by all means, the first woman on the Republican ticket should look vice presidential even if she doesn't always sound it.

But the people who went out and spent $150,000 on clothes did her a terrible disservice. And her failure to recognize it, to stop it before it cost her, is one more sign, if one more were needed, of why -- whatever she's wearing -- the woman is not ready for prime time.

The first problem with the shopping spree is strictly legal. It is clear that neither the McCain campaign nor the Obama campaign could legally pay for candidate/spouse clothing, even if it was bought for the camera and not the family room. The law is clear on this. Campaign funds aren't supposed to be spent on what we generally think of as personal items, even if in politics the personal is political.

It's not because taxpayers provide the funds. In fact, the Obama campaign, which is not publicly funded, is no freer to buy clothes than the McCain campaign, which is. It's because buying the clothes on a candidate's back looks even more like buying the candidate than paying for an ad or an office worker. Whether it's a difference in kind, or just one of degree at some level, politicians should not be totally for sale. At least not down to their underwear.

So if the McCain camp couldn't buy Palin's clothes, why is it OK for the same special interests and private donors to buy them through the mechanism of the Republican National Committee?

The short answer: I'm not sure it is, much less that it should be.

Frankly, though, I don't expect Palin to know that. I teach election law and have for decades, and I'm telling you it's a close question. It's fair to blame the folks at the RNC for not addressing it. But

it's not fair to blame a non-lawyer who has never run a campaign governed by federal law for not knowing enough to ask the question.

It's the politics piece that reflects poorly on Palin's judgment. Why "Needless Markups" as the store of choice? The economy is in meltdown, and you race off to a store with "Fifth Avenue" in its name?

I must confess. As my friend Annie always kids me, I'd rather debate Newt Gingrich on national television than be forced into Barneys/Neiman's/Saks alone. Newt doesn't intimidate me. The salesladies at those stores do.

I know that I'm better educated, make more money, all that stuff, but it doesn't matter. I walk in and feel like they can see right through me to the girl from Lynn who went to college with all the labels torn out of her clothes because they were bought at off-retail stores and all the "FD's" marked in her shoes because they were factory defects. I know who I am, and I figure they do, too, which is why, if I need something nice, I head for the Back Room or one of my neighborhood resale stores.

I don't think Palin sent her personal shoppers out to Neiman's and Saks with a list. But she didn't stop them, either. A woman who sells herself as one of us may not know about the legalities of buying clothes with campaign dollars. But she should know that spending more on your fall wardrobe than about 99 percent of all Americans make in a year is stupid politics -- a reaffirmation that the Republican Party is the party of rich women who shop at Neiman's and Saks and not of the working mothers, recent immigrants and bargain-basement Lynn girls who haunt the Back Room at Loehmann's.

She's supposed to be one of us. But one of us would've taken one look at those price tags and said, "What are you, nuts? I can get it at Loehmann's."

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