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?

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