Hear Them Growl

Sarah Palin says a new crop of conservative women will ‘rise up’ to protect their cubs. But will they?

ma·ma griz·zly noun, pl. -zlies

1. Large brown bear, female of the species, native to North America with big claws. 2. A certain breed of U.S. politician, female, who stands for…

…what exactly? On some level, the term isn’t hard to figure out. A mama grizzly is a conservative woman with “common sense,” as Sarah Palinputs it, someone who “rises up” to protect her children when she sees them endangered by bad policies in Washington. She is fearless, and that, in combination with her femaleness, makes her scary—a new kind of political predator. She will take on any foe and, the implication is, rip him or her to shreds.

Two self-proclaimed “Mama Grizzlies,” supporters of Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle, discuss why more women like Angle and Sarah Palin should be elected to office., Video muted: click volume for sound

Palin first described herself as a mama grizzly during her 2008 vice presidential run. She floated the current usage—as a movement—in a speech before a pro-life women’s group in May, and soon she was reflecting on the special qualities of mama bears on her Facebook page. “Mama bears not only [forage] for themselves to prepare for winter, they [work] twice as hard to slay salmon for their cubs, too.” By late June, Palin’s political-action committee had realized the emotional power of the image, and made an Internet ad—nearly half a million views to date, titled “Mama Grizzlies”—which is as plaintive and urgent as a 1960s protest song. It calls America’s women to a sisterhood of grizzlies “because moms kind of just know when there’s something wrong.”

Political pundits and journalists were delighted. Like beauty-contest judges, they began to bestow the mama grizzly title upon the women Palin endorsed, such as Nikki Haley, who is running for governor in South Carolina; Carly Fiorina, a Senate candidate in California; and Susana Martinez, a gubernatorial candidate in New Mexico. Palin was soon anointing mama grizzlies herself. When she endorsed Arkansas congressional candidate Cecile Bledsoe on Facebook, Palin explicitly referred to her as part of a growing list of “commonsense conservative ‘mama grizzlies.’ ”

Now, as the 2010 elections approach, the term has become a familiar part of the lexicon: like soccer moms or Joe Six-Pack in previous elections, it captures and reflects something in the prevailing national mood. Candidates who want to identify themselves as a certain kind of woman with a certain set of values use ursine language on the stump and in interviews. “Don’t get between me and my cubs, or you’ve got trouble,” Sharron Angle, the U.S. Senate candidate from Nevada, told the National Review in June. (She was recalling a fight she’d had with state authorities over a small Christian home school she ran.) Other Republicans who qualify as grizzlies are Michele Bachmann, the congressional incumbent in Minnesota, and Christine O’Donnell, the would-be senator whose recent primary upset in Delaware has caused hand-wringing among members of both parties.

But again, what exactly does the term mean? If the grizzlies are united by an anti-establishment fury rooted in maternal concern, then it’s fair to ask what their records show they’ve done for kids. Not just for their own kids—which in Palin’s case, especially, is well documented—but for America’s kids, and their families as well. Even some Republicans wonder whether all the fearsome roars are merely election-year antics with little substance. “ ‘Mama grizzlies’ has a catch to it, and you save your cubs—but what they’re lacking is solutions,” says former Republican congresswoman Connie Morella. “They want to take their country back. Back to where?”

With few exceptions, the grizzlies have been disinterested in the issues and policies that their political opponents say are good for children—despite new numbers from the census showing that rising numbers of America’s children are poor. Most of these candidates have vowed to fight to repeal President Obama’s health-care plan, for instance, and Bachmann and Haley have taken special aim at CHIP, a federal program aimed at helping low-income kids get health insurance. In 2001, as a member of Nevada’s state Assembly, Angle voted no on a domestic-violence bill that would recognize restraining orders issued in other states. In 2007 Haley, a state representative, voted against a measure that would have created a kindergarten program for at-risk kids. As governor of Alaska in 2008, Palin slashed funding for Covenant House that included resources for teenage mothers. In 2009 Bachmann voted no on a bill that would give federal employees four weeks of paid parental leave.

Palin, Haley, Bachmann, Angle, and O’Donnell all declined to comment for this story. (Most grizzly candidates regard the mainstream press as the enemy.) But a review of their positions suggests that a grizzly’s first priority is to protect her cubs by keeping government the heck out of their lives. “Government,” in this sense, generally means broad intrusions, such as taxes, the U.S. Department of Education, and federal stimulus money, as well as smaller ones, such as proposals to increase Pell Grants (designed to make college more affordable, opposed by Bachmann). From a grizzly’s point of view, the government is everywhere, and it needs to back off. “We’ve watched the tentacles of big government weasel their way into every part of our lives,” said O’Donnell at a Values Voters speech in Washington, D.C. “Bureaucrats and politicians in Washington think they should decide what kind of lightbulb we use, what kind of toilets we flush, what kind of car we drive…They’ll buy your teenage daughter an abortion, but they won’t let her buy a sugary soda in a school’s vending machine.” O’Donnell, who doesn’t have children, refers in speeches to “our grandchildren,” thus forging a conceptual alliance with her sister bears.

The grizzlies make the connection between small government and children’s welfare explicit. They believe stimulus money and regulations suppress free-market forces that would create new jobs. “When people don’t have jobs, they don’t have food,” explains Heidi Smith, a friend of Angle’s and head of the Washoe County, Nev., GOP. “There’s a loss of self-respect if you can’t provide for your family … The less amount of government interfering with family life, the more families can prosper.” Ashley Landess, a friend of Haley’s and president of the South Carolina Policy Council, concurs. “Children are the most stable and most protected when their parents are able to provide for them,” she says. “That is what Nikki talks about.”

