Truth-Stretching a New Tactic for Palin « The Washington Independent
Gov. Sarah Palin at the vice presidential debate in St. Louis. (Getty Images)
ANCHORAGE, Alaska – During Gov. Sarah Palin’s relatively brief time in the national political spotlight as the Republican vice-presidential nominee, she’s developed a reputation for making misleading or inaccurate statements about her own record and that of Sen. Barack Obama’s.
Palin has claimed she’s been a champion of earmark reform, for example, though her record while Alaska governor shows she requested millions in earmarks. Even as mayor of Wasilla, she hired a lobbyist who succeeded in shuttling federal dollars back to her hometown for local projects.
When talking about Obama on the stump, Palin has repeatedly mischaracterized the Democratic nominee’s positions on taxes and abortion. She’s also falsely accused the Illinois senator of “palling around with terrorists.”
Illustration by: Matt Mahurin
Most recently, Palin has claimed being vindicated by a the Troopergate investigation, though the report says she broke a state ethics law. Palin claims the scathing report actually clears her of all accusations of wrongdoing, despite a finding that, in conflict with state law, she had state employees and her husband pressure her public safety commissioner to fire her ex-brother-in-law from his job as a state trooper over a family feud.
This campaign tactic of misleading listeners is new for Palin. Making false statements was not a key weapon in her Alaska campaign arsenal. Though she didn’t hesitate to throw an elbow during her bid for governor, or when pressing an issue once in office, Palin’s signature tactic was to dodge. When asked a tough question by the media or when dealing with complicated policy matters in office she invariably gave non-answers or evaded the issue.
Palin’s record of skirting and silence does not always paint her in a positive light. Sometimes, her efforts were deliberate acts of concealing records of state business, including email messages, from the public. Other times, Palin’s maneuvering was an effort simply to avoid publicly taking on topics in which she was not well versed.
A look at some of the defining moments in Palin’s political career, including stumping for governor, fighting the state’s biggest policy battles and addressing the Troopergate scandal, reveals a candidate more likely to duck and weave than to tell a lie to get ahead.
When Palin ran for governor, in 2006, she was criticized by her opponents for not getting into the meat of policy issues. When pressed, she often skirted specifics. For example, when asked during debates about complex issues like health care, Palin tended to evade the question.
“My attitude and my approaches towards dealing with the complexities of health-care issues,” Palin said during an AARP debate, “is a respectful and responsible approach, and it’s a positive approach. I don’t believe that the sky is falling here in Alaska.”
During other campaign events Palin, would sometimes decline to answer questions completely.
Palin’s goal in the gubernatorial race wasn’t to win over voters with her policy expertise. She aimed to satisfy voters’ hunger for an outsider to clean up the corruption plaguing Juneau at the time.
“The election of 2006 was a little bit unusual,” said Steve Haycox, a history professor at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, explaining Palin’s appeal. In the middle of that campaign, a dozen lawmakers’ offices were raided by the FBI in Juneau and Anchorage as part of a broad federal probe into corruption in the state.
Haycox noted the mood of the state made Palin, who branded herself an outsider and a whistleblower, an unusually attractive candidate.
On the trail now, Palin still avoids details, choosing to talk about reform and often referring to herself, and her running-mate Sen. John McCain, as “mavericks.” She avoids tough questions when she can.
But her most famous moments in the 2008 presidential campaign have been her questionable mud-slinging and her deceptive self-promotion.
“This is not a man who sees America as you see it and how I see America,” said Palin, referring to Obama at a campaign stop in Colorado in early October. “Our opponent though, is someone who sees America it seems as being so imperfect that he’s palling around with terrorists who would target their own country?”
Palin has been widely criticized for her remarks linking Obama to terrorism. The McCain-Palin campaign has defended her statements, saying Obama served on an education board with William Ayers, who was a member of the 1960’s radical group the Weather Underground.
Palin has also made repeated misstatements about Obama’s tax policies, saying he would raise taxes on most Americans, though his tax plan would lower taxes for most American families.
When a pool of campaign reporters asked if she thinks Obama is dishonest in disputing her claims about his tax policy she said, “I’m not saying he’s dishonest. But in terms of judgment, in terms of being able to answer a question forthrightly, it has two different parts to this — that judgment and that truthfulness.”
During several public events, Palin has chided Obama for saying McCain’s health-care proposal includes new taxes. Though McCain’s health-care initiative would include a $5,000 tax credit, the plan would fund the credit by taxing employer-provided plans.
Palin has said she identifies with families that face out-of-pocket payment for coverage — though her husband and their children would qualify for free, federally funded care as the descendants of Native Alaskans.
Observers in Alaska say that these statements reflect a change in Palin’s public persona since becoming the GOP vice-presidential nominee.
Even her critics say they’re seeing a new Palin in this tactic. Many political observers have said they assume the McCain campaign has been shaping her new public persona.
“I don’t think this is Sarah Palin,” said state Rep. Les Gara, an Anchorage Democrat who has been critical of Palin. “Had Sarah Palin run this campaign, she wouldn’t have designed it the way it’s happened.”
Gara has criticized Palin on a number of issues, including not following-through or not being interested in specifics of government. “Most governors would have this political vision that is amazingly important to them,” Gara said. “I don’t think she has this broad political vision. She’s not really the most hands-on governor or the most interested in policy.”
Others in the state legislature have criticized Palin for her absence and silence on important issues. Legislators in Juneau were seen wearing buttons that read “Where’s Sarah?” during an important debate over Alaskans yearly oil and gas royalty checks.
Palin’s policy of keeping quiet on certain topics has extended to the public’s request for information as well. In an attempt to do government business without facing scrutiny, Palin used personal email accounts after she was advised they are not subject to subpoena.
She has also made it more difficult to obtain public documents through freedom-of-information requests.
Similar secrecy marked her response to probing questions about Troopergate when the scandal broke in June.
Palin initially said she would cooperate in the probe. When the state legislature appointed an independent investigator, Steve Branchflower, to handle the matter she told a local radio show host, Dan Fagan, on the air she would sit for an interview with Branchflower.
“Oh absolutely,” Palin said. “In fact, I’m ready to be interviewed today.”
When Fagan pressed on details about emails her administration had declined to release to Branchflower she replied with a dodge: “Which emails?” Palin asked. Before Fagan could respond, Palin provided a long, winding answer that did not address the question.
The combination of willingness to cooperate, mixed with evading certain questions was a classic Palin move.
Things changed at the end of August, though, when Palin was tapped by McCain as his running-mate. Stall tactics kicked in and Palin declined to be interviewed as she had previously agreed.
Palin’s transformation from dodging to lying was complete when Branchflower’s report went public. Branchflower found that Palin broke a state ethics law in directing employees, and her husband, to pressure her public-safety commissioner to fire her ex-brother-in-law from his job as a state trooper over a family feud.
Palin claimed she was vindicated by the findings. “Well, I’m very, very pleased to be cleared of any legal wrongdoing … any hint of any kind of unethical activity there,” the governor told the Anchorage Daily News.
The Daily News editorial board was surprised by Palin’s comments on such a serious finding against her. “Her response is either astoundingly ignorant or downright Orwellian,” the Anchorage Daily News editorial board wrote.
Others view her statements as a shock, particularly her Troopergate statement.
However, one long-time GOP Alaska political consultant, Art Hackney, who has worked for Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young, said he hasn’t been surprised by Palin’s shift. He says it is not much of a change.
Hackney said that Palin has always seen campaigning as being about winning, rather than a particular vision or set of political values. “She’s just saying what will sound good on television,” Hackney said. “It’s that simple.”