FRONT PAGE CONTRIBUTOR
Sarah Palin And The Integrity Gap
Why The Integrity Issue Favors McCain-Palin Over Obama-Biden; Part I of III
I have previously discussed at length the extent to which the public mood has focused on the issue of integrity in this presidential election. If anything, the recent credit crisis has heightened that concern – frankly, the public doesn’t understand the crisis and isn’t convinced the candidates do, either, but wants reassurance that the next President will be above outside influence in dealing with its aftermath and preventing similar economic crises in the future.
Now, you may not be interested in the integrity issue, or at any rate may be voting primarily on other issues; certainly I have other things much higher on my priority list. But if this is truly an election about who has the independence to bring about change in Washington, this is an issue the campaigns cannot ignore.
One of the most basic ways in which a candidate can demonstrate the integrity voters are looking for is to build a record of standing up to corruption and waste – and doing so even when it appears in his or her own party, or on the part of his or her own allies or backers. This is not just a matter of honesty and prudence, but of toughness and courage. Let me offer a contrast between the two tickets on this issue – an Integrity Gap that Obama simply can’t surmount and can only hope to obscure. If you look at the record of the McCain-Palin ticket and compare it to the Obama-Biden record in this regard, it really is no contest. I will start with the junior members of the two tickets. Governor Sarah Palin, in her short career, has fought many battles against her own party’s entrenched interests; Senator Barack Obama, in a career of similar length and scope, has consistently looked the other way, and worse. Sen. Obama simply lacks the courage and the record of accomplishment of Gov. Palin. Today I will look at Gov. Palin’s record; in Part II I will deal with Sen. Obama. Part III will deal with the senior members of the two tickets, Senator John McCain and Senator Joe Biden.
On the surface, Sarah Palin’s career path looks much like Barack Obama’s: both spent around a decade laboring in the vineyards of local politics before seeing their careers abruptly go up like a rocket all the way to the center of the national political stage. But look closer, and you will see all the difference in the world in the choices they made to get there.
I. Sarah Palin: The Whistleblower Who Took The Statehouse
I should add up front, as you’ll see from all the Hat Tip links below, that I am very heavily indebted to Beldar for all the work he’s done on Palin’s career in Alaska. Additional supporting links marked with an asterisk.
A. The PTA Mom
Sarah Palin is, let’s face it, an unlikely force for political change. In contrast to Obama, Palin didn’t start off with two Ivy League degrees, a surplus of idealism, and an armload of theories about political and social organization; she seems hardly to have considered a career in politics at all. In high school, she was a jock, earning early plaudits as the point guard on an underdog state championship basketball team, playing the championship game with a stress fracture in her ankle. Her husband says she was shy in high school and not someone he would have pictured having a political career. She seems to have been an indifferent college student, more interested in sports than studies, and worked after college as a sportscaster before marrying, having children and helping out her husband’s commercial fishing business (another example of the toughness that would serve her well in politics: continuing to help Todd on his fishing boat after breaking several of her fingers). Her entree into politics was the PTA, and from there the City Council in her hometown of Wasilla, Alaska, a fast-growing suburb of a few thousand people near the state’s largest city, Anchorage. A lifelong Republican but not previously a political activist, she was elected to the City Council in 1992 after getting involved in a citizens’ watch group that wanted Wasilla to have its own police force, ousting an incumbent, as she did in all of her significant races:
She did so by going door to door to campaign, pulling a red wagon with her son Track in the back. She ran her campaign out of her kitchen… Within weeks of her election, she’d taken on another councilman who had a city contract for garbage pickup that favored his own company.
Why do I mention Palin’s apolitical roots? Because they help explain three things about her that become important later. One, how she’s been able to stay grounded to have a normal, non-political person’s reactions to the kinds of things politicians get inured to seeing. Two, why her views on reform, corruption and waste were not a pre-designed program but the evolving product of those reactions kicking in over time in response to things she observed first-hand. And three, how she was able to make the most important decision of her political career – to walk away from it all on principle with the significant chance that she was ending her career in politics.
B. Mayor of Wasilla
In 1996, Palin was elected Mayor of Wasilla, ousting the incumbent mayor, who had previously supported her. As Beldar explains, citing Palin’s biographer Kaylene Johnson:
[Mayor] Stein had ignored the sentiments of Wasilla residents who’d approved term limits in 1994, and he continued to take advantage of a loophole exempting incumbents (he’d been mayor since 1987). Palin had originally crossed Stein by voting against a pay increase for the mayor’s position shortly after she was first elected as a city councilman in 1992; accordingly, in 1996, she campaigned against him with a promise that she would start trimming the city budget by taking a voluntary pay cut as mayor (Which in fact she did.). She also promised to reduce property taxes. (Which in fact she did.) And she promised to promote new economic development that would increase the local tax base and permit higher levels of city services. (Which, again, she did.)
