Where to begin with Sarah Palin. If you are not familiar with the name of Alaska's governor, you must have been locked in a trunk in a basement during a blizzard. For reasons both good and bad, favourable and unfavourable to the Republicans, John McCain's choice of vice-presidential running mate has put a spark back into the Republican campaign and helped lift a convention that had been thrown off course by hurricane Gustav.
How does one describe, Governor Palin's appointment? Let's start with "interesting".
Interesting is an understatement for Palin, a relative unknown who was on the short list of only a very few political observers. The initial press frenzy focused on Palin's official bio – a mother of five, married to her high school sweetheart, a hunter, a muncher of moose burgers, a member of the National Rifle Association, a former high school basketball star, a member of Feminists for Life, and a runner-up for Miss Alaska. An odd choice, but an interesting one.
Then came Saturday.
An anonymous diary entry, as posts are called at the popular liberal website Daily Kos, put forward the story that Governor Palin's fifth child Trig was not her child but that of her teenage daughter Bristol. There was no evidence, just photographs comparing waistlines and a grubby commentary. But the story spread across the net anyway, eventually leading "respectable" journalists to ask questions.
Then came Monday.
The news sent my Blackberry buzzing as I was enjoying a Labour Day lunch with visiting family members. Sarah Palin and her husband Todd had issued a statement:
"We have been blessed with five wonderful children who we love with all our heart and mean everything to us. Our beautiful daughter Bristol came to us with news that as parents we knew would make her grow up faster than we had ever planned. We're proud of Bristol's decision to have her baby and even prouder to become grandparents. As Bristol faces the responsibilities of adulthood, she knows she has our unconditional love and support."
Privacy for Bristol and her future husband Levi Johnston was a forlorn hope as a media frenzy erupted. But the culture war over Sarah Palin's daughter and the "unplanned pregnancy" was just heating up. By Monday the Daily Kos was admitting that the story about Governor Palin faking her pregnancy was pretty thin. (It has since been withdrawn from the site.) Democratic nominee Barack Obama and his running mate Senator Joe Biden were telling their staff and the media that families of candidates were off limits.
None of this has stopped the chatter, especially on the internet, where conservatives and Republicans are debating what all this means. On the one hand, there were forecasts of anger in the GOP's conservative base. Kathy Shaidle at the Five Feet of Fury blog, a McCain supporter, for instance, saw Bristol's plight as bad, bad, bad.
"This makes the Palins look really, really tacky and low class. We should want people better than ‘tacky and low class’ in the White House. I left Hamilton to get away from tacky, low-class people and their pregnant teenagers. Now they're all over my damn television. We criticized Bill Clinton for helping kids think ‘oral sex wasn't real sex’. But we're all cool with this? Kids will say, ‘"So? Whatsername's pregnant.’ When it's ‘one of us’ we're all suddenly ‘compassionate’ and ‘forgiving’ and ‘oh but that's different’?"
But Crunchy Con columnist Rod Dreher at Beliefnet was more typical. His take on the Bristol Palin story seems to have baffled critics of the religious right. They expected conservatives to fall in behind Ms Five Feet of Fury. Au contraire. Dreher is not thrilled with the pregnancy but he praised the young woman for choosing life rather than abortion.
"For me, and I think for a lot of Christians, I would rather take the risk that taking a softer line on teen pregnancy will fail to discourage some teenagers from engaging in risky sex than take a hard line that drives teens to kill their unborn children via abortion rather than live with the stigma."
This story is already fading from the front page after Governor Palin's surprisingly strong speech accepting her party's nomination. But the underlying issues of life — when it begins, how America should deal with teen pregnancy and the ongoing struggle over abortion — will not fade away. In fact, Sarah Palin's most appealing quality for conservative and religious Republican voters is her staunch opposition to abortion. Her biggest handicap in inviting Democrats to cross over may be her opposition to abortion.
I don't remember hearing the word abortion specifically mentioned, nor was Governor Palin's faith brought to the fore, other than through shibboleths the faithful would recognise, such as her reference to having "a servant's heart." Yet Sarah Palin's appointment re-ignites the culture wars. For just as she will energise much of the Evangelical and Catholic vote to get behind the Republican campaign, she will also energise the pro-abortion lobby so crucial to Democratic victories to work hard against the GOP.
Already much is being said, in a negative way, about Palin's decision to carry a child with Downs Syndrome to term. Remember, this is a country where 92 percent of pregnancies with a Downs Syndrome diagnosis end in abortion. Already sermons from the Pentecostal Church where Palin grew up and until only a few years ago worshipped are being investigated. And after helping stoke the furore over Barack Obama's former pastor Jeremiah Wright, Republicans can hardly cry foul.
The war over faith and its place in public life, the war over abortion and the sanctity of life, the war over whether a real woman can also be a Republican, all of these have been rekindled by Sarah Palin's candidacy, which makes her appointment interesting. Very interesting.
Brian Lilley is Ottawa Bureau Chief for radio stations 1010 CFRB in Toronto and CJAD 800 in Montreal. He is Associate Editor of MercatorNet.