The Price of 'Palin Couture'

(Stephan Savoia / AP Photo)

As the old saying goes, "Clothes make the man"--or woman. But can they unmake her as well?

Despite a war in Iraq, another in Afghanistan and a world economic system teetering on the brink of collapse, the good people of Washington D.C. are chattering this afternoon about one thing and one thing only: Sarah Palin's wardrobe. As the Politico first reportedlast night, the Republican National Committee has spent more than $150,000 "to clothe and accessorize" Palin since she joined the GOP ticket in late August--a sum that includes purchases of $49,425.74 from Saks Fifth Avenue, $75,062.63 from Neiman Marcus, $9,447.71 from Macy's and $5,102.71 from Bloomingdale's.

For Republicans, this is a nightmare. To put it mildly.

Palinites, of course, will claim that Palin's new duds are irrelevant. The RNC's expenditures weren't illegal or anything, they'll say. Politicians always invest in clothing and makeup. Which is correct--except that it ignores how America's political culture operates. The press and the public don't obsess over what's important. They obsess over what's memorable--particularly when it confirms something that they already suspected about a candidate. For years now, the GOP has taken advantage of our collective weakness, seizing on minute details of dress and demeanor to portray Democrats as effete, inauthentic snobs. Palin's $150,000 shopping spree is exactly that sort of detail--trifling, distracting, ultimately meaningless. But given that voters have already punished her Democratic predecessors for far cheaper infractions, there's no reason to suspect that they'll suddenly give her pass.

For perspective, let's consider some recent numbers. Four years ago, John Kerry was labeled an elitist for riding an $8,000 Serotta Ottrott road bike. But during a single day at Neiman Marcus in Minneapolis, Palin's stylist dropped nine times that amount on apparel. In this year's Democratic primaries, a single $400 trim was enough to undermine John Edwards's populist cred and reinforce the perception that he was a vain lightweight. But Palin managed to spend 12 times as much--$4,716.49--on hair and makeup in a single month. All told, $150,000 could buy 50,000 bottles of Black Forest Berry Honest Tea, 50,000 MET-RX chocolate roasted-peanut protein bars AND 50,000 bunches of arugula--all examples, according to the McCain campaign, of The One's prissy "celebrity" sensibility.

No one thinks Palin is an elitist, or a snob, or a celebrity. But according to the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, 55 percent of voters--a substantial majority--consider her unprepared for the presidency. Thanks in part to Tina Fey--and, truth be told, Palin's own interviews with Katie Couric--many Americans now see her as a sort of political Eliza Doolittle: plucked from obscurity, pumped full of talking points and still not ready for prime time.

In short: all style, no substance. The fact that the cash-strapped McCain campaign decided (in the midst of a major economic crisis) to spend four times Joe the Plumber's annual income on one month of Palin's apparel--even though she can't namea single Supreme Court case she disagrees with--only serves to reinforce this "Image First" impression. The irony is that the very image McCain and Co. invested so heavily to create--the image of Palin as a small-town, 'Joe Six-Pack' American--is precisely the one that's undercut by the massive receipts from Saks and Neiman Marcus. 

Fair or unfair, the shoe--or, in this case, the red patent-leather pump--is suddenly on the other foot.

PHOTO GALLERY: The Saks Girls on Sarah Palin's Wardrobe