This was not the last time she would face a tough campaign against more experienced opponents. But while the 1996 race bore the early hallmarks of Palin’s fiscal conservatism – as she battled to avoid expanding the city’s budget – she was still a conventional Alaska Republican, supported by the state GOP establishment. Palin’s success in Wasilla marked her as a leader among her peers, helping get her “elected president of the Alaska Conference of Mayors.”
Alaska, of course, has a major addiction to federal pork-barrel spending; for years it has led the nation in per-capita federal dollars, and still does. Alaskans will tell you that there are reasons for this, not least the fact that the federal government owns so much of the land in the state. Then-Mayor Palin was no exception to this process; like many local officials, and perhaps more successfully than most, she sought to relieve the tax burdens of her own constituents by lobbying the federal government for funds for Wasilla, in 2000 even retaining a Washington lobbyist – the former chief of staff to Republican U.S. Senator Ted Stevens and law partner of Stevens’ son Ben – to represent the town. Unsurprisingly, this brought home the bacon, over $6 million in fiscal year 2002.
It was during Palin’s two three-year terms as Mayor of Wasilla that she began a long practice, which I noted here and which Ed Morrissey discusses here based on New York Times and Washington Post profiles, of firing lots of people, basically anyone who cost too much, didn’t get on board with the things she was trying to accomplish, was publicly insubordinate to her leadership, or was a holdover from prior administrations. As I’ve noted before, one of the principal obstacles to real change in any public-sector job is the inertia of entrenched incumbents; sacking them is a good way to get bad press and stir up lawsuits and trumped-up investigations, but it’s also evidence of the unsentimentality and independent streak that any genuine reformer needs.
Term-limited out of running again for Mayor, Palin in 2002 ran for the Lieutenant Governorship, but when long-time Republican U.S. Senator Frank Murkowski entered the Governor’s race, other more experienced and better-known candidates shifted into the Lt. Gov. field, and Palin was defeated in a crowded 5-way primary. She nonetheless impressed observers as a coming star by posting a strong second despite being badly outspent by 3 opponents.
C. The Oil and Gas Commission
Following her loss in the Lieutenant Governor’s race, Palin was out of a job, and as promising but unemployed politicians often do, she accepted an appointment from the powers that controlled her state party. In February 2003, she was tabbed by Murkowski to chair the Alaska Oil & Gas Conservation Commission, a regulatory body with jurisdiction over the state’s most important industries:
The commission and its 21 staff members usually labor in obscurity unless they are responding to a serious oil-well accident or violation. Founded in territorial days and modeled after commissions in other oil states, the AOGCC is a regulatory board charged with protecting public resources when oil or gas is developed. The AOGCC has three basic functions: to ensure that producing oil and gas fields achieve maximum recovery; to ensure that wells are safely constructed and operated; and to protect groundwater when oil and gas wells pass through aquifers or when drilling wastes are legally disposed underground.
The job was a plum patronage position, paying $118,000 a year, doubling her salary as Mayor and for the first time making her the family’s chief breadwinner. The Anchorage Daily News has a lengthy and extensive description of the events that followed, as Palin uncovered significant ethical improprieties at the AOGCC, focusing on Alaska State GOP Chairman Randy Ruedrich, who the ADN noted had “played a major role in Gov. Frank Murkowski’s election”:
[S]he focused on ethical lapses by fellow Commissioner Randy Ruedrich, who was also (and unfortunately still is) the statewide GOP chairman. Ruedrich was refusing to complete and file disclosure reports that would have detailed his personal dealings with energy-related companies. When Ruedrich ignored her complaints, she went to the state attorney-general, Gregg Renkes. When Renkes ignored her (and threatened her with prosecution if she became a public whistle-blower), she went to the GOP governor who’d appointed her, Frank Murkowski. Murkowski was then, of course, one of the troika of Grand Poobahs of Alaskan GOP politics, along with Congressman Don Young and Senator Ted Stevens.
When Murkowski ignored her too, however, Palin resigned.
Think about that again. Palin wasn’t independently wealthy, although her family is now well off; her husband made good money as a commercial fisherman and working in the oil fields, but with four children to raise, their status as a two-income family was undoubtedly financially important to them. Yet she was walking away from a plum job with a six-figure salary that had given her a more than 60% pay raise from her job as Mayor. Palin herself had worked only in politics since leaving her sportscasting job some 16 years earlier, and by picking up a crusade against the state’s most powerful political figures, she stood an extremely good chance of burying her promising political future for good. But she was willing to walk away from all of that at age 40 to do the right thing. If you can picture Barack Obama doing that, you have a very vivid imagination.
