The Palin-Biden Debate: Betting on Resurgent Social Issues

Scott Swenson

With Sarah Palin's appeal to social conservatives and Joe Biden's pro-choice Catholicism, expect the McCain campaign to go all-in with the Culture War in Thursday's debate.

The vice-presidential candidates have plenty to discuss during Thursday’s debate.  They need to reassure Americans they are capable of assuming leadership of the nation should anything happen to their running mates. In the midst of a global economic crisis, an unwise and unpopular war in Iraq, the real war on terrorism in Afghanistan and elsewhere, declining real wages, jobs, increasing foreclosures, bank failures, climate change and concerns about America’s role in the world, Sen. Joe Biden and Gov. Sarah Palin should have an enormous audience as Americans look for national and international leadership.

Given Palin’s social conservative credentials and Biden’s pro-choice Catholicism, social issues are almost certain to come up. Because of the state of the economy, his slide in the polls, his "suspended" campaign to "lead" Congressional Republicans to vote for President Bush’s economic stabilization plan, and his own erratic pre-debate behavior — Sen. John McCain needs for social issues to come up. You can expect when they do, Sarah Palin will use her moment in the spotlight to jump on them in dramatic fashion as this week’s McCain gamble to shake up the race. 

Perhaps the most important thing Palin and Biden will do is demonstrate to voters the wisdom and judgment of the two men who selected them.  Americans will be watching to see which presidential candidate demonstrated the very best judgment about who is prepared to lead the country if necessary.

Neo-conservative New York Times columnist Bill Kristol suggested Sen. John McCain is ready to "liberate Palin to go on the offensive as a combative conservative in the vice-presidential debate on Thursday." During her introduction of Sen. McCain at an Ohio rally Monday, the contours of Palin’s strategy seemed to emerge: energy and family. 

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Hailing from oil rich Alaska, she will talk about energy policy to demonstrate command of an important issue and revive the "drill, baby, drill" chants from the GOP convention.  In Ohio that translated to "mine, baby, mine" and support for "clean coal" important throughout electoral battleground states in that region. 

Palin also indicated that she will be a voice for special needs children in the White House, something close to her heart as the mother of a child with Down’s Syndrome.

Palin openly discusses special needs children, using her family as a political issue, to motivate social conservative voters without having to openly talk about her own extreme views on abortion, contraception, abstinence-only-until-marriage, and gay rights — other than when asked in her very rare interviews. By talking about special needs children she can seem less threatening to the pro-choice independent voters the ticket needs.

Expect that to change Thursday night. Her selection was a nod to the social conservative base, and more than anything the McCain team needs her to have a strong debate performance. Conservative columnists like David Brooks, Rich Lowry, George Will, Kathleen Parker, David Frum and others are already in open revolt suggesting she’s not qualified.

Traditionally, conservatives like to campaign based on strong convictions. In order for Palin to appear in command and perform well, she needs to speak from the heart about issues she cares about, even if it risks offending independent voters. Most liberals and independents respect differences of opinion, even when social conservatives do not.

Palin will likely use every opportunity given to push social issues to the extremes in an effort to: 1) rattle Joe Biden and get him off message; and 2) breathe life into the McCain campaign by changing the subject in the media from the economy, our role in the world and who is prepared to lead the US into the future, as she did when McCain announced her selection.

Biden’s long record in the Senate, including chairing the Foreign Relations Committee, makes him amply prepared for the debate and as John McCain experienced during the first presidential debate, gives him the burden of high expectations. The nation is still getting to know Barack Obama, even after twenty months of his campaign, and is certainly still getting to know Sarah Palin — who hasn’t veered from talking points and scripted speeches at all.

Palin’s marginal performances in three network interviews to date give her the benefit of perhaps the lowest expectations ever for any candidate. However, as the Obama campaign has pointed out, she was a very good debater in her race for Governor and she has had plenty of prep time given her relatively light campaign schedule.

