Letter from Alaska: Palin is not a maverick

If John McCain manages to carry the 2008 presidential election, his victory will be due in no small part to his success in persuading a passel of independent voters that Sarah Palin was chosen for some reason other than her appeal to the variety of conservatives who continue to dominate the Republican Party.

Sarah Palin speaks at a campaign rally in Colorado Springs. Palin and McCain were in Colorado two days after McCain accepted the Republican nomination for president. (Photo/Jason Kosena)

Sarah Palin speaks at a campaign rally in Colorado Springs. Palin and McCain were in Colorado two days after McCain accepted the Republican nomination for president. (Photo/Jason Kosena)

In Palin’s selection, in fact, we can observe the distilled absurdity of McCain’s “maverick” pretensions. While claiming to have selected a consummate “outsider,” he actually selected someone who’d been promoted by William Kristol, whom history will forever recall as the intellectual godfather of the Iraq War; Larry Kudlow, the bog-standard free marketeer who yodeled gleefully when McCain rescinded his (hopelessly mild) approval for cap and trade carbon emissions policy; and fundamentalist elites like Richard Land and Dan Coats, who have consistently served as vital theological supporters and enablers of the Bush administration from its first days to the Last Days.

While unexpected in nearly all quarters, McCain’s choice was based on a cynical calculation that Palin would rally moribund social conservatives to the party flag. Indeed, to her supporters, Palin’s religion, family narrative and anti-liberal policy preferences are an essential part of her appeal. The social conservative base of the Republican party correctly reads Palin as a true believer, and their enthusiastic response, so far, has engorged McCain’s polling numbers in traditionally Republican hives while narrowing or eliminating Barack Obama’s advantage in swing states like New Mexico and Ohio.

Sarah Palin, in other words, has drawn the instantaneous and rapturous support of the very people who a mere four years ago steadfastly insisted that George W. Bush ranked among the most indispensable presidents in the history of republic. It is a remarkable feat that Sarah Palin has been transformed in the space of a few weeks into the second coming of George W. Bush, a man who would be creamed by most conceivable foes were he able to pursue a third term. Political scientists will spend careers figuring out how all of this became possible.

But Palin’s selection was also based on an apparently earnest — and thinly supported — argument that Sarah Palin represents a new kind of Republican who might reinforce McCain’s self-flattering “maverick” image. Here, Palin has been enlisted to help McCain court undecided voters and recover party defectors recoiling from the flagrant incompetence of the Bush administration and the “culture of corruption” that capsized the Republican party in the 2006 mid-term elections.

On its own merits, the narrative of Palin herself as a mini-maverick is implausible, a fact that only underscores how little most Americans know about Alaskan politics and how little the McCain campaign cared to investigate the governor’s own mythology before selecting her. All local and state politics have a ring of provincialism about them, and Sarah Palin has done nothing to break the mold. As mayor of Wasilla, she hired Steven Silver — a former Ted Stevens staffer and a federal lobbyist with ties to Jack Abramoff — to secure tens of millions in federal earmarks for her town.

When she ran for governor in 2006, Palin openly promised to favor her own borough, a commitment that she has effectively fulfilled in office by sparing her home region from the line-item vetoes that have disgruntled other areas of the state. During the last budget session, for example, Palin cut grants for more than three dozen youth sports facilities around Alaska. As it turns out, one of the budget items that survived was a $630,000 appropriation to the Wasilla Sports Complex, a facility whose construction and subsequent legal troubles Palin facilitated as the city’s mayor less than a decade ago. And throughout her first 18 months in office, the governor — a longtime advocate for moving the capital to south central Alaska — presided over the continuation of “capital creep,” a baleful process that has drawn government jobs away from Juneau and toward the Anchorage area.

In addition to her widely perceived regional biases, Palin has larded her administration with under-qualified friends from home, including a real estate agent and high school classmate whose professed love for cows helped land her a position as head of the state’s agriculture division. One supposes that if Sarah Palin were acquainted with someone with a background in Arabian horses, he or she would be heading the disaster planning section of the state’s Behavioral Health division.

The malignant inversion of this cronyism can be seen in the case of Walt Monegan, the public safety commissioner whose July firing has prompted a legislative investigation and has given Sarah Palin and John McCain to decry the entire interrogation as a partisan hit. After initially promising full cooperation with the investigation, Palin’s office has taken a Cheneyan turn in recent weeks — a comparison that is actually unfair to Dick Cheney, who has never promised “transparent and accountable government.”

Most surprising, however, has been the campaign’s straight-faced efforts to portray Palin as a rebellious fiscal conservative. Though she proposed reducing the operating budget by $150 million and lopped more than $200 million in spending via line-item veto, she has signed into law the two largest budgets in the state’s history. Even so, over the past two weeks, Palin’s self-aggrandizements as an “earmark reformer” have come under withering scrutiny. Everyone knows — though surprisingly few voters seem dismayed — that Palin has simply been lying about her position on the notorious Gravina Island Bridge to Nowhere, a project that the state of Alaska abandoned only when it became clear that federal money would not be forthcoming to pay for it.

Meantime, an even more expensive bridge project in the Anchorage region has been placed under review by the state for the same reasons. If Rep. Don Young and Sen. Ted Stevens had been able to secure the federal dollars that Gov. Sarah Palin hoped they could, a bridge even larger and twice as expensive as the Bridge to Nowhere would be under construction across Knik Arm, securing easier access to Anchorage from the Matanuska-Susitna Valley.

In a broader sense, the McCain campaign’s focus on Palin as an opponent of federal earmarks would be strange and irrelevant even if it were true. Aside from requesting earmark submissions (or not) from their congressional delegations, state governors have minimal influence on the federal budgeting process. State and local officials are, of course, perfectly welcome to reject federal dollars — and some have — but the taboo against passing up free money remains the norm.

Were Sarah Palin a genuine earmark maverick, she would be actively supporting the Democratic opponents of Don Young and Ted Stevens, who will otherwise be riding their governor’s coattails back to the trough in January. More significantly, though, it deserves mention that the McCain-Palin campaign has sought to reinvent itself as the ticket of change by focusing on a legislative practice that consumes no more than 1 percent to 2 percent of federal outlays and less than $30 billion per year — roughly the cost of seven weeks of war in Iraq.

One would think that in a country that’s committed itself to a $3 trillion dollar mistake in the Middle East, or a country enduring a historic credit meltdown, or a country that’s witnessed an “economic expansion” that’s actually made people poorer, a campaign predicated on the evils of pork-barrel spending, would either be ignored or driven angrily into the sea. That would, of course, mean that we lived in a country where the word “maverick” was more than a cheap marketing trick designed to separate fools from their votes.

David Noon is a professor of history at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau, the author of the great, sort-of-on-hiatus Axis of Evel Knievel blog, and a contributor to Lawyers, Guns and Money.

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David Noon

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