As the ADN article explains, her investigation involved a fair amount of sleuthing by Palin, including a review of Ruedrich’s computer files after he quit the AOGCC. There were a variety of ethical issues involved, including matters tied up in a number of criminal investigations, multiple conflicts of interest, failure to file required disclosure forms, and use of AOGCC time, facilities and resources to conduct Ruedrich’s partisan activities with the GOP. While some of these issues may seem minor in isolation, they obviously added up. Palin’s resignation in January 2004 eventually freed her to go public:
[W]hen Ruedrich settled state ethics charges June 22 by paying a record $12,000 civil fine and admitting wrongdoing, Palin said she finally felt some measure of vindication for bucking Ruedrich and members of her party. Over the months leading up to the settlement, Ruedrich had been saying the accusations were overblown, while other Republicans, including Murkowski, complained Ruedrich was unfairly targeted, primarily by the news media.
Originally muzzled by the confidentiality provisions of the state ethics law and unable to explain publicly what she had tried to do about Ruedrich, Palin found herself attacked from both sides: Ruedrich’s opponents accused her of complicity with him, and his allies said she was providing ammunition for Democrats. She quit the commission in frustration on Jan. 16, months before the state’s secret investigation and its formal charges became public.
She wrote a famous op-ed for the state’s largest newspaper …And …continu[ed] to direct public attention to the scandal.
She was helped along by criminal investigations that have since ended up with indictments and convictions of several public officials. Renkes was forced to resign as attorney-general. Reudrich ended up agreeing to pay a substantial fine for his ethics violations – not just the noncompliance with the disclosure forms, but substantive violations based on too-close ties with and favors from VECO, the drilling contractor that’s been at the center of most of the Alaskan ethics scandals – and to quit the Commission.
After slamming Murkowski for “hiring his own counsel, paid for by the state, to investigate his long-time friend, confidant, and campaign manager [Renkes],” Sarah concluded by writing, “Despite those in Juneau who think otherwise, it’s healthy for democracy to ask questions. And I’ll bet there are hockey moms and housewives all across this great state who agree.”
The result was a thorough burning of her bridges with the state party:
By that time, Palin was an outcast. The state Republican Party in May had just reconfirmed its support for Ruedrich, after party leaders assured the central committee that charges against him had been overblown by the media. Even Murkowski had voiced support for Ruedrich, calling him a “survivor.”
One of Palin’s Mat-Su mentors, district Republican chief Roy Burkhart of Willow, still thinks she went too far. When Palin came to him for advice, he said in a recent interview, he said she should pass along the evidence, which appeared serious enough.
“The impression I got was she didn’t want to do it,” said Burkhart. “But the evidence was there, and it was going to be worse if she didn’t do it.”
In 2005, she continued to take on the Republican establishment by joining Eric Croft, a Democrat, in lodging an ethics complaint against Renkes, who was not only attorney general but also a long-time adviser and campaign manager for Murkowski. The governor reprimanded Renkes and said the case was closed. It wasn’t. Renkes resigned a few weeks later, and Palin was again hailed as a hero.
D. Taking Down Murkowski
Murkowski, meanwhile, was in the process of alienating the Alaskan public with a variety of high-handed and self-interested moves that came to symbolize the way in which the Alaska GOP establishment treated federal and state office as their personal property. One of the more egregious examples was his appointment of his daughter Lisa to fill out his term in the Senate. Palin considered running against Lisa Murkowski in 2004, but decided not to in deference to her son Track’s reluctance at the time to endure a statewide campaign, although she did deepen her rift with the Murkowskis by endorsing one of Lisa Murkowski’s primary opponents. Yet Palin’s name ended up getting misused on Murkowski’s behalf:
A measure of Palin’s growing political stature came in the closing weeks of Lisa Murkowski’s campaign against Tony Knowles. Voters started getting recorded messages from a chirpy woman saying, “Hello, this is Sarah,” and urging their support for Murkowski and the Republican team. The calls were paid for by the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Palin sent out e-mails telling people it wasn’t her. When she heard the recording, she told a reporter, “She sounds chipper and annoyingly nasal, so I realize now why people think she’s me. Ugh.”
By 2006, Palin was ready to take on Gov. Murkowski himself, and despite entering the race as a serious underdog, and even with the third candidate in the race out-fundraising her by 3-to-1 margin, wound up scoring 51% of the primary vote (Murkowski finished third with just 19%). Palin made clear she would be cleaning house:
On the night she won the party nomination, she asked for Ruedrich to step down as Republican chairman — he declined — and also called for the resignation of national committeeman Sen. Ben Stevens.
Moving on to the general election, David Dittman, “a consultant to Palin’s 2006 campaign,” observes that Palin was “[o]utraised by her well-known Democratic opponent [former Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles] …. Dittman noted, “She didn’t have the support of the party. She did not have the support of labor unions, environmentalists, the oil industry. She did it all by herself.” Knowles was no makeweight opponent; running in a year when Democrats swamped Republicans in one traditional GOP stronghold after another, Knowles had been a two-term governor who only left the office in 2002 due to term limits and ran on a platform of superior experience, and Palin also faced a third-party campaign by Andrew Halcro, formerly a Republican state legislator. Palin’s lead in the polls dropped as low as two points just days before the election (*), but ended up winning 48-41.
