Earmarks to Nowhere

McCain and Palin are running against a new opponent: federal spending.

John and Cindy McCain

I was a little shocked to see Sarah Palin motor across the hot stage Wednesday morning in Fairfax, Va. Given the outrage and upset displayed on her behalf over Barack Obama’s recent remarks, I expected her to arrive on a stretcher.

Palin arrived without the aid of a walker, and the crowd loved every minute of her 15-minute speech. People had waited on the hillside of a local park in the baking sunshine after a long wait in a line that seemed to stretch to Washington. Palin was thoroughly at ease as she toured through the greatest hits of her convention speech. McCain aides call her a natural, and she certainly has the politician’s talent for delivering stock lines as if they’ve just occurred to her. Whether or not the audience had heard the lines, it approved.

The main target of her attack was Obama’s record of asking for earmarks, the funding requests lawmakers make for their state or district. Obama requested $311 million in such funding last year (he’s asked for nothing this year). The evil of earmarks, which John McCain has railed against for years, was the central theme of the day and is his campaign’s new central theme. After a long assault on earmarks, McCain said: “That’s what this campaign is all about. … Change and reform, change and reform.”

A key part of the earmark story, of course, is Palin’s opposition to the now-infamous “Bridge to Nowhere.” And on Wednesday Palin repeated her line about telling Congress “Thanks, but no thanks” as easily as she did the day McCain introduced her as his running mate. She did so despite numerous and regular reports pointing out that her version of the story is, to put it mildly, bunk. But the point of the story is not, as the McCain campaign would have it, that she ultimately opposed the bridge. That part is true enough. The point is that her handling of this bridge does not show her to be any kind of warrior against federal pork.

The dramatic version makes it sound like Palin objected to the bridge project on principle the minute she heard about it. But she didn’t. She advocated for the bridge and said no to it only after it was already dead. Ultimately, she used the money for other projects. She has other weaknesses on earmarks that don’t square with the story line. As mayor of tiny Wasilla, Alaska, she hired a lobbyist to seek federal money for special projects. This year, Palin has requested $200 million in earmarks. Ben Smith of Politico reports that she wanted a lot more of the kind McCain makes the most fun of. Perhaps this is a last-minute binge now that Palin proclaims, as she did in Fairfax, that she and McCain are going to “end the corrupt practices of earmarks once and for all.”

The larger problem with this anti-earmarks strategy is that they don’t amount to much. Earmarks represent just $16 billion of the 2008 budget. Yes, that’s a lot of money, but it’s not everything. McCain makes it seem like earmarks are central to the federal government. In Fairfax, he blamed earmarks for high food and gasoline prices and the trouble that many homeowners face in making mortgage payments.

McCain also vowed, as he always does, to make the authors of earmark legislation famous by embarrassing them as a way to cut down on the practice. I wonder. Most earmarks are not ridiculous boondoggle programs. They fund things like schools and hospitals, which are not the kinds of things that their supporters feel embarrassed about. They also fund things like abstinence-education programs (in swing states like Pennsylvania), which many of McCain’s voters favor.

Is Sarah Palin, who promised to be an advocate for special-needs families when she’s in the White House, really going to slash earmarks for special-needs schools? Will McCain really “make the authors famous” when they’re Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, Republican allies who support an earmark for services aimed at families with autistic children? If they’re so evil, why not do it in this election year, when Collins is a vulnerable incumbent? Earmarks get really tricky really fast.

The Obama campaign has been working hard to make an issue of the Bridge to Nowhere, and the McCain campaign doesn’t mind. Aides believe any discussion about earmarks is one McCain is winning. Instead of talking about taxes or the larger economy and whether McCain’s policies will be a change from Bush’s, Obama is arguing over a $16 billion portion of the budget where McCain has actually been a force for change. Arguing over earmarks shrinks the field of debate into one where he has a long track record. Obama has waged no significant battles with Democrats. Palin’s record may not be as fabulous as she claims, but she’s got a record of cutting government and fighting her party. The McCain team bets that those larger points overcome the smaller inaccuracies.

At any rate, the crowd in Fairfax was certainly not worried about such technicalities brought up by the good-for-nothing press. When Palin arrived, the enormous crowd erupted into chants of “Sarah, Sarah.” It had been energized by Fred Thompson, the opening act, who really does seem energized by Palin. Thompson dinged the “brie and chablis”-swilling press that had gone to Alaska to look into her life. He heralded her performance at the Republican Convention. He mocked Obama as “the only person who thought running for president was qualification for being president.”

Thompson was so fired up for Palin he called her “the most remarkable success story in American politics.” Republicans used to call themselves the party of Lincoln. He had a pretty good success story, too. But for the moment, Republicans appear ready to cast even old Abe aside to embrace their new favorite politician. It is now the party of Palin.