Sarah Palin is everywhere. She’s on the cover of this week’s Time magazine. She has a Wall Street Journal op-ed saying silly things about death panels again. She’s got a TV show. Her daughters are on Dancing with the Stars, arguing on Facebook, and whatever. Yet on policy issues of critical importance to her own family and to millions of others, she’s still nowhere to be found.
During the 2008 campaign, she promised to speak about disability policy. To my knowledge, she delivered one speech to endorse full-funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Politicians who care about something have a way of circling back to it with some message discipline. Palin seems to have dropped the subject. More than once, I have called her out on this issue. Despite my ministrations and her incredible media presence, she remains MIA.
I got angry about this all over again when I read Palin’s new book, America by Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith, and Flag. For all the obvious reasons, this is an easy book to dislike and to lampoon. Her politics and the theology that underlies it are not particularly generous or inclusive. Palin is more impressed by Mitt Romney’s views of religion in politics than she is by John Kennedy’s, and notes Ted Kennedy’s “long career advocating positions directly at odds with his Catholic faith.”
She trashes Hollywood and “liberal feminists,” who are not true mama grizzlies. “In the name of liberating women,” she writes, “modern feminism has wrapped us in a one-size-fits-all straitjacket of political correctness.” She quotes Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism to slam various Democratic heroes. Her only comment about Planned Parenthood, for example, is that Margaret Sanger entertained unattractive eugenic views.
As often occurs, culture-war polemic appears alongside Touched by an Angel-style bromides which offer comfort in the face of tragedy: “God knows what he is doing. He gave [my sister] Heather an autistic child because she’s the more nurturing one. She can handle it…” And so on.
America by Heart includes genuinely affecting anecdotes, particularly regarding her son Trig. The book is dedicated to him, with the pointed phrase I’m glad you’re here. “Trig has been the best thing that has ever happened to me and the Palin family,” she concludes. Beautiful pictures of him adorn the book. He is the center of the narrative.
So it is especially striking that America by Heart includes no serious discussion of how American government might actually do a better job helping people living with Down syndrome or helping their family caregivers. There’s one sentence praising the Americans with Disabilities Act. There’s some stuff about help-lines for women contemplating abortion. That’s about it.
Except, of course, for ridicule of health reform: “We didn’t want it, couldn’t afford it, and it made no sense, but Washington passed Obamacare anyway, raising our bills and limiting our freedom of choice.” As Dana Goldstein noted in the Daily Beast, Palin departed from most disability advocates in opposing health reform, and she specifically cited disability concerns. Palin wrote last year on her Facebook page:
The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s “death panel” so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their “level of productivity in society,” whether they are worthy of health care.
Such false and nasty statements raise an unavoidable question: Does Palin ever intend to get serious about this stuff?
The signs aren’t good. She precipitously quit her governorship, forfeiting the opportunity to improve on-the-ground conditions for thousands of intellectually disabled Alaskans living in group homes or public institutions, or living at home with aged caregivers. She occasionally speaks before groups of affected families. She’s taken rather selective umbrage when Rahm Emanuel used the offensive term “retard” as a public pejorative. She expresses no disability policy agenda. There’s little evidence that she’s thinking about the subject at all.
That’s a big opportunity lost. Millions of people look to her for inspiration and leadership. Many are family caregivers understandably moved to see one of their own competing at the highest levels of American politics.
Palin might ask these men and women whether they favor the parts of the Affordable Care Act which forbid insurers to exclude people from coverage based on preexisting conditions, the provisions that allow working parents to keep young adult children on their family policies, provisions designed to give disabled individuals greater access to home and community-based services. Whom does she believe these provisions were designed to serve? Some of these caregivers are single moms supporting a few kids on incomes of thirty or forty thousand dollars per year. Does Palin believe they should get some government help in securing health insurance coverage?
For that matter, what does she think about provisions directed to other individuals and their families who require related forms of help? The CLASS Act–a new voluntary long-term care insurance program slated to become operational next year–is embraced by almost every organized constituency concerned with disability or chronic illness. Republicans want to repeal it. What does Palin believe?
Ms. Palin has access to the nation’s leading medical, public health, and education experts concerned with intellectual disability. She might ask them about these issues. This is a hard time for many individuals with Down syndrome and for their families. The state and local budget crisis has caused disabled people to lose access to dental care and other basic services. She might ask about service cuts imposed by governors around the nation to balance budgets or to burnish their reputations as fiscal conservatives.
More to the point, Ms. Palin might also ponder how liberals and conservatives—Several Kennedys, Bob Dole, Lowell Weicker, Orren Hatch, George Will, Hubert Humphrey, and many others—often found common ground despite partisan conflict and culture wars.
Wise disability activists proceed with special care in the treacherous terrain surrounding abortion. Mutual respect was possible despite deep disagreements because people on each side recognize the humanity and the seriousness of their counterparts across the moral and ideological divide. Someone who has spent thirty years caring for a seriously disabled child might identify with a pro-life perspective, and yet recognize all-too-well why a young mom with two other kids might choose to follow a different course. People such as myself, who are as firmly pro-choice as Palin is “unapologetically pro-life,” can nonetheless appreciate why abortion might carry dark resonances for parents of disabled children, and for others imprinted with genetic markers associated with disability.
Disability activists also had very practical reasons to build coalitions across partisan and cultural lines. They needed each other. Too much needed to be done to get tripped up by the culture wars. As James Trent and others have shown, the real mama grizzlies were middle-class mothers of every political, cultural, and religious variety, who were desperate for basic services and for community acceptance of their children. Desperation brought them together in search of everything from basic medical information to babysitting to summer camps to opportunities for institutional care. Through the founding of the National Association of Retarded Children (now simply known as the Arc) and related efforts, these parents were unavoidably drawn into broader activism. They changed America.
Many of the policies supported by these families expanded the scope of American government, and so were initially embraced by liberals. Yet social and economic conservatives have made key contributions, too, for example efforts to provide families with vouchers to expand families’ ability to access community- and faith-based interventions. And yes, pro-life activists have nurtured valuable alternatives for pregnant women, including adoption. No single faction has held a monopoly on compassion, moral seriousness, or family values. Palin would be a larger and more civil public figure if she acknowledged this basic fact.
Palin’s political fate won’t be determined by whether she does her homework on disability services. Whether she does will affect whether, decades from now, she will have any right to look back with genuine pride, or whether she will look back and realize that she failed to put her very privileged platform to better use. I’ll never vote for her. But I rally hope she chooses to be serious, about that IDEA proposal among other things.
One final thought. If she stays unserious, she shouldn’t show Trig off on the campaign trail or on her book tours. There’s an implicit promise there. She shouldn’t make that promise if she doesn’t intend to follow through.