Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
September 9, 2008
POLITICS: Wedges and Fables
One of the more popular fables retailed by the Democrats is that Republicans use social "wedge" issues that have nothing to do with the business of government to win elections, and Democrats do not. Now, I don't deny that Republicans often run campaigns that deal with social issues and the values of the candidates, and I'm not going to get into a long debate here about the relative degree to which social issues like abortion, crime, immigration, the death penaly, same-sex marriage, racial preferences, etc. do or do not have anything to do with the powers of government as they exist in the real world. But the idea that Democrats don't do this stuff, or that they don't sometimes succeed in prying off voters on "values" issues, is utter nonsense. They complain about it largely for two reasons: (1) Republicans tend to win more votes than they lose in most fights over social/cultural issues and (2) members of the national media who share Democrats' values like to believe that their positions on these issues are the only acceptable ones, and that it is only divisive to disagree with them, even if the people doing the disagreeing constitute a decisive majority.
The nomination of Sarah Palin as the Republican candidate for Vice President has produced a spate of efforts to drive a wedge between her and the voters on precisely these sorts of issues. In a few cases, there are fair arguments to be had: Palin is an uncompromising pro-lifer and supporter of gun rights, and obviously there are a lot of voters on each side of those issues. But several efforts to paint her as a social-issue extremist are, at best, seriously lacking in supporting evidence. Maybe something we don't know will come out, but on a couple of these it seems pretty unlikely from what we do know. Let's look at a few of those.
I. Book Banning
Democrats are claiming that Palin is some sort of fan of banning books. A list was circulated on the web purporting to show books she had had banned as Mayor of Wasilla, which even the Huffington Post described as "transparently fake" and Jesse Walker of Reason, also no fan of social conservatism, found to be basically a non-issue on the evidence we've seen. Taranto has a more comprehensive review today. The whole story amounts to Palin, when she first took office as Mayor in 1996, having had some abstract discussions about banning books with the librarian, who she later fired (one recurring theme in Palin's tenure as Mayor and Governor: she fires a lot of people). She told the town paper even back then that the discussion had been purely "rhetorical." (Here is the story written at the time - as an aside, notice how easy it is to find things said and done during Palin's early career in Wasilla, compared to how hard it is to track down anything said - let's not get into "done" - by Barack Obama between 1996 and his 2002 war speech?)
Let's face it: an awful lot of social conservatives in this country have had that conversation about, say, banning pornography, and in many cases about things that may be offensive for other reasons. It's one thing to have the idle conversation; it's another to actually put state power behind banning particular books, even if the "ban" just means not spending taxpayer money on them and even if you could boil the list down to the most patently offensive. Accepting that distinction is, in fact, part of the process of maturing from a rookie politician (which Palin was 12 years ago) into a responsible administrator. Absent any evidence that Palin ever lifted a finger to get any books banned, this is at most a charge that Palin has concerns about the state of our culture and has wished at times that we could do something about it. Do the Democrats really want to run against even that wish in the abstract? Maybe they do. But the charge that Palin actively supports banning books has nothing to support it, and you should not believe anyone who repeats the charge if they can't come up with evidence to support it.
II. Abstinence-Only Sex Education
A good many social conservatives, preferring not to surrender to the government the instruction of their children on matters of sexual morality, either don't like public-school sex education or insist that governmental instruction on sex should be limited to encouraging teenagers to not have sex (a/k/a "abstinence-only" sex education).
Now, as Megan McArdle reminds us, the main reason why abstinence-only education is ineffective is because sex education in general is ineffective - a point that if anything supports social conservatives' skepticism about the necessity of teaching sex in school:
Kids get pregnant because they have poor impulse control, hazy conceptions about the future, and possibly, parents who they are afraid will find birth control. None of these are problems that sex ed helps with.
In fact, as McArdle further notes, public behavioral education programs in general don't famously work all that well (so much for Obama hectoring us to abstain from driving on underinflated tires):
Do you believe that drug education reduces drug use? If you're reading this web site, I bet you don't, and you're right--the most famous program, D.A.R.E., has consistently failed to show any positive effects, something which is disguised by the program producers by constantly changing the curriculum so that whatever program just flunked a reality check isn't the same as the awesome new program they're using now.
A lot of Palin's critics jumped on her supposed support for abstinence-only programs like a starving man on a sandwich to justify their continuing interest in the pregnancy of her 17-year-old daughter. But they seem to have skipped the step of actually looking carefully at Gov. Palin's position - again, this LA Times piece comes from Walker's article at Reason:
In July of , she completed a candidate questionnaire that asked, would she support funding for abstinence-until-marriage programs instead of "explicit sex-education programs, school-based clinics and the distribution of contraceptives in schools?"
Again: if the Democrats want to characterize this position as outside the mainstream, we have to wonder what "mainstream" they have been bathing in.
