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Pondering Palin's
Social Agenda Pre-Debate

Pondering Palin's
Social Agenda Pre-Debate

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Gov. Sarah Palin talked abortion and LGBT issues with Katie Couric in the lead-up to Thursday's debate and arguably gave one of her stronger media appearances thus far. But her public record on social issues and how her debate performance will play remains less than clear.

Alaska governor Sarah Palin waded deeply into the area of social issues for the first time since being named John McCain's running mate during her most recent interview with CBS's Katie Couric. In one of her more deft media dances to date, Palin discussed both abortion and homosexuality in ways that will likely satisfy her base without totally alienating independents.

"As for homosexuality, I am not going to judge Americans and the decisions that they make in their adult personal relationships," Palin told Couric. "I have one of my absolute best friends for the last 30 years who happens to be gay and I love her dearly and she is not my gay friend, she is one of my best friends who happens to have made a choice that isn't a choice that I have made. But I'm not going to judge people."

While most gays and lesbians reject the notion that their sexuality is a choice, the characterization is a wink to Palin's Christian evangelical base -- her bread and butter -- that tempered with her tone of tolerance will avoid leaving an unnecessarily bitter taste in the mouths of many Middle Americans.

On abortion, Palin called herself unapologetically pro-life but added that she understood there are "good people" on both sides of the issue. Pressed by Couric on whether it should be made illegal for women who are victims of rape or incest to get an abortion, Palin responded, "I'm saying that, personally, I would counsel the person to choose life, despite horrific, horrific circumstances that this person would find themselves in. And, um, if you're asking, though, kind of foundationally here, should anyone end up in jail for having an ... abortion, absolutely not. That's nothing I would ever support."

Homosexuality and abortion essentially form the yin and the yang of nation's social issues, with polling indicating that even as Americans slowly grow more accepting of LGBT rights, they are consistently trending more conservative when it comes to abortion rights. Presumably, these are also issues that fit more easily into Governor Palin's comfort zone, given that her answers on them seemed almost cagey compared to her halting, nonsensical responses to economic and foreign policy questions posed in previous interviews with both Couric and ABC's Charlie Gibson.

Though Sarah Palin is well-known to be a person of Christian faith who comes out of a particularly conservative branch of Protestantism known as the Assemblies of God, as governor of Alaska, she has failed to make social issues a key policy concern of her administration.

"She has not used gays very directly in her campaigning," Steve Haycox, a history professor at the University of Alaska, wrote in an e-mail. "She has used abortion much more directly. But she has suppressed her social conservative agenda during her term as governor, partly because there's not much support for it across Alaska broadly ('freedom' gets in the way of legislating morality here); and because she did not want to deflect attention from her principal policy objective, Alaska's economic future (i.e. a natural gas pipeline)."

Earlier in her political career, Palin's conservative influences surfaced more often. As mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, she questioned the local librarian about her stance on banning books from the public library. Though no credible reports produced a list of exactly which books Palin might have deemed public enemy number one, fellow Alaskan Howard Bess has said that his book Pastor, I Am Gay was high on the hit list. "I'm as certain of that as I am that I'm sitting here," he told Salon's David Talbot. "This is a small town, we all know each other. People in city government have confirmed to me what Sarah was trying to do."

In terms of reproductive rights and women's issues, Palin not only made it clear that she did not support abortion even in cases of rape or incest, she also reportedly allowed the Wasilla Police Department to charge women seeking treatment for rape for their own rape kits. Most governments provide the kits -- used to gather forensic evidence to determine whether a crime has been committed and by whom -- for free. According to the state Health and Human Services Department, Alaska has ranked among the top five states in the nation for the highest rate of reported rape per capita every year since 1976. The rape rate is currently around twice the national average.

Perhaps surprisingly, as governor, Palin has gone the opposite direction on social issues. "I think most PFLAG supporters in Alaska, we're uncomfortable with her personal stands, but we haven't seen her public policy agenda to be as threatening as the previous administration," says Jonathan Anderson, a spokesman for Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays-Juneau and professor of public administration at University of Alaska.

Anderson notes that while Palin's predecessor as governor, Frank Murkowski, created an Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in 2004, Palin has apparently killed the department -- taking it from a $1.2 million operating budget in 2008 to eliminating it from the 2009 budget bill.

"Governor Murkowski made a big huge deal of faith-based initiatives," says Anderson, "I just haven't heard it even mentioned in the past year and a half. So we're curious. That was an example of him pushing his agenda. I don't think that benefited him very much -- it was obvious that neither he nor his lieutenant governor gained popularity over their positions." Palin defeated the Republican incumbent in a landslide primary, with Murkowski only getting 17% of the GOP vote.

Anderson adds that Planned Parenthood just had a grand opening in Juneau and Palin hasn't said a word about it, "whereas she has been much more vocal on environmental issues," he says. "During the primaries there was a proposition on mining and the Clean Water Act and she took out full-page ads saying 'Governor Palin personally opposes Proposition 4.' She's been extremely vocal on keeping up the mining and drilling in ANWR [the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge]."

In fact, the key to Governor Palin's widely advertised 80% approval ratings, far from being an emphasis on social conservatism, has been her ability to bring money back to Alaska and its residents.

"While some of the national issues are important -- they're not what wins elections in Alaska. What wins elections in Alaska is getting more stuff for Alaskans," says Anderson. "When we get more government earmarks, when we get more dollars from oil -- these are the issues that dominate Alaskan politics. All these issues that are of national importance, she has no real experience with and we don't demand that it be addressed here."

As she heads into the vice-presidential debate Thursday night, the nation will undoubtedly be watching Governor Palin's performance with bated breath. Her unscripted interviews have been widely panned, even by conservatives such as former Bush speechwriter and columnist David Frum, who told The New York Times, "I think she has pretty thoroughly -- and probably irretrievably -- proven that she is not up to the job of being president of the United States."

Since her enthusiastic welcome to the campaign trail, Palin's national approval ratings have been sliding in the polls, and the debate will her best chance between now and November 4 to right her trajectory.

University of Washington political science professor David Domke notes that white women flocked to the Walter Mondale-Geraldine Ferraro ticket in the aftermath of the 1984 Democratic Convention. "But they didn't stay," Domke says. "Reagan won 54% of women in that election."

But so far Palin has done her job in helping to shore up the Republican white evangelical base, predominantly in the South. "The data suggests that the movement toward McCain was pretty sizably in southern states, where he was underperforming pretty substantially," he says. "These were states [Barack] Obama was probably not going to win anyway."

Despite Palin's religious underpinnings, Domke doesn't expect the governor to give any surprising answers on social issues during the debate. "We're seeing a situation where Palin doesn't need to say anything about her faith to convince evangelicals or Christian conservatives that she's one of them," says Domke, who authored a book about George W. Bush's use of faith in politics called The God Strategy. "She needs to convince the general public that she's one of them."

While people rarely vote for or against a presidential candidate based solely on their VP pick, Domke says Palin needs to come across as a competent politician at a minimum-- otherwise voters will question Senator McCain's motivations and, consequently, his judgment in choosing her.

"That may be the ultimate fulcrum of this election, is to what extent McCain can convince voters that he didn't cave to the evangelical right just to win this election," he says.

And to that point, Governor Palin must demonstrate that behind all the talking points that have been drilled into her, there's an authentic person with real convictions and a fortitude of spirit. "I'm still thinking," says Anderson, "What does Sarah Palin stand for other than more dollars for Alaska? The national stage will demand more from her -- at least I think it will."

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