The confirmation that Sarah Palin’s 17-year-old unwed daughter is pregnant has turned the campaign strategies of both Republican and Democratic parties askew. Women’s issues will be more front and center. But both parties will be far more careful in how they attack the other.
As a downsized convention got underway, Republican delegates, who generally are more conservative than their standard bearer John McCain, continued to applaud his choice of the quirky Alaskan governor and mother of five to run with him, despite her lack of national security credentials. They filled McCain’s coffers with nearly $8 million in the first two days after his announcement.
And GOP delegates are standing by her in the wake of the news that her daughter Bristol is five-months pregnant, expressing sympathy for the family. While the topic was equally as discussed as Hurricane Gustav while delegates milled around, evangelicals were avid in their appreciation that the Palin daughter is not going to have an abortion. They invariably noted that the governor herself refused to consider an abortion when she found out that her infant son, Trig, would be born with Down Syndrome. Several delegates speculated that many mothers from both parties who have found themselves confronted with a pregnant, unwed daughter would identify with her.
But the family’s personal dilemma, which is not likely to be mentioned by either Barack Obama or Joe Biden, has taken away the GOP’s long insistence that it owns family values.
It has also pushed economic issues such as teenage pregnancy, sex education, the cost of day care for working women, health insurance and equal pay, as well as abortion, more fully into the debate.
Teen pregnancy in the United States has begun to increase after declining in the 1990s. The Guttmacher Institute says that nearly half of all 15- to 19-year-olds in the United States have had sex at least once. There is no research yet on exactly why the teenage pregnancy rate has started upward again.
According to the National Child Care Information Center, the cost of day care in the United States is rising steadily every year and now ranges between $4,000 for a child younger than one to $16,000. For a child over one the cost is only about $1,000 less on average across the United States.
Democrats now will make frequent reference to McCain’s refusal to vote for the so-called Lilly Ledbetter bill that would have given women the opportunity to sue employers for race or gender pay discrimination even if the claims are based on decisions made by the employer 180 days or more in the past.
There also is little doubt that Hillary Rodham Clinton, who received 18 million votes in her showdown primaries with Obama will campaign more vigorously for the Democrats than she might have after losing out to Biden to be on the ticket. Friends said she does not want to see Palin usurp her hard-fought effort to break the glass ceiling and will try to keep working women in particular from voting for McCain just because he has a woman on the ticket. She again will ask women, Did you vote just for me? Or for Democratic issues she believes are more favorable to women than the ones the GOP platform favors.
Obama, Biden and Clinton oppose Palin on every major social issue. She is against abortion for rape and incest, for the death penalty, against same-sex marriage, for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, against gun control, and she famously sued the federal government to delist polar bears as an endangered species.
But as an avid outdoorswoman, a self-proclaimed hockey mom, and a reformer who openly criticized the notoriously corrupt politics of Alaska, she will be hard to patronize when Biden debates her on Oct. 2, an event that now may draw more viewers than the two debates between McCain and Obama and which will be moderated by a woman, Gwen Ifill of PBS, who will have to decide whether or not to ask about her daughter.
(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)nationalpress.com.)