WASHINGTON– Debbie Joslin wasn’t happy to see Gov. Sarah Palin (R-Alaska) announce her resignation. “I was disappointed that she wouldn’t be governor anymore,” Joslin, the president of the Alaska branch of the conservative Eagle Forum, said in an interview. “It’s hard to get things done now because of the 10-10 split between the parties in the State Senate. What she did was out of the box, and anybody else would be politically dead.”
Joslin, a longtime Republican activist, saw the possible good in Palin’s surprise decision to leave office at the end of July and, in her words, “effect positive change outside government at this point in time on another scale and actually make a difference for our priorities.”
Ten years ago, Joslin was informed that her son Isaiah would be born with Trisomy-13 — in other words, anomalies that would mean severe retardation and early death. She rejected advice to fly to George Tiller’s clinic in Kansas to terminate the pregnancy. Her son died 32 days after he was born. Joslin got a letter from Palin, then the mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, praising her courage. When Palin’s son Trig was born with Downs Syndrome, Joslin gave her moral support, and even filled in for Palin to accept an award from the Republican National Coalition for Life.
“After that,” said Joslin, “I said, ‘I’m not just an activist. I’m an eyewitness.’ You can say the same thing about the governor. She has talked the talk and walked the walk. She knows that there are folks out there who wanted her to kill Trig.”
Palin’s surprise decision to leave the governorship of Alaska after only two years and seven months has been mocked by political foes and friends alike. Staunch allies such as Bill Kristol argued that Palin made a savvy, from-the-gut political play, “an enormous gamble” that “could be a shrewd one.” But many conservatives and fellow Republicans — some of them standing to benefit from the governor’s political problems — have labeled Palin an erratic quitter. “I am deeply disappointed,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowki (R-Alaska), “that the Governor has decided to abandon the State and her constituents before her term has concluded.”
One element of the conservative movement is much more excited. Anti-abortion activists, who embraced Palin after the birth of Trig and after the unmarried pregnancy of Palin’s daughter Bristol, are ecstatic about the possibility that Palin, freed from the duties and turmoils of office, could become a historic leader and spokeswoman for their cause.
“Sarah Palin is the ultimate speaker on pro-life issues,” said Jane Abraham, a former chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party who co-founded Team Sarah, a project of the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List that supports anti-abortion female candidates. “We surpassed 70,000 members over the weekend, after her speech. People respond to her. She’s absolutely the most effective advocate the pro-life movement could have.”
In the eight rocky months since Palin lost the vice presidency, she declined (sometimes after initially accepting) speaking engagements at high-profile events such as the Conservative Political Action Conference and a fundraiser for the National Republican Senatorial and Campaign Committees. In April, however, Palin flew to Evansville, Ind., to headline a fundraiser for the Vanderburgh County Right to Life Committee, a show of star power that brought the group an overflow crowd and a bevy of national political reporters. A month later, Palin criticized the University of Notre Dame for giving an honorary degree to President Obama, calling the president “someone who contradicts the core values of the Catholic faith by promoting an anti-life agenda,” and pouring gasoline on a brief but firey abortion debate.
“With some politicians, pro-life politicians, you get sense that they’re throwing us bones,” said Marc Tuttle, the president of Indianapolis Right to Life, and an attendee at the April fundraising dinner. “Sarah Palin seems very sincerely to believe what she claims to believe. We know that she’s been there.”
Tuttle said that Palin had “shattered” the idea that “women can’t have children and stay in politics,” adding that “she brings out the truth, that this is an issue that affects a cross-section of the public, and not just poor women and minorities.”
According to Gary Bauer, the former president of the Family Research Council who now leads the conservative American Values, Palin’s gender and personal experiences would make her a “fantastic” leader in the anti-abortion movement. “A woman making the argument that this is not something that should be a right, but rather that it’s a disaster for women, is a much more powerful voice than somebody like myself, for example.” Bauer recalled that when he led the FRC, he “set out to find as many pro-life young women as I could. When there were opportunities to give them media appearances, I did.”
Some anti-abortion activists, while focusing on the role Palin could play as a spokesman, pointed out the power that anti-abortion politics could play in the 2012 presidential primaries. In 2008, former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-Ark.) surged past Gov. Mitt Romney (R-Mass.) with a campaign that focused less on his ten-year record in the state house and more on his superior credentials as an anti-abortion, pro-family “Christian leader.” Twenty years earlier, the Rev. Pat Robertson was able to ride a sterling social conservative record and support from anti-abortion and religious right activists to a second-place showing in the Iowa Caucuses (ahead of future President George H.W. Bush) and a win in the Washington state caucuses, with a strong showing in Michigan. Neither man won his party’s nomination, but neither began his campaign with the level of credibility and popularity that Palin enjoys with the Republican base.
“My husband had a career in public service,” said Jane Abraham, whose husband Spencer was a Republican senator from Michigan from 1995 to 2001. “He could stand up and speak effectively about these issues. I could stand up and speak about the same issues and be far more effective because I am a woman. I believe that those who want to take her out, and have been so good at demeaning her on the national scene, believe that she’s a true threat.”
David Weigel covers politics for The Washington Independent, Michigan Messenger’s sister site in the nation’s capital.