Biden’s gift of gab may be curtailed by the tight time controls the McCain campaign insisted on to protect Palin from the more free-flowing exchange moderators of the presidential debates are using.

But on social issues, Joe Biden is at odds with the political hierarchy of the Catholic Church, though he discusses his ability to separate private faith from public duty comfortably. Palin’s goal in the debate, by raising social issues, would not be to persuade people about the issue, but to demonstrate conviction and to make it harder for certain blocs of voters to abandon McCain. It is a strategy targeted at the narrow margins expected in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Indiana. McCain-Palin must hold onto Culture War voters who, because of real concerns about the economy, may consider voting for Obama-Biden.The gamble, as it has been all along, is that moderates will be made uncomfortable by a continuation of Culture War politics.

The question for voters, besides which of these two is qualified to be president on a moment’s notice, God forbid, and what their selection tells us about the men who chose them; is whether or not social issues are reason enough to support one ticket over the other during such turbulent times, if ever.

At least one conservative political leader is answering that question differently than I anticipate the McCain-Palin campaign will. Canadian Conservative Party Leader Stephen Harper responded to questions about abortion, as reported in the Globe and Mail, saying,

“We have a difficult world economy as we all know. That has to be the
focus of the government and I simply have no intention of ever making
the abortion question a focus of my political career.”

He said that some of his caucus members would like him to do so, and so
would some Liberals: “But, I have not done that in my entire political
career. Don’t intend to start now.”

“I have been clear throughout my entire political career I don’t intend
to open the abortion issue,” he said. “I haven’t in the past; I’m not
going to in the future.”


While women in Canada still have reason to suspect Harper’s governmnet would take action against women’s rights and are organizing against him, there isn’t one social conservative in the US today who could make the statement he did, having used social issues as a political weapon against political opponents, women, and racial and sexual minorities for a generation (or more). 

We now witness the results of the failures their divide and conquer tactics produce, as our economy crumbles, President Bush cannot lead his own party, and our democracy teeters.

It would be refreshing to hear Sarah Palin say something Harper-esque in the debate Thursday night, and for the two candidates to engage in a debate between combative conservatism and combative liberalism on issues of the economy, foreign policy, climate change, and jobs. It would be refreshing if social conservatives would stop focusing on imposing one narrow religious interpretation on the entire country, and start working on common sense policies supporting proven medical science and public health strategies to educate people with facts, and prevent unwanted pregnancies and STI’s.

We can hope for a real debate between two national leaders thinking big thoughts about the problems that face us, and how each ticket plans to lift all Americans up; a discussion worthy of the American people at a time when we need leaders who can bring us together.

Or we can have the next battle of the social conservative Culture War.

Which bet do you think McCain is making?

Analysis Law and Policy

Federal Court Says Trans Worker Can Be Fired Based on Owner’s Religious Beliefs

Jessica Mason Pieklo

“Plain and simple, this is just discrimination against a person because of who she is,” said John Knight, the director of the LGBT and HIV Project of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, in an interview with Rewire.

When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2014 in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that the owners of secular for-profit businesses could challenge laws they believed infringed on their religious liberties, civil rights advocates warned that the decision was just the start of a new wave of litigation. On Thursday, those predictions came true: A federal district judge in Michigan ruled that a funeral home owner could fire a transgender worker simply for being transgender.

The language of the opinion is sweeping, even if the immediate effect of the decision is limited to the worker, Aimee Stephens, and her boss. And that has some court-watchers concerned.

“Plain and simple, this is just discrimination against a person because of who she is,” said John Knight, the director of the LGBT and HIV Project of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, in an interview with Rewire.

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According to court documents, Stephens, an employee at Detroit’s R.G. & G.R. Funeral Homes, gave her boss—the business’ owner—a letter in 2013 explaining she was undergoing a gender transition. As part of her transition, she told her employer that she would soon start to present as a woman, including dressing in appropriate business attire at work that was consistent both with her identity and the company’s sex-segregated dress code policy.

