Friday, October 31, 2008

What's wrong with Palin?

Sarah Palin is the only one of the four people at the top of the ballot who has not released any part of her medical records. The subject has come up a few times during the campaign. Because of McCain's age and obvious declining health, there is a very good chance that she might have to take over during his first term if they are elected. This makes her records more relevant than most vice presidential candidates'. At first she flatly refused to release the records or to talk about her health. However, last week, in her interview with Brian Williams, she appeared to reverse herself and offer to fill that gap:
If that will allow some curiosity seekers perhaps to have one more thing that they either check the box off that they can find something to criticize or to rest them assured over. I'm healthy, happy, I've had five kids, that's going to be in the medical records, never seriously ill or hurt, you'll see that in the medical records if they're released.

Notice the "if" at the end of her run-on sentence. It wasn't exactly a promise, but her staff behaved as if she did mean it as one. Last Sunday, a Palin spokeswoman told ABC News that they planned to release her medical history early this week. Everyday, ABC called the campaign and was ignored. Off the record, some aides said it was just taking some time to round up the records. That sounds to me like they are the frontier card and taking cover behind peoples' misconceptions of Alaska as a primitive and distant place. As someone who lived there for twenty years, I can assure you that the healthcare facilities and communication in southcentral Alaska are as modern as anywhere in the Lower 48, and better than many. This is not a case of needing to send dogsleds out to find rustic country doctors. If she told her doctors to release the records, there is no reason them not to have been available in two or three days. But, since today is the Friday before the election, it looks like she has managed to run out the clock. She bluffed and won.

If she's so goll-darned healthy, why has she been acting like she has something to hide? Steve Benen suspects she's just being secretive for its own sake; she's really just another Cheney at heart and refuses to give out information as a matter of kneejerk orneryness. I wonder if maybe she does have something to hide. To quote a punditing giant: "Is it irresponsible to speculate? It would be irresponsible not to." I think it's unlikely that she has a life-threatening illness like McCains's cancer or Biden's brain aneurysm. She has lived a very active and vigorous life and hasn't slowed down over the years. Two possibilities leap to my mind (admittedly a dark and cluttered place, unfit for visiting by women, children, and those of weak stomach. But, today is Halloween, so what the heck).

On possibility is something related to her fertility and the birth of her children. Many have suggested that she took some unnecessary risks when she was pregnant with her youngest child, Trig. Proof of that would certainly be embarrassing. So too would be a confirmation that she was already pregnant with Track when she got married to Todd. Both of these have already been widely discussed, so confirmation would be a rather minor embarrassment. More damning with her constituency would be a record of something like an abortion, though I've never heard even rumors of such a thing.

The more likely possibility, in my view, is mental health, specifically depression. The only evidence that this might be the case, is the tanning bed Palin bought soon after moving into the governor's mansion. A tanning bed can be nothing more than a vanity tool, but in Alaska many people use them to treat seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a form of depression brought on by the long dark winter nights in northern latitudes. SAD is epidemic in Alaska. A long time has passed since Thomas Eagleton had to drop out of the vice presidential race because it was revealed he had sought treatment for depression and public attitudes about mental health have since changed for the better, but there is still enough stigma attached to mental health that it's a career killer in politics. A 2002 poll showed about half of voters would be less likely to vote for a candidate who admitted to experiencing mood disorders. The percentage is probably higher among Palin's constituency, religious conservatives who are more likely to judge mood disorders as signs of weak character rather as legitimate illnesses. If true, most of her constituency would probably rally around her and make her an exception to their usual harsh judgment, just as they did with Rush Limbaugh's drug addiction. But, a revelation of mental health problems would also provide those who are less enthusiastic about her with a good excuse to reject her.

Lastly, she might be hiding something trivial, but embarrassing, like cosmetic surgery. The best hope for the McCain/Palin ticket is a narrow win and they can't afford even a small erosion of support. This gives them plenty of reasons to hide her medical history if it is anything but perfect.

In the unlikely event that they win, this issue should stay on the table. But even if they lose, Palin has said she plans to remain a figure in national politics, so we shouldn't let her off the hook. Most liberals and Democrats can be forgiven if they forget about Palin over the next few months, but, in this environment, it's never too soon to prepare for the next cycle. I hope the Alaskan bloggers stay on this, along with all her other scandals and legal problems, and make sure we won't have Sarah to kick around any more after this election.

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