The Democrats’ Bill Maher Problem

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on March 18, 2012 – 11:42 am

On February 23, comedian Bill Maher announced that he was giving a one million dollar donation to President Obama’s Super PAC.

Conservatives immediately cried foul, pointing to Maher’s history of making incendiary – and often misogynistic – comments on his HBO show Real Time with Bill Maher and during his stand-up act.

Among other comments, Maher has referred to Sarah Palin as a “cunt,” called Michele Bachmann a “dumb twat,” and asked whether the real name of Bristol Palin’s book should be retitled, “Whoops, There’s a Dick in Me.”

ShePAC, a political action committee that supports conservative women running for office, compiled a few of his more incendiary comments:

Six days after Maher gave his gift, conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh created an even bigger stir when he attacked Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke by labeling her a “slut.”

As liberals protested Limbaugh’s ugly comments, conservatives asked why the left wasn’t similarly outraged that President Obama’s fundraisers accepted a check from Maher, whose comments also disparaged women.

Bill Burton, the head of Obama’s Priorities USA Action SuperPAC, tried to explain why Mahers’ comments were different:

“The notion that there is an equivalence between what a comedian has said over the course of his career and what the de facto leader of the Republican Party said to sexually degrade a woman who led in a political debate of our time, is crazy.”


David Axelrod, President Obama’s campaign senior strategist, took the same approach:

“Words Maher has used in his stand up act are a little bit different than — not excusable in any way — but different than a guy with 23 million radio listeners using his broadcast platform to malign a young woman for speaking her mind in the most inappropriate, grotesque ways."


Both men are trying to dismiss Mahers’ comments as somehow different than Limbaugh’s. And I agree with their assertions that comedians should have more license to push the rhetorical envelope than others in public life, and that Limbaugh’s vicious, days-long attack on Ms. Fluke was more egregious than name calling by a comedian. But the standards of politics, not stand-up comedy, started to apply the moment the President’s SuperPAC accepted Maher’s high-profile, seven-figure gift. 

By accepting Maher’s donation, top Obama officials are now forced to spend valuable time parsing the differences between the appropriate and inappropriate uses of misogynistic language, having to explain to voters why calling Sarah Palin a “c*nt” is different than calling Sandra Fluke a “slut.” As a result, the Obama Administration – and more broadly, the Democratic Party – is ceding the moral high ground it temporarily claimed after Limbaugh made his incendiary comments.

It’s fair to ask whether President Obama’s SuperPAC should have accepted the gift from one of the left’s biggest lightning rods in the first place. But Obama’s fundraising arm also got a bit unlucky. It accepted Maher’s gift before Limbaugh made his comments, and it’s easy to imagine they would have rejected the gift in the wake of the Limbaugh scandal. 

Now they face a critical choice: return the gift and reoccupy the high ground, or keep the gift and continue to endure charges of acting hypocritically. They should return the gift and take the issue off the table.

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  • About Mr. Media Training

    The Mr. Media Training Blog offers daily tips to help readers become better media spokespersons and public speakers. It also examines how well (or poorly) public figures are communicating through the media.

    Brad Phillips is the Founder and Managing Editor of the Mr. Media Training Blog. He is the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm with offices in NYC and DC.

    Brad Phillips

    Before founding Phillips Media Relations in 2004, Brad worked as a journalist with ABC's Nightline with Ted Koppel and CNN's Reliable Sources and The Capital Gang.

    Brad tweets at @MrMediaTraining.

    Christina Mozaffari is the Senior Writer for the Mr. Media Training Blog. She is the Washington, D.C. vice president for Phillips Media Relations.

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    Before joining Phillips Media Relations in 2011, Christina worked as a journalist with NBC News, where she produced stories for MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, NBC Nightly News, and The Today Show.

    Christina tweets at @PMRChristina.

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