Ever since John McCain named Sarah Palin as his running mate, the central question has been “Who is Sarah Palin?” The fact of that matter is that nobody really seems to know, especially Palin herself.
When the announcement came down, politicos of every stripe began scrambling to examine her thin record in an attempt to figure out just what McCain thought that she could bring to the ticket beyond crass electoral benefits. Everyone, that is, except the Religious Right, which hailed the decision with a staggeringly over-the-top fervor considering that McCain had just named a one-term, relative unknown to fill out his ticket.
But as more becomes known about Palin, it is becoming increasingly clear just why the Right was so overjoyed.
Her militant opposition to abortion, going so far as to even refuse to support her own mother-in-law’s candidacy for Mayor because she was pro-choice; her efforts to oppose equality for gays and lesbians; her apparent affiliation with the secessionist Alaskan Independence Party; her support for teaching Intelligent Design; her reported efforts to censor library books and fire the town librarian – on and on it goes, with new details seemingly emerging by the hour, all suggesting that Palin is indeed the dream candidate the Right has been praying for.
Lost in all of this is Palin’s apparent willingness to utilize right-wing wedge issues when they suit her political needs and then downplay them when they don’t.
As John Stein, whom Palin defeated to become mayor of Wasilla, Alaska in 1996, recently told KCAW, Palin worked to inject the issue of abortion into the traditionally non-partisan mayor’s race and helped her pave the way for her own political aspirations: “The fundamental Christian values were very much a part of her background and the election, interestingly enough, tended to turn around the abortion issue. John Stein: pro-choice. Sarah Palin: anti-abortion. That was heavily promoted by local, state, and I think even national anti-choice groups.”
When she ran for Governor in 2006, Palin was only one of two candidate to respond to the Eagle Forum of Alaska’s Questionnaire – a questionnaire that the organization is now trying to hide by taking it off of their website – in which she explained her opposition to abortion, providing benefits to same-sex couples, to sex-ed and contraception distribution in schools, to hate crimes legislation, and declaring that “Preserving the definition of ‘marriage’ as defined in our constitution” would be among her top priorities if elected.
So while Palin is clearly willing to exploit wedge issues when they serve her needs, she seems to prefer to do so on the down-low and somewhat away from the public eye. When her opponent for Governor in 2006 tried to make an issue of her staunch anti-abortion views, Palin dismissed the issue, saying “I think it’s a shame … that anyone would try to make this issue a headline, banner issue in the campaign when it’s not” and saying that she wouldn’t push for state constitutional amendment to outlaw abortion because “there is no law that I could sign in office that could ever supersede the Supreme Court’s ruling.” While standing by her militant views, she insisted that “I am not one to be out there preaching and forcing my views on anyone else.”
When she was criticized for her views that creationism should be taught in science class, she backed off, saying that she wouldn’t “have religion as a litmus test, or anybody’s personal opinion on evolution or creationism” for members of the state school board.
In fact, it seems that when ever anyone tried to actually pin Palin down on her right-wing positions, her response was to dismiss the efforts as divisive and hypothetical:
A significant part of Palin’s base of support lies among social and Christian conservatives. Her positions on social issues emerged slowly during the campaign: on abortion (should be banned for anything other than saving the life of the mother), stem cell research (opposed), physician-assisted suicide (opposed), creationism (should be discussed in schools), state health benefits for same-sex partners (opposed, and supports a constitutional amendment to bar them).
Palin and her staff complained that efforts to raise these issues in public were divisive and hypothetical. The normally unflappable candidate seemed put-upon when she faced a string of such questions in the last debate, on public television and radio Thursday night.
“It’s interesting that so many questions do resolve around that centeredness that I have,” she said with a half-smile.
Palin said her reading of the Bible would not “bleed over into policy.”
In fact, Time Magazine suggests that central operating principle of Palin’s political career is the willingness to adopt a “new political identity” that suits her needs at any given moment:
By the time Sarah Palin was entering state politics, the hottest issue in Alaska wasn’t gay marriage or even abortion. It was corruption and cronyism. … She needed a new political identity to make it to the next level, so ethics reform became her calling card. “She’s a very savvy politician,” says Halcro. “So wedge issues were not part of the portfolio.”
“If anything,” he says, “she got tired of answering questions about them.” Halcro recalls one debate in October 2006 in which, after repeated questions about her opposition to abortion even in cases of rape or incest, she looked at the moderator with exasperation and asked if they were going to talk about anything besides abortion. It was detracting from her new message: cleaning up the capitol.
In the end, her political journey from banner-waving GOP social conservative to maverick reformer may simply be about good timing. It’s what former journalist Bill McAllister, who now works for Palin’s press staff, used to call “Sarah-dipity” — that uncanny gift of knowing exactly what voters are looking for at a particular moment. And, of course, the political will to give them what they want.
This ploy might have worked on the state-level, but Palin is now in the national spotlight and her “I’m-a-right-winger/I’m-a-moderate-independent-maverick” shtick is no longer going to fly.
While the McCain campaign is obviously pushing the narrative that Palin is a “co-maverick”, the GOP’s right-wing base is screaming that she is their dream come true and, it goes without saying, that both of those things cannot be true. And considering that Palin had been scheduled to be honored by Phyllis Schlafly and Republican National Coalition for Life today at the convention but cancelled at the last minute, it looks like the McCain campaign hasn’t quite been able to figure out which way it wants to go.