The Palin-Biden Debate: Betting on Resurgent Social Issues

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. 

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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  • invalid-0

    Biden, you better keep her talking about the economy and foreign policy!!! Normally, I’d love to hear debate on social issues, but she’s just too much of a moron to let her get away with debating pure opinion.

  • invalid-0

    I really, really hope Biden kicks Palin’s ass (metaphorically). The woman is a joke…one that just keeps on giving.

  • invalid-0

    First I take issue with your statement “an unwise and unpopular war in Iraq, the real war on terrorism in Afghanistan and elsewhere,” I do not believe the war in Iraq is unpopular, I do believe the Media (NBC, ABC…..) are trying to convince the American public that the war is unpopular. You are aware that in Iraq the our military has found “yellow cake” (concentrated natural uranium), this is a fact that has been brushed aside in the media. You can check this fact on MSNBC ( ) I believe this can be identified as a weapon of mass destruction, if nothing else, a “dirty” bomb can be made from such material. On your insinuation that we did nothing about Afghanistan, I am sure you are aware that we do also have a presence in Afghanistan, I do not pretend to have all the security briefings necessary to make a judgment on the amount of resources that should be spent in Afghanistan. While not knowing for a fact, I do not believe you have received as much information on the conflict as our military leaders have. I think you should give credit were it is do, I am very proud of our military. The job our military men and women have accomplished in these to endeavors is more than impressive. Playing “Monday Morning Quarterback” on this issue, is doing a dishonor to our troops. Lastly thank you for pointing out Governor Palin is a conservative. I hope her opinions on small government will be a nice contrast to the desires of the “demarcates” and their candidate who only talks about more tax’s and more government agencies. My opinion on this is we do not need more government, other than the military I cannot think of anything the government can do well. I believe in free enterprise and letting the American people solve the issues with out the big bureaucracy of government.

    Thanks for letting me voice my opinion.

  • invalid-0

    This is perfect for Palin: the Marxist media and bloggers have lowered expectation on her performance so much that she has nothing to lose. So, all of the pressure seems to be falling squarely on the shoulders of Joe “Hairplugs” Biden. I look for a surprisingly strong showing by Plain.

  • invalid-0

    Some of us care about the economy, the war AND social issues. It’s hardly a narrow religious interpretation to know that biologically life begins at fertilization and that abstaining from sex is the only way to completely prevent pregnancy. These are issues that affect all of us. And your oppressive comments suggest people of faith who believe in these biological facts have no place in the public square. Guess what? We do and we’re not going anywhere, Scott.

  • invalid-0

    At least Joe “hairplugs” as you want to call him will not be mocked on SNL like your “dumber than a rock” candidate.
    BTW you cannot even spell your candidates name right (plain?).

    Get a grip! just wait until Election night rolls around.
    BTW the expectations are lowered because she is “dumber than a rock”. There will be no surprise ending to this, Biden is going to “dumb her down”!

  • invalid-0

    Sighs. More of the strawmen coming to eh fore. NOBODY has ever said that a fertilized egg is not “life”… the issue lies with whether it is the equivalent of a fully-formed, sentient and unique human being. Skin cells are “alive”. Sperm cells are “alive”. A zygote is a living bunch of undifferentiated cells. An embryo once implanted and pregnancy actually begins, is “alive” with the potential to develop into a sentient, individual human being. Those are biological facts. The religious or anti-choice element comes into play when people equate “life” with “human with the full rights and privileges as an individual”.

    NOBODY has ever said abstinence ISN’T the only 100 percent sure method of preventing pregnancies and STI’s. What they HAVE said is that sexuality is an individual issue; that one person or group’s morality cannot be taught as the “right” way to everyone (there is no secular reason for people not to have sex beyond the risks involved, or an individual’s choice to abstain. Period.); and that it is important to teach people the BIOLOGICAL FACTS that will help them make responsible choices to prevent pregnancy and STI’s should they not follow the religious party line to abstain.

    To Scott: The apostrophe and S were removed from the United States spelling of Down Syndrome. Just a nitpick from the mother of a child with trisomy 21. :)

  • invalid-0

    Did you see McCain on CNN today, speaking of the debate? I read him as totally confident and relaxed. Something has changed and I’m guessing it is the following: The McCain camp will rig Palin with electronic equipment, so they can tell her what to say during the debate. I can think of no other reason why he would be totally confident and at ease. We know that Palin has no clue about history, politics, current events, the world. She has demonstrated that she is way out of her league. McCain was totally cynical in selecting Palin. He is utterly disreputable. Contrary to what he states, he is contemptuous of America.

    So why so suddenly sure of himself? Because his team is going to cheat. You will know that they are doing this because Palin will suddenly become more knowledgeable about foreign affairs and history than all the experts put together! She will have the coherence of a seasoned professor. This debate footage will be very funny played back next to that of her interview with Katie Couric. For Palin, without the electronic cheating, any question is a “gotcha” trick question. A V.P. who can’t be asked a single question. Nice show, McCain.

  • invalid-0

    Polls and blogs are often very deceiving! I have never been polled. I believe that many people are quietly biding there time. I think when the vote comes in, the people who realize that is was Congressional attempts to redistribute wealth to so-called underprivileged without safeguards caused the bubble to burst. Make those loans and do not ask any questions. The Community Reinvestment (aka redistribution)Agency will guarantee them (not). If you do not make enough of them, we will sue your institution. This problem was certainly not caused or encouraged by the current administration- try Carter. All of us are going to pay in some way now- loss of jobs, savings, buying power, pensions, and increased taxes etc. I know what caused it and you can expect more of it. So, if you are not hard working and/or you want the government to meet your every need, you know how to vote. If that does not work out, there is always Cuba or the former Soviet Union. It will just be a matter of time when will will closely resemble those nations. Unfortunately, we are becoming third world. I am not anti-immigrant. All of us in a sense are. Immigrants need to learn english and pay your way. If you do not, what you are running from will som become what you are ran from.

  • scott-swenson

    Interestingly the only question asked about any social issue was on civil unions in which the both Joe Biden and Sarah Palin agreed that same-sex couples should have the rights to civil unions – a huge step forward for America that both candidates support such progress even if the social conservatives clearly do not. Strategically I was surprised Gov. Palin didn’t find a way to work social issues into other answers in front of what will clearly be her largest audience. Perhaps their strategy is to appear to be more “tolerant” than their polices would demonstrate on social issues in order to appeal to independents since Palin used “tolerant” in a few of her answers. The base is solidified behind her so they don’t care what she says — even about civil unions. Fascinating.

    Be the change you seek,

    Scott Swenson, Editor

  • invalid-0

    …and both showed that true equality is nowhere to be found in the two major parties.