A new face for the Republican right

September 2, 2008

Alan Maass looks at the Religious Right zealot who the Republicans are nominating for vice president.

"A LADY who's a leader," gushed the Weekly Standard's William Kristol. "I would pull that lever," declared James Dobson of Focus on the Family. "[P]icking Sarah Palin may go down in political history as a masterful stroke of genius by John McCain," predicted the Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody.

After months of grumbling about their party's nominee and even threatening to sit out the election, leaders of the Republican right were over the moon about John McCain's choice for a running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

The pick was evidence of the hold that the Christian Right still has over the Republicans, in spite of McCain, who is viewed as dangerously "liberal" by conservatives, winning the presidential nomination. "The two constituencies who are most energized by Palin," wrote Jonathan Martin in the D.C.-based Politico newspaper, "just happen to be the twin grassroots pillars of the GOP: anti-abortion activists and pro-Second Amendment enthusiasts and sportsmen."

At the same time, the media's instantly arrived-at conventional wisdom was that Palin--as the first woman vice presidential candidate of the Republicans and only the second ever for the two major parties--would help McCain appeal to women voters disgruntled with the Democrats because Hillary Clinton lost the nomination to Barack Obama.

Palin's nomination appeals to the two strongest grassroots bases of the Republican Party: anti-abortionists and gun enthusiasts
Palin's nomination appeals to the two strongest grassroots bases of the Republican Party: anti-abortionists and gun enthusiasts

But there's a problem with that logic: Palin is a Christian Right extremist, and that's not what motivated anyone to vote for Hillary Clinton.

Palin opposes a woman's right to abortion, even in cases of rape and incest, which puts her beyond even McCain. She's the mother of five children, the youngest a four-month-old boy born after Palin learned that tests showed the fetus had Down Syndrome.

Palin wants the Christian Right's creationist fraud to be taught in schools. She has an undeserved reputation for being moderate on gay rights--she vetoed a bill that would have denied equal benefits for same-sex partners of state workers, but only, according to press reports, because the legislation would have been struck down in the courts. Like McCain, she opposes equal marriage rights.

Palin seems to have gained prominence in Alaska's Republican Party as a supporter of Pat Buchanan's racist, America First campaigns for the GOP presidential nomination in the 1990s. Palin "was a brigadier in 1996, as was her husband," Buchanan told MSNBC's Chris Matthews. "She's a terrific gal, she's a rebel reformer."

IF PALIN has a national reputation on any issue, it's energy--one area where McCain won some support over the summer, thanks to the feeble response from Obama and the Democrats.

McCain managed to shift attention away from oil company super-profits by pushing for offshore drilling to increase domestic oil production. He has a kindred spirit in Palin, who does him one better by advocating drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR)--something even McCain doesn't, given the overwhelming evidence that any oil extracted from ANWR would have a negligible impact on U.S. energy supplies.

According to reports, Palin appears to be more a tool of natural gas companies than the oil giants, but that's a distinction without a difference when it comes to environmental issues.

Palin apparently clings to a fiction even the Bush White House has given up: that the overwhelming scientific opinion recognizing climate change as the result of pollution shouldn't be trusted. That's another difference with McCain, who insisted that the Republican platform this year should at least recognize the reality of man-made global warming.

McCain's choice highlights the cynicism of his attacks on Barack Obama for lacking the experience to be president. The sum total of Palin's office-holding experience is two terms each as city council member and mayor of Wasilla, Ala., whose population as of 2000, during her second term as mayor, was 5,470--plus 20 months so far as governor of the country's 47th most populous state.

Fellow Alaska politicians don't appear to be very impressed. "She's not prepared to be governor," said Republican State Senate President Lyda Green. "How can she be prepared to be vice president or president?" State House Speaker John Harris, also a Republican, was more terse: "She's old enough...She's a U.S. citizen."

McCain's campaign staff tried to turn Palin's obscurity into a positive by claiming she was a brash outsider, who won the governorship by taking on a corrupt old boys' network in the state party. The mainstream media are buying this line so far. "By picking Palin, McCain has strengthened his reputation not as an ideologue, not a partisan, but as a reformer," wrote the veteran Washington Post commentator David Broder.

But that's rhetoric, not reality--for both ends of the ticket. Palin did have to beat incumbent Gov. Frank Murkowski in the party primary in 2006, and she succeeded by emphasizing the scandals embroiling him and Sen. Ted Stevens, such as the notorious "bridge to nowhere," a multi-million-dollar federal project engineered by Stevens.

Yet her conversion to "reformer" was late in coming. "Public records and her own statements show that the Alaska governor was a supporter of the bridge from Ketchikan to Gravina Island (population 50), but flip-flopped last year in what her political foes have called a bid to catch McCain's eye," reported the New York Daily News. As the Anchorage Daily News summarized, "Palin was for the Bridge to Nowhere before she was against it."

McCAIN REPORTEDLY chose Palin after all of two meetings--one face to face at the National Governors Association conference six months ago, and one by phone a week before he announced his selection. "Isn't it harder to become an assistant manager at Target?" asked Rick Klein of ABC News.

Notwithstanding the spin coming out of the McCain camp, choosing Palin was a concession to the Christian Right leaders who were threatening a fight on the convention floor in St. Paul if McCain picked a pro-choice running mate. Instead, McCain may be able to hope for an energized base to turn out votes on Election Day--the key, after all, to George Bush taking the White House twice in a row.

Palin is getting more attention for McCain than one of the frontrunners--McCain's hated rival Mitt Romney or Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, basically a non-entity--would have. And the theory that a "hockey mom" will win support among women voters will have its day among the cable TV talking heads.

But it won't happen on Election Day if Palin's commitment to the Republican right's most extreme dogmas is properly exposed. Palin is the new face for a political force that is discredited and despised among millions of people.

So the question returns to what Obama and the Democrats will do. Will they connect McCain and Palin to an agenda of war, corporate power and right-wing policies that growing numbers of people now reject? Or will they again try to be Republican Lite?

The selection of Palin isn't a "game-changer," as the media claimed. It's still the Democrats' election to lose.

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