E. Governor of Alaska
Palin was sworn in as Governor on December 4, 2006. In the nearly two years she has been in the office, she’s made strides on multiple fronts to combat waste and clean house, becoming in the process the most popular of the nation’s 50 governors. The job’s not done, and like anybody with a record of actually governing, Palin has her critics on this or that issue. But her record on issues of public integrity and wasteful spending is one to be proud of on issues large and small.
(1) The Perks
Just as with the pay cut she took as Mayor of Wasilla, Palin chose to start at the top with her budget cuts in Alaska. Gov. Murkowski had infuriated voters and the State Legislature by insisting on buying a $2.6 million jet; Palin campaigned against the plane and famously put it up for sale on eBay, although the eventual sale required hiring an aircraft broker so as to try to limit the losses inflicted on the state by Murkowski’s folly. Palin cut $45,000 in costs by eliminating the day-to-day services of the gourmet chef at the Governor’s Mansion, arguing that she and her family could cook for themselves (although the chef was apparently still under contract with the state for official receptions). Palin also cut her per diem reimbursements by the state by 80% from her predecessor, declining to claim all the expenses she could legally have had reimbursed.
(2) Adventures In The Pork Barrel and The Bridge To Nowhere
In the past few years, there’s been a growing public outcry over wasteful pork-barrel spending in general and “earmarks” in particular – i.e., riders to federal appropriations bills that direct that money be spent on particular projects. Technically, earmarks don’t necessarily increase the amount of spending in a bill, but of course the expectation of being able to insert earmarks (sometimes with little public disclosure and debate, and often for projects favored by people with financial interests in them) inevitably inflates the amount of money appropriators are inclined to start off with in a bill, which is why John McCain (among others) has described them as a “gateway drug” to overspending. The online “porkbusters” coalition was formed to help combat pre-existing efforts by McCain and Senator Tom Coburn to highlight particularly abusive projects.
The most notorious earmark in recent memory was a bridge connecting the town of Ketchikan, Alaska to nearby Gravina Island, which has only 50 residents and is presently connected to the mainland by ferry. The bridge was dubbed “the Bridge to Nowhere,” and McCain and Coburn, among others, made it nationally famous.
Gov. Palin was not one of the early heroes of this battle, and in fact continued to support the bridge as a candidate. But her ultimate decision in office to pull the plug on the bridge subjected her to criticism from the state’s Congressional powers and other proponents of the bridge, while making her an instant hero to the many people who had fought against the project for years. At the time, everyone understood what Gov. Palin had done. It’s entirely proper for her to take credit for that decision, and no amount of revisionist history can change those facts. Least of all from Barack Obama and Joe Biden, who supported the bridge out of a craven desire to protect their own pork projects.
a. The Bridge to Nowhere
The McCain campaign produced, belatedly, a detailed fact sheet with a chronology of the bridge dispute here, and if you are familiar with the saga, it checks out. Wikipedia, as usual, has an uneven and slanted account but one with a lot of useful links to primary sources.
The way transportation bills work in general is to distribute funds by state, and earmarks in the bill then direct funds to particular projects. The original controversy over the bridge earmark was in 2005, when the transportation bill included a $223 million earmark for the bridge, supported by Senators Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski, Gov. Murkowski, and Congressman Don Young, who at the time chaired the House Transportation Committee. Gov. Murkowski’s wife, in fact, owned land on Gravina Island that would go up in value if the bridge was built. Coburn brought the controversy to a head with a bill to strip the earmark and the funds from the bill and redirect the money to rebuild a bridge in New Orleans destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Ted Stevens gave a melodramatic speech threatening to quit the Senate if the bridge was defunded, and he and Young essentially threatened to retaliate against other Senators’ pork projects in their own states; as Kos put it at the time, “the reason senators would vote against these amendments is because if any of them pass, it puts every single pork project in their own states in danger.” In the end, Coburn got only 15 votes (McCain was absent, but supported the Coburn amendment) – Barack Obama and Joe Biden both voted “no.” * Kos accurately summed up the vote thus:
Simply unconscionable. Those who voted against these amendments have zero credibility on issues of fiscal responsibility. Zero.
Obama and Biden also voted to support the final transportation bill that included the bridge earmark, but it was eventually stripped out in negotiations with the House in response to the outcry. (You can go here for Deroy Murdock’s PowerPoint presentation on Obama’s and Biden’s role). That left the decision on how to fund the bridge up to Alaska’s governor, subject to some limitations on how much of the transportation money could be allocated to the project. Gov. Murkowski set aside either $91 million or $113 million, depending on which sources you cite, but as of the end of 2005 there wasn’t enough federal money for the project to be built, and cost estimates were starting to rise to over $300 million.