Two weeks later, Stephens was fired after being told by her boss that what she was “proposing to do” was unacceptable and offensive to his religious beliefs.

In September 2014, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a lawsuit on behalf of Stephens, arguing the funeral home had violated Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment discrimination. According to the EEOC, Stephens was unlawfully fired in violation of Title VII “because she is transgender, because she was transitioning from male to female, and/or because she did not conform to the employer’s gender-based expectations, preferences, or stereotypes.”

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act allows those employees who have been discriminated against in the workplace to collect money, known as civil damages. Those damages usually come in the form of lost wages, back pay, and funds to make up for—to some degree—the abuse the employee faced on the job. They are also designed to make employers more vigilant about their workplace culture. Losing an employment discrimination case for an employer can be expensive.

But attorneys representing Stephens’ employer argued that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) protected their client from legal liability for firing Stephens. On Thursday, a federal court agreed. It said that paying such damages for unlawfully discriminating against an employee could amount to a substantial burden on an employer’s religious beliefs. 

According to the court, despite the fact that Stephens’ boss admitted he fired her for transitioning, and despite the fact that the court found this admission to be direct evidence of employment discrimination, RFRA can be a defense against that direct discrimination. To use that defense, the court concluded, all the funeral home owner had to do was assert that his religious beliefs embraced LGBTQ discrimination. The funeral home had “met its initial burden of showing that enforcement of Title VII, and the body of sex-stereotyping case law that has developed under it, would impose a substantial burden on its ability to conduct business in accordance with its sincerely-held religious beliefs,” the court wrote.

In other words, Hobby Lobby provides employers a defense to discriminating against LGBTQ people on the basis of religious beliefs.

“The RFRA analysis is extremely troubling, and the implications of it [are] as well,” said Knight. “I believe this is the first case applying RFRA to a Title VII claim with respect to nonministerial employees.”

If the scope of the opinion were broader, Knight continued, “this would allow [employers in general] to evade and refuse to comply with uniform nondiscrimination law because of their religious views.”

This, Knight said, is what advocates were afraid of in the wake of Hobby Lobby: “It is the concern raised by all of the liberal justices in the dissent in Hobby Lobby, and it is what the majority in Hobby Lobby said the decision did not mean. [That majority] said it did not mean the end of enforcement of nondiscrimination laws.”

And yet that is exactly what we are seeing in this decision, Knight said.

According to court documents, Stephens’ boss has been a Christian for more than 65 years and testified that he believes “the Bible teaches that God creates people male or female,” that “the Bible teaches that a person’s sex is an immutable God-given gift, and that people should not deny or attempt to change their sex.” For Stephens’ former boss, Stephens’ transition to a woman was “denying” her sex. Stephens had to be fired, her boss testified, so that he would not be directly complicit in supporting the idea that “sex is a changeable social construct rather than an immutable God-given gift.”

If the “complicit in denying God’s will” sounds familiar, it should. It has been the exact argument used by businesses challenging the birth control benefit of the Affordable Care Act. Those business owners believe contraception is contrary to God’s will and that complying with federal law, which says birth control should be treated in insurance policies as any other preventive service, makes them complicit in sin. Thursday’s decision cites Hobby Lobby directly to support the court’s conclusion that complying with federal nondiscrimination law can be avoided by asserting a religious objection.

Think of the implications, should other courts follow this lead. Conservatives have, in the past, launched religious objections to child labor laws, the minimum wage, interracial marriage, and renting housing to single parents—to name a few. Those early legal challenges were unsuccessful, in part because they were based on constitutional claims. Hobby Lobby changed all that, opening the door for religious conservatives to launch all kinds of protests against laws they disagree with.

And though the complaint may be framed as religious objections to birth control, to LGBTQ people generally, and whatever other social issue that rankles conservatives, these cases are so much more than that. They are about corporate interests trying to evade regulations that both advance social equity and punish financially those businesses that refuse to follow the law. Thursday’s opinion represents the next, troubling evolution of that litigation.

