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Governor Palin, You Should Have Stuck With It

Harold Pollack is a professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration and Special Correspondent for The Treatment.

I have no idea why Governor Palin quit, but I am saddened by her decision. She is letting down one small but important constituency that regards her with genuine affection: families touched with the joys and burdens that come with cognitive/ developmental disabilities. For all the obvious reasons, she’s not my favorite politician. And yeah, I dislike the occasions in which she deploys her son Trig as a prop in her own political drama. I nonetheless admire the determination and grit with which she has assumed this family responsibility.

Cognitive disability raises unavoidable ideological issues, because families often require activist government to meet their educational, economic, medical, and service needs. Yet this is not your usual partisan fight. It strikes Democrats and Republicans alike. Republicans such as Dwight Eisenhower, Bob Dole, Lowell Weicker, and George Will have worked alongside many Democrats to enlarge our nation’s heart in embracing individuals with Down Syndrome and other disabilities. I heard nice things about Florida Governor Jeb Bush from fellow volunteers on the Obama campaign.

There is no denying that many families who face this issue were drawn to Sarah Palin during the 2008 campaign. Bulletin boards concerned with cognitive disability and autism were filled with admiration, and with hope that one of their own would be a role model and advocate at the highest levels of American government. Last November, New York Times reporter Julie Bosman captured the moment in a poignant piece, “In Palin, Families of Disabled Children See a Potential White House Friend,”

I spent one morning last fall standing in front of a south Chicago Jewel Osco wearing a Knights of Columbus apron handing out tootsie rolls and collecting donations for my brother-in-law’s sheltered workshop. My "boss" pulled up in his white pickup, suitably tricked up with American flags, NRA, and pro-life bumper stickers. He and most of my co-workers that day were core Palin voters.

Last fall, Governor Palin gave one long-awaited speech concerned with education issues for children with special needs. She called for full-funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). She talked about the administrative and funding obstacles families face in educating their children.

It was an odd speech. Its 2,273 words don’t include the words Medicare, Medicaid, health insurance, or Social Security. Yet for all its flaws, this speech was a real foray into substantive policy.

To my knowledge, she didn’t make another one. As part of the partisan fight over stimulus funds, she turned down funds targeted to low-income and special-needs students, earning rebuke from the Anchorage superintendent of schools. She has said very little about the punishing cuts in cognitive disability programs now being imposed across the nation by many state governments. Some of these could be addressed through bipartisan technical fixes, such as increases in the Title XX social services block grant.

Most of the key policies here are pursued and implemented by state governments. Governors have a huge opportunity to improve and shape programs, and to protect the most important efforts in a time of retrenchment. Governor Palin could have used the next 18 months to do precisely that, while burnishing her reputation as someone with real interests and skills in practical tasks of government.

She’s passing the ball. She should have taken the open shot.

--Harold Pollack