Enter Sarah Palin, then a private citizen and candidate for Alaska Governor. Of course, the core of the pork barrel/earmark problem is people in Washington trying to buy support back home with taxpayer money; Governors and candidates for Governor don’t create earmarks, and Mayors in particular rather understandably like to agitate on behalf of their narrow parochial issues. Even today, Palin notes that her decision to kill the bridge was largely motivated by a desire first and foremost to protect state taxpayers:
After taking office and examining the project closely, realizing the Feds were not going to fund it as Alaskans had assumed was the case, I cancelled the project…Alaskans will have to prioritize for the Knik Arm Crossing if it is truly a top state priority because Congress won’t fund it either.
That said, those of us who find the pork/earmark dynamic appalling understand that state/local politicians who support federal pork barrel spending are part of the problem, and those who resist are part of the solution; so her views on the matter are certainly relevant.
Now during her campaign, Palin did two things. One, which is entirely understandable although something she’s reversed herself on when addressing a national audience, is to object to the rhetorical device of calling it a “bridge to nowhere,” which naturally irked the residents of the Ketchikan area. Hence, her photo op with the “Nowhere” T-shirt and criticism of “spinmeisters”.
Palin entered office in December 2006 with the federal funds in hand but discretion whether to use them on the Ketchikan Bridge or less wasteful projects, as a result of the funds being provided without being earmarked. And from then on, as her budget team reviewed the project in the context of competing priorities, she began casting a more skeptical eye, building up to her killing of the project. 11 days into her term, she proposed her first budget which included no additional funds for the “Bridge to Nowhere” saying, “We need to make wise, sensible choices.” State funds would have been needed because the federal dollars were not enough to keep up with the escalating cost estimates for the bridge.
In February 2007, National Review noted that the bridge’s cost estimate had reached $395 million and that opponents were encouraged by Palin’s hesitancy to fund the out-of-control project:
“This projected increase [in the bridge's cost] comes at a time when the governor has asked for all agencies to reduce spending by 10 percent,” a spokesman for the governor tells National Review Online. Needless to say, building a half-billion-dollar bridge between a town of 8,000 and an island of 50 is not on her list of state transportation priorities.
That leaves the Alaska DOT stuck between the local officials who want the bridge and a governor who hasn’t set aside any money for it. Add a congressional delegation unable to bring home the bacon like it used to and it’s no surprise that morale at the department has cratered. According to the AP, Gov. Palin’s transition team discovered a department in which obtaining “federal earmarks in congressional appropriations trump all other priorities… and the state suffers as a result.” The team’s advice? Alaska needs to go on a diet from federal dollars and focus on “developing a state-funded transportation and maintenance program.”
* The necessary state money was not included in the state budget in May, and the DOT put the project on hold in August. Finally, on September 21, 2007, Palin officially killed the bridge project, although her statement was couched in conciliatory terms:
“Ketchikan desires a better way to reach the airport, but the $398 million bridge is not the answer,” Gov. Sarah Palin said in a prepared statement.
She directed the state transportation department to find the most “fiscally responsible” alternative for access to the airport.
Palin on Friday said the Ketchikan project was $329 million short of full funding.
“It’s clear that Congress has little interest in spending any more money on a bridge between Ketchikan and Gravina Island,” Palin said.
“Much of the public’s attitude toward Alaska bridges is based on inaccurate portrayals of the projects here. But we need to focus on what we can do, rather than fight over what has happened,” she said.
The DOT will prepare a list of projects across the state where the $36 million in federal funds that was set aside for Gravina Island could be used.
Palin’s decision instantly split those who had followed the saga, but nobody had any doubt who killed the bridge. ABC News reported on September 21, 2007:
Friday, the state of Alaska officially sank the Bridge to Nowhere. Governor Sarah Palin, also a Republican, said “Ketchikan desires a better way to reach the airport.” “But,” she said, the bridge “is not the answer.” Palin has told state transportation officials to look for the most “fiscally responsible” alternative.
The McCain press release collects some of the immediate commentary:
September 22: Rep. Kyle Johansen, R-Ketchikan: “For somebody who touts process and transparency in getting projects done, I’m disappointed and taken aback … We worked 30 years to get funding for this priority project.”
September 24: “Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) today celebrated a major victory over one of the most infamous pork barrel projects in recent history, the ‘Bridge To Nowhere.’”
September 26: Anchorage Daily News Editorial: “Gov. Sarah Palin won few friends there with her decision to drop plans for the bridge, but she made the right call.”
September 27: U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-AK, criticized Gov. Palin for killing the bridge and described their relationship as “a little frosty.”
Sen. Stevens on Palin’s decision: “(It) may well jeopardize further funding by the Congress of any bridges in Alaska, which I think is a dangerous precedent.”
September 30: Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka: “Improving access to Gravina Island has been an economic priority for the community of Ketchikan, the state of Alaska and our congressional delegation for over 30 years. I’m shocked that the governor would ignore the significant energy, work and financial resources already invested in the project.”