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to clarify John Knight’s position with the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.

Commentary Human Rights

When It Comes to Zika and Abortion, Disabled People Are Too Often Used as a Rhetorical Device

s.e. smith

Anti-choicers shame parents facing a prenatal diagnosis and considering abortion, even though they don't back up their advocacy up with support. The pro-choice movement, on the other hand, often finds itself caught between defending abortion as an absolute personal right and suggesting that some lived potentials are worth more than others.

There’s only one reason anyone should ever get an abortion: Because that person is pregnant and does not want to be. As soon as anyone—whether they are pro- or anti-choice—starts bringing up qualifiers, exceptions, and scary monsters under the bed, things get problematic. They establish the seeds of a good abortion/bad abortion dichotomy, in which some abortions are deemed “worthier” than others.

And with the Zika virus reaching the United States and the stakes getting more tangible for many Americans, that arbitrary designation is on a lot of minds—especially where the possibility of developmentally impaired fetuses is concerned. As a result, people with disabilities are more often being used as a rhetorical device for or against abortion rights rather than viewed as actualized human beings.

Here’s what we know about Zika and pregnancy: The virus has been linked to microcephaly, hearing loss, impaired growth, vision problems, and some anomalies of brain development when a fetus is exposed during pregnancy, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sometimes these anomalies are fatal, and patients miscarry their pregnancies. Sometimes they are not. Being infected with Zika is not a guarantee that a fetus will develop developmental impairments.

We need to know much, much more about Zika and pregnancy. At this stage, commonsense precautions when necessary like sleeping under a mosquito net, using insect repellant, and having protected sex to prevent Zika infection in pregnancy are reasonable, given the established link between Zika and developmental anomalies. But the panicked tenor of the conversation about Zika and pregnancy has become troubling.

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In Latin America, where Zika has rampantly spread in the last few years, extremely tough abortion restrictions often deprive patients of reproductive autonomy, to the point where many face the possibility of criminal charges for seeking abortion. Currently, requests for abortions are spiking. Some patients have turned to services like Women on Web, which provides assistance with accessing medical abortion services in nations where they are difficult or impossible to find.

For pro-choice advocates in the United States, the situation in Latin America is further evidence of the need to protect abortion access in our own country. Many have specifically using Zika to advocate against 20-week limits on abortion—which are already unconstitutional, and should be condemned as such. Less than 2 percent of abortions take place after 20 weeks, according to the Guttmacher Institute. The pro-choice community is often quick to defend these abortions, arguing that the vast majority take place in cases where the life of the patient is threatened, the fetus has anomalies incompatible with life, or the fetus has severe developmental impairments. Microcephaly, though rare, is an example of an impairment that isn’t diagnosable until late in the second trimester or early in the third, so when patients opt for termination, they run smack up against 20-week bans.

Thanks to the high profile of Zika in the news, fetal anomalies are becoming a talking point on both sides of the abortion divide: Hence the dire headlines sensationalizing the idea that politicians want to force patients to give birth to disabled children. The implication of leaning on these emotional angles, rather than ones based on the law or on human rights, is that Zika causes disabilities, and no one would want to have a disabled child. Some of this rhetoric is likely entirely subconscious, but it reflects internalized attitudes about disabled people, and it’s a dogwhistle to many in the disability community.

Anti-choicers, meanwhile, are leveraging that argument in the other direction, suggesting that patients with Zika will want to kill their precious babies because they aren’t perfect, and that therefore it’s necessary to clamp down on abortion restrictions to protect the “unborn.” Last weekend, for instance, failed presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) announced that he doesn’t support access to abortion for pregnant patients with the Zika virus who might, as a consequence, run the risk of having babies with microcephaly. Hardline anti-choicers, unsurprisingly, applauded him for taking a stand to protect life.

