HERSHEY, Pa. — During Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s last swing through
battleground states this week, boisterous supporters cheer almost on
cue when she delivers her stump speech.
Few lines get a more deep-felt roar of approval than her signature issue — support for children with disabilities.
Palin’s words strike deeper than just with parents who come to her rallies because one of their children has a disability.
Social conservatives cheer when Palin talks about the value of all
children because her words are a subtle but clear signal of her staunch
anti-abortion views. She talks about special-needs education in words
and phrases generally associated with the anti-abortion movement,
effectively reminding anti-abortion voters that she shares and supports
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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During a stop Sunday in Asheville, N.C., Palin told a raucous
audience that she plans on “ushering in that spirit” of prioritizing
children if she becomes vice president.
“John [McCain] and I have a vision of America where every innocent
life counts,” Palin told a crowd at a high-school football stadium in
Roanoke, Va., the next day. “Where everyone has a chance to contribute
and every child is cherished. And that’s the spirit I want to bring to
Palin, a mother of five, gave birth to her youngest son, Trig, in
April. She knew he would be born with Down syndrome. On the stump, she
talks about how, through prayer, she prepared herself for the
challenges of welcoming the new member of her family. She tells crowds
that when she and her husband, Todd Palin, saw Trig for the first time,
he was “perfect” in their eyes — and now they consider him a “blessing.”
The issue of special-needs kids resonates with families eager to
have a public figure so ready and able to prioritize programs for their
But Palin’s words appeal to many more of her supporters for what
they signal. Her personal story is leavened with language regularly
used by the anti-abortion movement — including phrases like “spirit”
and “culture of life.” It allows her to reach the GOP’s anti-abortion
base without actually talking about reproductive health issues.
Palin has spoken about her anti-abortion views publicly. During a
debate in the 2006 Alaska gubernatorial campaign, Palin said she would
be against abortion
even in the event her daughter was raped. She said she only supports
abortion in instances where the life of the mother is endangered.
During the presidential campaign, Palin has been more cautious in outlining the specifics of her beliefs.
Advocates on both sides of the abortion-rights debate agree that
Palin doesn’t need to be direct. By discussing her plans for
special-needs children and touching on her own story, she galvanizes
the arm of the GOP base that lists abortion as a top issue. At the same
time, she runs less of a risk of alienating pro-abortion rights voters.
“She is able to talk about the life issue without talking about
abortion, because everybody knows her personal circumstance,” said
Janice Crouse, a political commentator from Concerned Women of America,
a conservative nonprofit public-policy group that opposes abortion
“She is able to talk about issues just with her personal life,”
Crouse said, “without having to bring up the political kind of rhetoric
that people are so tired of. Instead, she talks about it from a
personal standpoint, and that makes it very palatable for people.”
Palin’s strategy is not new in the anti-abortion-rights movement.
Caitlin E. Borgmann, a professor at the City University of New York’s Law School who writes the Reproductive Rights Prof blog, says “special code words” and euphemisms have served anti-abortion activists well.
After the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade in 1973, the anti-abortion
movement aimed to reduce access to abortion incrementally rather than
by an outright ban.
Campaigns targeted seemingly narrow goals, including laws requiring
24-hour waiting periods or parental notification before a woman, or
woman under 18, could undergo an abortion.
Anti-abortion voters tend to be more conscious of the broader
strategy, while pro-abortion rights voters tend to see such initiatives
as discrete measures.
Borgmann said language helps this dichotomy between galvanizing the base and not alienating moderates and liberals.
“The movement and the supporter know it’s part of this larger
strategy,” Borgmann said, referring to discrete measures and specific
language. Borgmann noted that pro-abortion rights voters tend to be
less aware of, or sensitive to, the tactics and wording.
Palin has used some of the most common terminology like “a culture of life” in referring to abortion.
Her comments about special-needs children have a similar feel.
Rather than talking broadly about people with special needs, her focus
is on children and families. She frames it as a family issue.
In her first major policy speech, Palin focused on how she plans to
prioritize funding for special-needs education. She said she would work
for the full funding of a federal law that matches state funds for
She couched her policy discussion in a broad discussion of the value of every child’s life.
“Too often, even in our own day, children with special needs have
been set apart and excluded,” Palin said during an address in
Arlington, Va. “Too often, they are made to feel that there is no place
for them in the life of our country, that they don’t count or have
nothing to contribute. This attitude is a grave disservice to these
beautiful children, to their families and to our country — and I will
work to change it.”
Borgmann noted that such phrasing is an example of reaching the base without turning off more moderate or even liberal voters.
It’s an important line for Palin to walk. Even if her crowds hold
more extreme views than most voters, she must remember she is being
broadcast live on national TV.
A recent ABC News poll shows that 53 percent of likely voters now say the economy
is the most important issue, well above any social issue. Only about 6
percent of voters now say abortion, marriage and gun rights are their
top issue for the 2008 presidential race, according to a Newsweek poll from last week.
Palin has been careful discussing her anti-abortion views during
previous campaigns. In 2006, when running for governor of Alaska, she
avoided talking about her anti-abortion views at major events.
The state of Alaska has strong legal protections for abortion
rights, including an explicit right to privacy in the state
constitution, and the electorate is not largely concerned about the
Clover Simon, head of Planned Parenthood Alaska, said Palin only
touches on reproductive rights explicitly at “really targeted events,”
where supporters are staunchly anti-abortion.
In her year and a half as governor, before being tapped for the GOP
presidential ticket, Palin had not pushed for any policy changes on
abortion. Her anti-abortion supporters have said they are hopeful she
might still make it a priority, if she returns to Alaska as governor.
In the meantime, to continue reaching out to her base, Palin only
needs to hint at her record — and her plans — to let them know her
views. Without getting into the specifics of her policies, her
supporters know where she stands.
“As governor,” Palin said in a recent speech in Johnstown, Pa.,
“what I’ve been able to do is kind of manifest my commitment to life.”