Most important, say the grizzlies—and on this they are generally in tune with conservatives—is the need for a serious dose of fiscal responsibility, managed by people with an old-fashioned sense of personal probity. In the Palin ad a woman holds a sign that says ANNOY LIBERAL[S]. WORK HARD & PAY YOUR OWN BILLS. Haley, who has two children but has never referred to herself as a grizzly, is just the sort of pro-business, low-tax, limited-government conservative Palin loves. Her platform is focused mostly on economic issues: creating jobs and unleashing entrepreneurial energy by slashing taxes. She holds herself out as a paragon of fiscal responsibility (never mind that she and her husband have failed to pay their taxes on time in each of the past five years).

O’Donnell, too, preaches fiscal responsibility on behalf of children, but hers is a tougher case to make. According to the Wilmington, Dela., News Journal, O’Donnell defaulted on her student loans, as well as on her mortgage. Aside from running quixotic campaigns for the U.S. Senate, O’Donnell hasn’t had a real job since 2004. Meanwhile, the nonpartisan watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has filed complaints with the Delaware U.S. attorney and the Federal Election Commission, alleging that O’Donnell embezzled $20,000 in campaign funds “to cover her personal expenses” and committed tax evasion by not claiming those funds as income. “If what you’re doing is sending someone to Washington to cut the deficit, why on earth send someone who can’t manage her own finances?” says the former Republican governor of New Jersey, Christine Todd Whitman. “How does that give the voters a level of confidence?” (“I think the fact that I have struggled financially is what makes me so sympathetic,” O’Donnell told the Wilmington paper.)

Grizzlies oppose abortion on the grounds that “unborn children” (their language) are the most vulnerable of all. Angle’s views are harsh: when asked by a radio interviewer in June what she’d tell a young girl who’d been raped by her father, Angle responded, “Two wrongs don’t make a right,” and that the girl should turn “a lemon situation into lemonade.” O’Donnell, on the other hand, comes across as more thoughtful. Her family struggled mightily with the moral dimensions of abortion when a sister needed the surgery to save her own life, she has said. In cases where it’s one life or another, “that is a family decision.”

Like Palin, Bachmann lives out her pro-life views convincingly. Over the years she has cared for 23 foster children—in addition to five of her own. “Four [foster kids] at a time were the most we had,” she told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2007. “There were times I thought, I’m so tired, I’ll never get conditioner in my hair again.” As a state legislator, Bachmann pushed for anti-abortion initiatives, such as the 2005 Positive Alternatives Act, which has provided some $2.4 million in state Department of Health grants to programs that encourage and assist women in carrying their pregnancies to term and caring for their babies. (For her part, Whitman wonders how legislating against abortion jibes with the grizzlies’ small-government arguments: “We can agree or disagree on the role of government in our personal life, but a less intrusive government is not in your bedroom.”)

No two bears are exactly alike. Angle and Bachmann got their start in local politics as moms of small kids, working to improve local schools, and developed predictable antipathies toward teachers’ unions and education bureaucracies. “Michele’s view is that parents are the ultimate educators and should call the shots,” says Tom Prichard, president of the Minnesota Family Council. She has voted against funding early-childhood education, student-retention measures, and school modernization. Angle pushed a Nevada judge to expand definitions of home-schooling to accommodate other moms like her, who sent their children to small, family-run religious schools. As a state legislator, she also fought the conventional wisdom that kids have different learning styles. She introduced two bills that mandated the teaching of phonics, saying, “We need to return to the basics of education.” According to fellow legislators, Angle refused to meet with the teachers’ union or lobbyists while she pushed the bills.

Palin, by comparison, is an educational progressive. The daughter of a schoolteacher—and a mom who sent (or sends) four kids to public schools—Palin refused to advocate for school vouchers in Alaska and supports infusions of public money into the education system. “Our schools have to be really ramped up in terms of the funding they are deserving,” she said during the 2008 vice presidential debate. “Teachers need to be paid more … We have got to increase standards.” While governor, Palin repeatedly increased education spending, and shortly before leaving office last year proposed a plan to “forward-fund all our school districts with more than a billion dollars.” The only place where Palin veered to the right was in the teaching of creationism. “I don’t think there should be a prohibition against debate if it comes up in class,” she said in 2008.

Policy debates about equal pay, parental leave, and day care hardly register with these grizzlies. Still, most see motherhood as a potent campaign tool. Palin has made it a central theme of recent speeches (though she’s not running for anything, at least not yet). Angle’s civic priorities, including early antipornography efforts, were borne out of her experience as the mother of two. She saw pornographic magazines on full display next to the comic books in convenience stores and prevailed upon the district attorney to get them covered up. Haley, on the other hand, is in a tight race in the state that ranks 50th in the number of women elected to public office. Perhaps for that reason, she refers to herself more often as a businesswoman than a mom. O’Donnell is the most inconsistent. In an approach almost unheard of in right-wing circles, she complained to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and sued an employer—a conservative think tank called the Intercollegiate Studies Institute—for $7 million in 2005 for gender discrimination. Yet in 1998 she appeared on cable television defending the Southern Baptist Convention’s new language commanding that wives “graciously submit” to their husbands, and she has been an outspoken opponent of women in the military. Her erratic stances and statements have caused even party stalwart Karl Rove to call her “nutty.”

Fundamentally, the mama-grizzly phenomenon is not really a movement or even a political term that represents a fully coherent set of ideas. It’s mostly a marketing tool, meant to draw attention to Americans’ broad dissatisfaction with the way things are. Fair enough. Many people are dissatisfied, and they want to vent and they want to change Washington. But in the wild, real mama grizzlies are known to be aggressive, irrational, and mean. The issues facing the country are complex, and bears are not.