September 30: Lois Epstein, head of the Alaska Transportation Priorities Project, a watchdog group that monitors public transportation projects, praised Palin’s action: “The move ensures that this controversial bridge will not be built.”
Instapundit, who had given his megaphone to the Porkbusters crusade, wrote on September 22, 2007 of Palin’s Vice Presidential prospects that “I certainly like her action on the Bridge to Nowhere” Alaska Democrats campaigning against Ted Stevens continued to credit Palin for stopping the bridge until she was tabbed as McCain’s running mate. And here’s Newsweek in October 2007:
In an interview with NEWSWEEK, Palin said it’s time for Alaska to “grow up” and end its reliance on pork-barrel spending. Shortly after taking office, Palin canceled funding for the “Bridge to Nowhere,” a $330 million project that Stevens helped champion in Congress. The bridge, which would have linked the town of Ketchikan to an island airport, had come to symbolize Alaska’s dependence on federal handouts. Rather than relying on such largesse, says Palin, she wants to prove Alaska can pay its own way, developing its huge energy wealth in ways that are “politically and environmentally clean.”
It should be noted that Palin’s action didn’t only save money for state taxpayers. State transportation needs and requests are not a one-time thing; as noted in some of the quotes above, projects like the Ketchikan bridge send state politicians back to the federal well year after year. By eliminating the bridge and routing the money to other transportation projects, Palin saved federal taxpayers in two ways. First, she took more projects off the list for future requests to Uncle Sam. And second, she insured that – unlike famous long-running “Big Dig” type projects elsewhere in the nation – she wouldn’t be coming back to future Congresses to cover additional cost overruns. By being a good fiscal steward to the people of Alaska, she also helped save money for the nation as a whole.
Talk, in politics, is cheap. When it came time for Palin to make decisions, she, and only she, finally killed the “Bridge to Nowhere.” Had the funds remained earmarked, as Obama and Biden voted to keep them, she would not have had that option (that’s what happened to the highway that was to connect to the bridge). Palin’s is the courage and integrity we need.
b. Palin, Pork and Spending
Put in its larger context, Palin’s killing of the Bridge to Nowhere is part of the broader picture of her effort to wean Alaska off its dependence on federal pork barrel spending in general and earmarking in particular. From the Anchorage Daily News, a description of how that has brought her yet again into conflict with the powers that be in the Alaska GOP:
Palin has increasingly distanced herself from earmarking since she made her first trip to Washington D.C. to lobby Congress for money in 2000. And over the past year, it has been the leading source of tension between Palin and the state’s three-member congressional delegation.
Last year, when Palin announced the state was abandoning plans for the so-called “bridge to nowhere” in Southeast Alaska, she was met with what could kindly be described as a frosty reception from the delegation.
Her move embarrassed Stevens and Young — Stevens even complained publicly this spring that “the issue of earmarks and the way they handled the bridge money” made it challenging for him, Young and fellow Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski to ask for any special federal set-asides for Alaska.
“It is a difficult thing to get over right now, the feeling that we don’t represent Alaska because Alaska doesn’t want earmarks,” Stevens said in an interview at the time.
H/T This is hardly a cold-turkey approach, but the numbers demonstrate that she has been making headway:
For the 2007 federal budget year, the administration of former Gov. Frank Murkowski submitted 63 earmark requests totaling $350 million, Palin’s staff said. That slid to 52 earmarks valued at $256 million in Palin’s first year. This year, the governor’s office asked the delegation to help them land 31 earmarks valued at $197 million.
…Palin recognized that Alaska’s coffers were overflowing with revenue from oil profits and it was almost unseemly for the state to press so aggressively for federal money, said John Katz, who heads Gov. Palin’s Washington, D.C., office. In December of 2007, Palin’s budget director put out a memo urging state officials who were assembling their department spending plans to reserve earmarks for compelling needs only, in an effort to “enhance the state’s credibility.”
“When she took office, we talked about the state’s reliance on federal earmarks and she made it clear for several reasons she wanted to significantly cut back on that reliance,” Katz said.
The battle to cut back on earmarking is also part and parcel of a broader effort by Palin to bring some fiscal sanity to Alaska. Palin took a buzzsaw to the budget in her first year, including numerous line-item vetos of items inserted by the GOP-controlled legislature: “The cuts, the Anchorage Daily News said, ‘may be the biggest single-year line-item veto total in state history.’” In 2008, she used line item vetoes to strip $268 million in wasteful pet projects from the state’s budget. (H/T) * Her nearly half a billion dollars in vetoes over two years “were deeply unpopular with legislators of both parties.”
