Sen. Barack Obama took the high road in refusing to answer reporters’ questions about Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s pregnant 17-year-old daughter Bristol and the girl’s decision to marry the father and have the baby.
He also drew a distinct boundary line between legitimate topics for policy discussions by politicians and urged the media to leave politicians’ families alone.
I respect his wishes, but Gov. Palin’s family situation and how she was chosen by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to join the ticket still present issues worthy of debate among pundits, if not politicians.
The first and most obvious is her support for abstinence-only education in public schools and how well it seems to have worked within her own family. The second is how quickly Sen. McCain seems to have chosen her as a running mate and whether she was properly vetted. The third is her religiosity and how much that influences her policy decisions in office.
As a clarion-clear advocate of abstinence-only education, Gov. Palin explained on an Eagle Forum (ultraconservative women’s group) questionnaire during her 2006 gubernatorial run: "The explicit sex-ed programs will not find my support."
Yet her teen daughter’s premarital sex ought to act as a beacon to backers of abstinence-only supporters that abstinence-only education is — er, ah — abortive. Nonetheless, Congress and the Bush and Clinton (yes, Clinton) Administrations doled out $1.5 billion taxpayer dollars to states to teach high school students ONLY about abstinence and nothing about biological sex education between 1996 and last July. Advocates for Youth, which supports comprehensive sex education for high school students, looked at five years of data from states that teach abstinence only and reported the following:
–Three of six (abstinence-only) programs had no impact on sexual behavior (California, Maryland, and Missouri).
— Two of six programs reported increases in sexual behavior from pre- to post-test (Florida and Iowa). It was unclear whether the increases were due to youth’s maturation or to a program’s effect, as none of these evaluations included a comparison group.
For his part, Sen. McCain has voted to boost abstinence-only funding, to end federal family planning funding and against teen pregnancy prevention programs. His running mate’s family problems should send a laser-like message to McCain and other social conservatives that they need to stop allowing their religious convictions to fog their thinking and they should start to rally around effective social policy — sex education included.
My guess is McCain stands the chance of completely alienating his evangelical base if he dumps Gov. Palin, as liberal blogs are suggesting he may do. Evangelicals seem to love her even more following the announcement that her minor daughter will marry the boy who got her pregnant, and the fact that Gov. Palin has offered unconditional love and support to Bristol.
Then again, Sen. McCain’s alienated moderate Republicans and independents, polls show, by placing Palin on the ticket — votes he might win by replacing her. It’s a lose-lose situation for him to consider dropping Palin, if indeed the campaign is considering it at all. He loses his now-energized right-wing base if he drops her. He loses mainstream Republicans and moderate independents (the so-called Hillary voters) if he keeps her.
The vetting question is even thornier. An Anchorage Daily News reporter spoke with party officials and apolitical Alaskans alike and found that none of them had been contacted by the McCain campaign:
"Chris Coleman, one of Palin’s next-door neighbors, said that no one representing McCain spoke to him about Palin. Another neighbor also was never contacted," he said Monday.
Republican Gail Phillips, a former speaker of the Alaska House, said that she was shocked by McCain’s selection of Palin and told her husband, Walt, "This can’t be happening because his advance team didn’t come to Alaska to check her out." She said she would’ve heard had someone been poking around."
The third factor is whether Palin’s deep devotion to God will cloud or impact her political judgment. In her speech last Friday, Gov. Palin mentioned her intention to serve government with "a servant’s heart." According to the National Catholic Reporter, "That reaction wasn’t simply about approval of good government; the phrase ‘servant’s heart’ is a popular bit of evangelical terminology, used as a shorthand for Christian humility."
Will she use governmental power to further President Bush’s destruction of the wall between church and state? If so, she may alienate the very independent voters Sen. McCain needs desperately to win the White House. In any event, Gov. Palin is far from the smart choice she appeared to be last Friday, when Sen. McCain announced her selection.
(Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and columnist. E-mail bonnieerbe(at)CompuServe.com.)