Both sides are using the wrong leverage in their arguments. An uptick in unmet abortion need is disturbing, yes—because it means that patients are not getting necessary health care. While it may be Zika exposing the issue of late, it’s a symptom, not the problem. Patients should be able to choose to get an abortion for whatever reason and at whatever time, and that right shouldn’t be defended with disingenuous arguments that use disability for cover. The issue with not being able to access abortions after 20 weeks, for example, isn’t that patients cannot access therapeutic abortions for fetuses with anomalies, but that patients cannot access abortions after 20 weeks.

The insistence from pro-choice advocates on justifying abortions after 20 weeks around specific, seemingly involuntary instances, suggests that so-called “late term abortions” need to be circumstantially defended, which retrenches abortion stigma. Few advocates seem to be willing to venture into the troubled waters of fighting for the right to abortions for any reason after 20 weeks. In part, that reflects an incremental approach to securing rights, but it may also betray some squeamishness. Patients don’t need to excuse their abortions, and the continual haste to do so by many pro-choice advocates makes it seem like a 20-week or later abortion is something wrong, something that might make patients feel ashamed depending on their reasons. There’s nothing shameful about needing abortion care after 20 weeks.

And, as it follows, nor is there ever a “bad” reason for termination. Conservatives are fond of using gruesome language targeted at patients who choose to abort for apparent fetal disability diagnoses in an attempt to shame them into believing that they are bad people for choosing to terminate their pregnancies. They use the specter of murdering disabled babies to advance not just social attitudes, but actual policy. Republican Gov. Mike Pence, for example, signed an Indiana law banning abortion on the basis of disability into law, though it was just blocked by a judge. Ohio considered a similar bill, while North Dakota tried to ban disability-related abortions only to be stymied in court. Other states require mandatory counseling when patients are diagnosed with fetal anomalies, with information about “perinatal hospice,” implying that patients have a moral responsibility to carry a pregnancy to term even if the fetus has impairments so significant that survival is questionable and that measures must be taken to “protect” fetuses against “hasty” abortions.

Conservative rhetoric tends to exceptionalize disability, with terms like “special needs child” and implications that disabled people are angelic, inspirational, and sometimes educational by nature of being disabled. A child with Down syndrome isn’t just a disabled child under this framework, for example, but a valuable lesson to the people around her. Terminating a pregnancy for disability is sometimes treated as even worse than terminating an apparently healthy pregnancy by those attempting to demonize abortion. This approach to abortion for disability uses disabled people as pawns to advance abortion restrictions, playing upon base emotions in the ultimate quest to make it functionally impossible to access abortion services. And conservatives can tar opponents of such laws with claims that they hate disabled people—even though many disabled people themselves oppose these patronizing policies, created to address a false epidemic of abortions for disability.

When those on either side of the abortion debate suggest that the default response to a given diagnosis is abortion, people living with that diagnosis hear that their lives are not valued. This argument implies that life with a disability is not worth living, and that it is a natural response for many to wish to terminate in cases of fetal anomalies. This rhetoric often collapses radically different diagnoses under the same roof; some impairments are lethal, others can pose significant challenges, and in other cases, people can enjoy excellent quality of life if they are provided with access to the services they need.

Many parents facing a prenatal diagnosis have never interacted with disabled people, don’t know very much about the disability in question, and are feeling overwhelmed. Anti-choicers want to force them to listen to lectures at the least and claim this is for everyone’s good, which is a gross violation of personal privacy, especially since they don’t back their advocacy up with support for disability programs that would make a comfortable, happy life with a complex impairment possible. The pro-choice movement, on the other hand, often finds itself caught between the imperative to defend abortion as an absolute personal right and suggesting that some lived potentials are worth more than others. It’s a disturbing line of argument to take, alienating people who might otherwise be very supportive of abortion rights.

It’s clearly tempting to use Zika as a political football in the abortion debate, and for conservatives, doing so is taking advantage of a well-established playbook. Pro-choicers, however, would do better to walk off the field, because defending abortion access on the sole grounds that a fetus might have a disability rings very familiar and uncomfortable alarm bells for many in the disability community.


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