As is often the case with efforts to cut the budget, Palin’s hatchet hasn’t cut down every last tree; for example, she “cut funds for 40 sports-related projects around Alaska, saying sports was not an essential government service,” but found $630,000 in the 2007 budget for the Wasilla sports complex that had been one of her main accomplishments as Mayor, arguing that it would serve an additional public function as the town’s emergency shelter in case of an earthquake, forest fire or other disaster. And of course, there have been a flood of stories complaining about this or that program she cut or capped the growth of. But as I always say, you don’t have a budget until you have said “no” to everyone at least once. Palin has definitely shown that she is willing to say “no” to protect the taxpayer.
(3) Big Oil & Gas
When you talk about powerful interests in Alaska, there’s nobody bigger than the oil and gas companies. Palin, of course, has been a huge advocate of more oil and gas production in Alaska and nationwide, and often refers to the oil and gas companies as the state’s partners (in a sense they are literally business partners), but she’s also shown in office that far from being a puppet of these industries, she’s willing and even eager to drive a hard bargain with them on behalf of the taxpayer and limit the influence of any one particular company.
A prime example of this was her renegotiation of the state’s severance tax, a tax imposed on oil and gas companies by the state that owns the land they drill on. This is different from taxes on corporate activity generally, and is basically a matter of the state acting like a market participant to drive a hard bargain; Palin raised the base tax from 22.5% to 25%, and made a point of renegotiating in public, arguing that the tax had been previously set behind closed doors between Murkowski and industry lobbyists. USA Today notes that the oil companies were not happy with the new fees:
Oil executives said the law amounted to a $6 billion tax increase this year and criticized it …They said it would cost jobs and reduce investment in exploration.
From the same article:
Palin got tough with major oil producers in other ways, too. She moved to revoke ExxonMobil’s license to develop oil and natural gas at Point Thomson on the North Slope, arguing the company had sat for too long on the site without developing the reserves. ExxonMobil says it will begin drilling this winter, but the state says the plans are inadequate.
One of her most significant accomplishments as governor was passing a major tax increase on state oil production, angering oil companies but raising billions of dollars in new revenue. She said the oil companies had previously bribed legislators to keep the taxes low. She subsequently championed legislation that would give some of that money back to Alaskans: Soon, every Alaskan will receive a $1,200 check.
Then there’s the pipeline project intended to develop Alaska’s vast natural gas reserves, which “had been a top economic goal for the state for nearly two decades” – Gov. Murkowski had never delivered on his promise to get the pipeline deal done, but “had offered the major firms exclusive contracts to build the pipeline and had agreed to freeze oil taxes for 30 years and natural gas taxes for up to 45 years.” Palin, having run against Murkowski’s coziness with the three main producers, decided to open the process to formal bids, a move that didn’t go over well with them:
The three major North Slope producers – BP, ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil – have panned Ms. Palin’s approach as too restrictive, and say they prefer to negotiate a deal directly as they did with her predecessor, Frank Murkowski.
Eventually, this January, Gov. Palin settled on TransCanada, a Canadian company. The $26 billion project is “what analysts say could be the largest private capital project in U.S. history.” The deal required her to call a special session of the state legislature, signing the bill on August 27. Once again, Palin had asserted her independence from the state’s largest vested interests, and in so doing broke a longstanding policy logjam. It still faces challenges, as the disgruntled Big Three are threatening to build a rival pipeline:
The Palin administration now stands in a nerve-racking faceoff with the multibillion-dollar oil industry interests that have for 40 years been the bedrock of the state’s politics and economy. Who blinks first — Palin, or companies like BP Alaska, ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil — will determine who controls transport of Alaska’s massive untapped gas resources and future tax revenues for a state dependent on petroleum revenues for 85% of its budget.
Most analysts are predicting that it won’t be Palin who yields.
“She has been more adversarial with the producers than any previous governor,” said Democratic state Rep. Mike Doogan, whom Palin courted — with cupcakes — to power her oil program through the Legislature this year.
(4) Putting Her Own Stamp On State Government
Political analysts in Alaska refer to the “body count” of Palin’s rivals. “The landscape is littered with the bodies of those who crossed Sarah,” says pollster Dave Dittman, who worked for her gubernatorial campaign. It includes Ruedrich, Renkes, Murkowski, gubernatorial contenders John Binkley and Andrew Halcro, the three big oil companies in Alaska, and a section of the Daily News called “Voice of the Times,” which was highly critical of Palin and is now defunct.
Days after she was sworn in as governor, Sarah Palin began to clean house at the department of natural resources, firing and demoting several top officials and eventually appointing a new director at the agency that oversees the energy companies that provide the state with 85% of its revenue.
The shake-up was an early sign that this newly elected Republican governor was not like any of her predecessors — she was determined not to cave in to the energy industry, the state’s lifeblood.
More examples? Her firing of an aide who had a messy affair and covered it up; her sacking of the entire state Creamery Board in a dispute over $600,000 in state funding. Palin’s been unafraid to make waves, removing people who stood in the way of her policies and working to change the ethical climate.
