Sarah Palin changed her tune on the “hopey-changey thing” last month in Jacksonville when, as the headliner for the Evening of Hope (called “An Evening of Empty Seats” by one blogger), she and the other speakers promoted lots of change—of the religious right variety. And, despite emphatic and repeated assertions to the contrary, they continued to be explicitly political; clearly advocating for some candidates and policies while unequivocally opposing others. But why so emphatic about not being “political” in the first place?
Palin’s event, combined with Glenn Beck’s non-political political rally, raise flags with respect to faith-based groups’ exemption from non-discrimination regulations. The insistent rhetoric suggests that some high-profile conservatives may be positioning themselves to receive public dollars for activities that are only non-political by the narrowest possible definition. At the very same time some religious right leaders have been crying “foul” at the use of taxpayer dollars to fund activities they oppose. Jay Sekulow of American Center for Law and Justice is, for example, raising money on the basis of “reports” that the developers of the Park51 community center “may seek taxpayer dollars” (in the form of tax-free bonds) to build the center.
The Evening of Hope event itself bounced back and forth between efforts to promote access to abortion alternatives in the form of charitable services and political campaigning aimed at legally prohibiting abortion—a position the Republican Party’s platform. Palin and others invoked the notion of building and affirming a “culture of life,” to give the event an apolitical patina.
Crisis pregnancy centers have been controversial in the past; many have even been shown by pro-choice publications and organizations to be intentionally deceptive, luring women expecting pregnancy tests and abortion access, then pressuring them with provocative films and images, as well as “Christian counseling.” But Evening of Hope organizer, Heroic Media, rejects those tactics, using the event to showcase their relatively mild television spots which could even plausibly be called “pro-choice” (in one, a pregnant woman actually asks: “Don’t I get to choose for myself?”). Like their Web sites and billboards they were all clearly addressed to women who were agonizing over their decision, albeit offering options to help women make choices of which the organization approves. I described this recently as a “softer” pro-life activism. They even replaced the language of “crisis pregnancies” with “pregnancies in less than ideal circumstances.”
So it was actually jarring when speakers repeatedly launched into explicit critiques of Florida’s Republican Governor Charlie Crist, favoring instead his even more conservative opponent, Constitution Party nominee Bernie DeCastro, who attended in hopes of picking up support.
Palin flattered the adoring crowd with stories of her previous visits to Jacksonville, claiming that the whole state of Florida “gets it” when it comes to “building and affirming a culture of life.” In her inimitable tone she invoked the Evening of Hope theme: “You’re doing a lot here. There are things going on here that should provide all of you with a lot of hope. We can build this culture of life!” Yes We Can! (Oh wait, that’s the hopey-changey thing again).
But, as “culture of life” progressed from bumper sticker to platform, her examples became increasingly, explicitly political. Florida had introduced “Choose Life!” vanity license plates whose revenue would go to organizations that promote adoption—but only those that do not discuss abortion as an alternative. She lauded Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice, and former member of congress, Charles Canady for “shepherding the ‘partial-birth abortion’ bill through Congress,” and called for better leadership “in the political arena” in general.
She then denounced healthcare reform—what conservatives call “Obamacare”: “I’m not going to get too political on you but… we can’t be afraid of talking about these political issues; its essential that we use the 2010 elections to elect a congress committed to undoing Obamacare… this mother of all unfunded mandates.” This isn’t political?
This was followed by a lengthy endorsement of the work of Heroic Media and an intimate discussion, not only about her own pregnancy under “less than ideal circumstances,” but about the issues surrounding her teen daughter’s much-publicized pregnancy. Palin drew on her own experience to advocate for understanding and support for those in the “disability community.” But even these plausibly apolitical points were clearly in service of a political agenda. The speech began by emphasizing policy goals and candidates and ended with an exhortation to work for “change in Washington” and to “send a message to Washington that every life is precious… every life is valuable.”
In fact, across the board the speakers emphasized electoral politics: the need to win enough seats to overturn the health care bill; they invoked “states’ rights” and the 10th Amendment in support of Arizona’s controversial immigration law even as they insisted that “we’re not supposed to be talking politics.” Palin even reiterated her thoroughly discredited assertion that “Obamacare” will result in “death panels” and therefore “must be overturned.” At each point the audience cheered loudly—almost defiantly—giving it the air of a campaign rally.
John Thrasher (the state senator and Republican State Party Chairman who had introduced Palin, saying “elections matter!”) had easily won his primary two days earlier though he may face a more serious challenge in November from Deborah Gianoulis, a popular former local newscaster. Palin offered her endorsement of Thrasher saying:
The name Thrasher, you know what that means to us in Alaska? To us the criteria for whether a guy or girl is cool or not is can they ride a (snow) machine? So, often they’ll say can they climb a mountain on a machine; yeah, they’re real thrasher. For us it means a lot… and I like your politics, sir.
A carefully choreographed Q&A session followed consisting of Palin, Thrasher and local legislator Doc Renuart (sitting in for Lt Governor Jeff Kottkamp, who had cancelled at the last minute). Heroic Media regional president, Deborah Ortiz, was the only one permitted to ask questions. This session was even more explicitly political as Thrasher, for example, talked about replacing members of Congress in Florida, though not before launching into the night’s familiar refrain: “I don’t want to get too political but we need to change the culture of Congress.” To cheers from the crowd, he discussed the controversial education bill he had sponsored last session, promising that “it will be back.” The bill, widely seen as an attack on teachers’ unions, was so controversial that it was vetoed by Governor Crist, a Republican.
At one point, after someone interjected the aggressive politics of the religious right, the audience cheered loudly. Palin said, “I know, I know they told me not to talk about politics but I can’t help it…and then went on to denounce “Obamacare.’” Heroic Media had, as a “faith based non-profit,” tried to rein these folks in. But the leaders on the stage and many of those in the audience just couldn’t contain themselves.
Concluding the Q&A Ortiz asked: “If Roe v. Wade were overturned and the numbers of abortions drastically reduced, how should we provide support for those children?” Doc Renuart suggested adoption while Palin rambled, pointing out that overturning Roe v. Wade would not immediately end abortion and that a political fight in every state would still be necessary—without a bit of cognitive dissonance concerning her “states’ rights views.” In the end she did little more than repeat Renuart’s suggestion of adoption. The “culture of life” meant little more than banning abortion and encouraging adoption.
Standard coverage of the event merely documented the repeated assertion that this wasn’t about politics, but I think they are being inadequately critical in taking organizers and speakers at face value. The partisanship might have been restrained enough to pass the lax legal requirements but what occurred was much closer to a campaign rally for the religious right Republicans than most people would see as appropriate for an event sponsored by a tax exempt charity.