10/09/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

How To Understand Sarah Palin: The Issues, Not Biography

Who is Sarah Palin?

The question itself is open-ended to such a degree that it primes the reader for a complex answer. But what if the explanation turned out to be less complicated than advertised? And is achieved by, say, looking at a record of statements and political behavior rather than psychoanalyzing the subject?

The initial coverage of the Alaska governor and Republican vice presidential nominee favored the latter: think the circumstances of her son Trig's birth, or her daughter Bristol's pregnancy. But what do these (admittedly gripping) personal yarns tell us about the candidate as a political creature? That she's militantly pro-life? A defender of the family? Well, not quite. In her short term as governor, Newsweek has reported that Palin cut funds for at-risk young mothers and sometimes angered abortion foes by refusing to allow full debates on hot anti-abortion bills.

After selling herself as an advocate in line with various issue groups, Palin has been more than comfortable declaring her independence at politically expedient moments. In this way, she shares a common trait with many ambitious politicians. As independent Alaskan pollster Ivan Moore told the Huffington Post right after Palin was announced as McCain's running mate, Palin in action has not always matched the ideological campaigner. "People were worried [about her conservatism]," Moore said, "but it didn't pan out in the sense that after she took office...she has governed pragmatically." That pragmatism also extends to her political self-definition. Though Palin now derides the "Bridge to Nowhere" federal project that John McCain often cites as bad government in action, she had previously trumpted its virtues as a candidate on the road to statewide notoriety.

But a pragmatic "common politician" is not the role McCain had in mind when picking Palin. Instead, he sought a "maverick" who could dazzle the press with the trappings of an unlikely biography while inspiring the base by signing the old favorites. And though GOP operatives publicly lament the media's exhaustive coverage of the Alaska Republican's personal life, there's reason to believe the guarantee of such breathless reporting was part of the reason Palin was selected. (As David Brooks noted on a Sunday chat show, the Palin "sizzle" is what's keeping McCain's campaign from bottoming out into Dole-style torpor.)

So, as the tabloid press promotes the intrigue of motherhood, pregnancy and rumored infidelity -- and while the navel-gazing mainstream media covers its own role in the mix -- Palin is perfecting her projection of a more orthodox ideological line to conservatives than McCain can manage. Though she recently offered praise for portions of Barack Obama's energy plan and was decidedly more extreme than John McCain on environmental issues, she now toes the line of her party much more explicitly. On the issue of Iraq, for example, she has been a quick study of the McCain policy manual. And though she said in 2006 that her busy schedule as governor precluded her from forming an opinion on the surge or the Iraq war at all, in her convention speech, she assumed enough policy mastery to decry Obama's forfeiture of victory there.

With an eye to the issues, then, here is a brief scorecard of where Palin stands:

On Energy: Drill here, drill now. But has also has supported a windfall profits tax for oil companies, contra conservative free-market wisdom. (The policy helps grease the skids in her home state, where the tax allowed Palin to add another $1,200 to the money every Alaskan receives from the state's Permanent Dividend for residents.) In fact, her reputation for "taking on" the oil companies actually extends from her implementation at the state level of a policy that John McCain himself opposes on the national stage.

On Iraq: In 2006, Palin said, "I've been so focused on state government, I haven't really focused much on the war in Iraq. I heard on the news about the new deployments, and while I support our president, Condoleezza Rice and the administration, I want to know that we have an exit plan in place; I want assurances that we are doing all we can to keep our troops safe." Earlier this year, she said she hoped the Iraq war was "a task that is from God."

On Taxes: Echoes McCain campaign's misleading mantra that Obama will broadly raise Americans' taxes. But in addition to supporting a windfall profits tax for oil companies herself, Palin also raised a sales tax as the mayor of Wasilla. The revenues were dedicated to a new sports facility that plunged the town into long-term debt. Meanwhile, the land deal for the complex is still being litigated in court.

On Abortion: Publicly opposed in all instances, save for the life of the mother. No exceptions for rape (even if it were her own daughter), incest or the health of the woman -- including those who are trapped in a cycle of domestic violence. However, Palin has also passed up opportunities as governor to help her allies push for a partial-birth abortion ban.

On Education: A claim that Palin gutted special education funding by 62 percent in her first year as governor, spread mostly on liberal blogs, is untrue. (The flawed analysis stems from a misreading of budget lines.) However, in a 2006 debate during her race for governor, Palin said her preference would be to have creationism taught alongside evolution in public schools. "Teach both," Palin said during the live debate, according to the Anchorage Daily News. "You know, don't be afraid of information. Healthy debate is so important, and it's so valuable in our schools. I am a proponent of teaching both." In a follow-up interview, though, Palin appeared to back off of that statement. According to the paper, Palin said "she would not push the state Board of Education to add such creation-based alternatives to the state's required curriculum."

The former Wasilla PTA board member also courted controversy as mayor by asking the town's librarian about banning certain books. While the conversation was a non-starter with the librarian, and never got down to specifics, the revelation has nevertheless stirred concern among some education professionals.

Palin also answered a questionnaire while running for governor by saying she supports "abstinence-only" sex education.

On Earmarks/Lobbyist Influence: Palin identifies herself as an enemy of special interests. But, as noted above, that reputation stems from taxing big oil in a state where the politics of energy are unusually distinct and parochial. In other arenas, Palin has not opposed requesting earmarks, or objected to the work of lobbyists. As mayor of Wasilla, she hired a firm with connections to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff that secured $27 million in projects for the town's 6,700 residents.

On Environment: Denies climate-change is man-made. Supports drilling in the Artic National Wildlife Refuge. Supports aerial wolf hunting, and fought the Bush administration's measures to protect polar bears.

For more issues, see "The Sarah Palin Digest" over at Think Progress. Overall, the legislative portrait of Palin shows a hard-right conservative whose unorthodox positions appear either influenced by the uniqueness of the state she governs, or political expediency. But with the candidate presently sequestered from media scrutiny and unable to explain her political philosophy with greater precision, it is the mystery of her biography that entices many. As CNN's entertainment reporter opined to Howard Kurtz on his Sunday show: "It's something that is ripped from the script of a 'Desperate Housewives' plot line. And there you have it. Of course the tabloids are going to go hog wild over this story. And I expect more to come. They are not going to let this go at all." (Another conservative commentator chimed in as well, telling Kurtz that "many members of the media were blindsided by this choice.... so they said, what do we go with? Well, we know she's a mom, so let's ask questions about that.")

Still, there's no guarantee that the soft-focus lighting of network television interviews will expose the fine grain detail of Palin's record, either. At this point in the race, biography may have the lead over policy, according to none other than McCain campaign manager Rick Davis, who told the Washington Post "this election is not about issues."

If that prediction turns out to be true, it won't have been for a lack of them.