One of Palin’s major priorities in her 2006 campaign was ethics reform, and in July 2007 she signed a new ethics bill that took a number of steps forward in requiring disclosures and limiting sources of compensation for public officials. The new law had bipartisan support behind the new Governor’s leadership, including a State Senator who is now a prominent Obama supporter:
State Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, said the law closes several loopholes and includes a ban on outside compensation for official acts. It also bans legislators from accepting campaign contributions as bribes.
“It’s my further hope that by signing this bill we will close a shameful chapter in Alaska’s history,” French said during the signing of the bill at the Alaska Public Offices Commission in Anchorage.
Now, the ethics reform bill, under the circumstances, is more an example of bipartisan leadership than of courage or independence, as it did not exactly incite a groundswell of opposition, and some people even wanted it to go further. But Palin has also shown her willingness to put pressure on, or cut ties entirely with, powerful people in her own party as she seeks to remake the Alaska GOP into a cleaner organization.
For example, Palin has injected herself into the state’s Congressional races. She cut ads for her Lieutenant Governor, Sean Parnell, in his primary challenge to Don Young, a race that was so close it took weeks to resolve it despite Young’s status as a hugely entrenched incumbent. As Matt Moon explains, Palin’s backing was one of the reasons why Parnell entered the race with a huge advantage, and his loss was largely the result of being out-campaigned by Young, which doesn’t change the fact that Palin made a significant effort to throw her personal prestige behind removing one of the icons of corruption in her own state party. We’ll get in Part II to how this stacks up to Obama, but of course the short answer is that he never tried anything remotely comparable.
Palin’s often been cold-blooded about cutting off former friends and allies who had ethical troubles, as even a hostile Salon profile notes:
Alaska state Rep. Victor Kohring, another key Palin supporter during her political rise in Mat-Su Valley, found this out after he became a victim of the FBI’s oil corruption sting operation. Kohring, who used to accompany Palin on her campaign jaunts, angrily points out that he was abandoned by his fellow Christian conservative before he even went to trial. The former Alaska legislator, who now resides in the Taft minimum security prison outside Bakersfield, Calif., communicated his views of Palin through his friend, Fred James. Kohring, said James, feels “betrayed” by Palin.
I’ve discussed above some of her specific breaks with Ted Stevens; for another example, in 2007 she again demanded the resignation of his son Ben from his role as Alaska’s representative on the Republican National Committee. Granted, despite their many battles, Palin hasn’t entirely cut ties with Stevens, who after all remains the state’s senior senator:
Palin, an anti-corruption crusader in Alaska, had called on Stevens to be open about the issues behind the investigation. But she also held a joint news conference with him in July, before he was indicted, to make clear she had not abandoned him politically.
Stevens had been helpful to Palin during her run for governor, swooping in with a last moment endorsement. And the two filmed a campaign commercial together to highlight Stevens’s endorsement of Palin during the 2006 race.
At last check, Palin was pointedly declining to either support or oppose Stevens or Don Young in the general election: “Ted Stevens trial started a couple days ago. We’ll see where that goes.” Not precisely a hard line, but after Palin’s multiple feuds with Stevens and her backing of the primary challenge against Young, she’s already gone about as far as you can expect any Governor to go to make clear to the voting public her disapproval of the methods of the leaders of her own party’s Congressional delegation in her own state.
All of these moves, of course, have made her enemies. This post is long enough already without delving into the whole Tasergate/Troopergate investigation, but to focus on the relevant point for these purposes, the investigation was touched off when Palin sacked Public Safety Commissioner Walter Monegan, who broke openly with Palin over her efforts to cut his agency’s budget:
* 12/9/07: Monegan holds a press conference with Hollis French to push his own budget plan.
* 1/29/08: Palin’s staffers have to rework their procedures to keep Monegan from bypassing normal channels for budget requests.
* February 2008: Monegan publicly releases a letter he wrote to Palin supporting a project she vetoed.
* June 26, 2008: Monegan bypassed the governor’s office entirely and contacted Alaska’s Congressional delegation to gain funding for a project.
This is all of a piece with Palin’s willingness to butt heads to get control of the budget, to the advantage of the taxpayer. Hollis French, the Democratic State Senator and prominent Obama supporter, is effectively controlling the investigation, which was designed to release its report five days before the election and which would be essentially guaranteed to do zero political damage to Palin if it was released at any other time (you can tell this by comparing how much time Palin’s critics spend discussing the investigation’s procedures as opposed to its underlying facts). Anyone remotely familiar with the history of political reform can tell you that this sort of vendetta is exactly the risk you run when you try to bring about genuine change in the public sector, and why so many politicians shy away from necessary confrontations that create enemies of people like Monegan. The investigation is just another badge of Palin’s fearlessness.
As we look back over the last four years in national politics, this much is certain: we needed more people like Sarah Palin in Washington.
In Part II: How Barack Obama climbed up the greasy pole of Chicago machine politics without upsetting any applecarts.