Thursday, September 4, 2008

Lies, Damned Lies, And Narratives

Sarah Palin has been a reformist governor by the standards of Alaska, a state steeped in corruption. Palin fought sleazemasters in her own party. She tussled with the oil companies to wring out more money for Alaskans. She even cautiously began to tell Alaskans that their penchant for earmarked funds was making them unpopular in the Lower 48.

That's a decent narrative, especially compared to her Democratic counterpart, Joe Biden. That fixture of Washington is an undistinguished and ethically dubious politician, a serial liar and plagiarist who has a higher IQ than you. (Watch the YouTube video proving it).

But merely good was not enough for the GOP. This year's meta-narrative demanded heroics. So the Republican party exaggerated Palin's record. Palin herself has not only exaggerated but made blatantly false claims about opposing that infamous "bridge to nowhere". Palin unwisely repeated that lie in her speech last night.

Alaskan newspapers have pointed out that Palin was perfectly willing to accept federal money for the Gravina Island bridge, and only turned against it when it had become an object of national ridicule, and a symbol of wasteful spending that Congress was not likely to fund.

Hardly the stuff of heroism, it's more like pragmatic politics. What would have been heroic: If Palin had actually sent back to Congress money the state had already been awarded. But she never did that. And the now-useless road to the bridge that will not be built is still being constructed.

Moreover, Palin actively lobbied for many other projects, even sending a lobbyist to Washington D.C. to push for more pork -- er, I mean necessary projects for the good of her city.

Even more fatal to the narrative, some of Palin's projects ended up on the pork list of . . . wait for it . . . John McCain.

In 2001, McCain's list of spending that had been approved without the normal budget scrutiny included a $500,000 earmark for a public transportation project in Wasilla. The Arizona senator targeted $1 million in a 2002 spending bill for an emergency communications center in town -- one that local law enforcement has said is redundant and creates confusion. McCain also criticized $450,000 set aside for an agricultural processing facility in Wasilla that was requested during Palin's tenure as mayor and cleared Congress soon after she left office in 2002. The funding was provided to help direct locally grown produce to schools, prisons and other government institutions, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan watchdog group. Wasilla received $11.9 million in earmarks from 2000 to 2003. The results of this spending are very apparent today. (The town also benefited from $15 million in federal funds to promote regional rail transportation.)

The Anchorage Daily News pointed out Palin's exaggerations in her speech last night (emphasis mine):

PALIN: "I have protected the taxpayers by vetoing wasteful spending ... and championed reform to end the abuses of earmark spending by Congress. I told the Congress 'thanks but no thanks' for that Bridge to Nowhere."

THE FACTS: As mayor of Wasilla, Palin hired a lobbyist and traveled to Washington annually to support earmarks for the town totaling $27 million.

In her two years as governor, Alaska has requested nearly $750 million in special federal spending, by far the largest per-capita request in the nation, although she has cut, by more than half, the amount the state sought from Washington this year. While Palin notes she rejected plans to build a $398 million bridge from Ketchikan to Gravina Island, that opposition came only after the plan was ridiculed nationally as a "bridge to nowhere."

Even McCain has exaggerated his record as pork-buster, according to It wrote
in November, 2007:

It is indisputable that McCain has been a vocal opponent of earmarks, and indeed of all government spending that he considers wasteful (he has said that Congress spends money “like a drunken sailor”). He has been recognized for his efforts both by the media and by taxpayer advocacy groups. But the three examples of spending highlighted in the ad – a “bridge to nowhere,” a study of bear DNA and a museum dedicated to Woodstock – seem chosen more for their impact than for any direct involvement McCain had in attacking them. In fact, he voted in favor of the bill that included the bear study funding; he was absent for key votes on the Woodstock museum (including one on an amendment he co-sponsored); and he never specifically tried to eliminate the bridge earmark and missed some crucial votes on that one, as well. . .

The transportation bill did include a total of $223 million (not $233 million, as the ad says) earmarked for the Gravina bridge – $100 million for construction, plus $18.75 million a year for four years, and an additional $48 million to build an access road. McCain tried, unsuccessfully, to add a “sense of the Senate” amendment to the bill, stating a general objection to earmarks; in the end he voted against the legislation.

Several months later, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) tried to divert the Gravina funds to a bridge in need of repair over Lake Pontchartrain near New Orleans. McCain was not present to vote on Coburn’s amendment proposing this change, which did not pass. Instead, Congress removed Gravina’s earmarks, tossing that money into Alaska’s general transportation pot to be used however the state chose. McCain wasn’t there for that vote, either.

Like Palin, McCain has a penchant for exaggerating his accomplishments and fabricating narratives which don't coincide with the facts. That's hardly unusual in politicians. But it doesn't mesh with the heroic meta-narrative the GOP is peddling to voters.

No wonder Peggy Noonan was unhappy. But she made a mistake in saying so.

She stepped on the narrative.

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