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Sarah's Shopping Spree

When Politico revealed yesterday that the Republican National Committee had spent $150K at Saks and Neiman Marcus to dress Sarah Palin for the campaign trail, your favorite law prof's telephone lines lit up. 

Was it legal?  Yes.  Campaign finance laws prohibit the conversion to personal use of contributions accepted by a candidate, specifically including clothing (2 U.S.C. 439(a)) -- but this was RNC money, not funds from the McCain campaign.  Nice loophole.  Even if the bills had been paid with a candidate's contributions, the campaign could still have argued that this particular clothing was not "an expense that would exist irrespective of the candidate's election campaign," so long as Sarah wore the clothes for campaigning only.  When a spokesperson stated that the intent all along had been to donate the clothes to a charity after the campaign, the idea may have been to establish this argument.  And contrary to some suggestions, if the RNC retains ownership of the clothes and merely lets Sarah use them during the campaign, she shouldn't have to pay income tax on the $150K. 

Was it politically savvy?  Are you kidding? Mrs. Joe Six-Pack doesn't drop $150K at a time at luxury retailers.  Especially not in the middle of an economic meltdown.  Of course, we're a visual culture, and political theatre requires makeup, props, lighting -- and yes, costumes.  For Sarah to be on the road and photographed every day for a couple of months, the wardrobe augmentation was strategic and perhaps necessary.  But for a political candidate billing herself as a hockey mom and trying to overcome a reputation as attractive but uninformed, going the luxury route was a PR disaster.

For more on my conversations yesterday, check out the following:

  • Olivia Barker at U.S.A. Today
  • Frank James at the Chicago Tribune online (my favorite comment -- and, yes, fashion law now exists!)
  • Robin Abcarian and Kate Linthicum at the L.A. Times
  • Jennifer Garske at AP Radio
The moral of the story?  If you're seeking office, make sure you look good -- but not too good.  And save your exclusive B-list shopping trip (Barney's, Berdorf's, Bendel's, Bloomie's) for the post-election celebration.