Another issue on which there seem to be an awful lot of single-issue, litmus-test, nothing-else-matters voters on the left side of the spectrum is the teaching of "intelligent design" or other forms of "creationist" or quasi-creationist theories of the origin of species that refuse to accept the mostly-consensus scientific view of evolution. This tends to be a debate that leads off into a lot of linguistic dead ends (for example, modern evolutionary biology has moved on a good deal from Darwin), but as a general rule the debate tends to boil down to one of three positions: (1) ban the teaching of evolutionary biology - a position almost nobody supports anymore; (2) require the teaching of "intelligent design" alongside the teaching of standard evolutionary biology; or (3) ban the teaching of anything but standard evolutionary biology. I'll leave aside for now the merits of that debate, because yet again there's a bunch of smoke here with basically no fire.
During a 2006 gubernatorial debate in Alaska, Palin was asked if she supported teaching an alternative to evolution.
After the debate, Palin told the newspaper she would not push the state board of education to add evolution alternatives to the mandatory curriculum, nor would she base appointments to the board on the candidates' views on the issue.
Sarah Palin was questioned more closely about her views on creationism a couple of days after the debate. She then seemed to deny that she did want to introduce creationism into the school curriculum. Rather, she said that she didn't "think there should be a prohibition against debate if it comes up in class," but that it "doesn't have to be part of the curriculum". Religion was not "a litmus test", she added. She was more interested in gas pipelines. In her answers to personal questions, a degree of ambiguity persisted. She did believe in a creator, but "I'm not going to pretend I know how all this came to be". Her father had been a science teacher; they had had discussions when she was a child about "his theories" of evolution: "He would show us fossils and say, 'How old do you think these are?' "
As with the libraries issue, this wasn't a years-later effort to conceal her position, such as we've seen from Barack Obama's attempts to whitewash his votes and legislative proposals on guns or abortion; Palin was immediately making clear that this was basically just her personal view that she was not going to foist on anybody, and Palin has kept that promise. The bottom line is that Palin hasn't actually spent much effort on social issues in office. In Washington, she won't be able to avoid social issues, of course, and indeed her sincere convictions on issues like abortion are one of the major attractions of Palin's candidacy. But the relevant point on intelligent design, as with book banning and abstinence education, is that in 10 years in executive office she hasn't actually used state power to support any of the things she's accused of supporting.
It's usually not that hard to understand that distinction. Joe Biden can say that life begins at conception, but only an imbecile would call him "pro-life," because he doesn't want the government to do anything about it. For political purposes, the issue is how this all translates into public policy. And that's exactly where Palin's critics have come up empty.
IV. Stem Cell Research
While we are at it, let's revisit an old favorite Democratic wedge issue, federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Joe Biden has just blasted McCain and Palin for opposing stem cell research:
"I hear all this talk about how the Republicans are going to work in dealing with parents who have both the joy, because there's joy to it as well, the joy and the difficulty of raising a child who has a developmental disability, who were born with a birth defect. Well guess what folks? If you care about it, why don't you support stem cell research?"
I don't know why Joe Biden thinks that, oh, say, Down's Syndrome is curable through stem cell research, but the Obama-Biden campaign "clarified" his statement by saying
We've heard not a dime's worth of difference between the McCain-Palin ticket and the Bush Administration on medical breakthroughs that millions of parents and doctors believe could save lives and transform the quality of life for countless Americans.
Now, as it happens, in this case Gov. Palin does apparently oppose federal funding for stem cell research. But you'd think that the Obama campaign wouldn't put out a statement on this that ignores the fact - widely noted in the press when McCain selected Palin a whole 12 days ago - that John McCain has voted to support such funding and continued to defend his support during the Republican primaries, in which his position on this issue was not popular. If Obama picked Biden as his running mate based on the knowledge he's acquired from years in the Senate, you'd think he'd at least be familiar with things that have actually happened in the Senate.
Now, I'd prefer that McCain - and, for that matter, Obama and Biden - came around to realize that the tremendous scientific progress on non-embryo-destroying stem cell research in the past two years (see here, here, and here) has essentially gutted the case for federal funding for embyronic stem cell research, at least for any purpose other than helping Democrats win elections. Indeed, I wonder at the scientific illiteracy of politicians who still support such funding, and wish more of them would come out where Gov. Palin has. The good news is that the McCain-Palin campaign website now talks up the alternatives, and recognizes the moral hazards:
As president, John McCain will strongly support funding for promising research programs, including amniotic fluid and adult stem cell research and other types of scientific study that do not involve the use of human embryos.
Where federal funds are used for stem cell research, Senator McCain believes clear lines should be drawn that reflect a refusal to sacrifice moral values and ethical principles for the sake of scientific progress, and that any such research should be subject to strict federal guidelines.
[W]e call for a major expansion of support for the stem-cell research that now shows amazing promise and offers the greatest hope for scores of diseases - with adult stem cells, umbilical cord blood, and cells reprogrammed into pluripotent stem cells - without the destruction of embryonic human life. We call for a ban on human cloning and a ban on the creation of or experimentation on human embryos for research purposes.
I hope McCain comes around at some point to opposing wasting taxpayer money on embryonic stem cell research. In the meantime, the Obama campaign is trying to have a debate that, like the various efforts against Gov. Palin, ignores McCain's actual record and positions.