Politics

Change to Nowhere

By From the October 2008 issue

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In picking Sarah Palin, John McCain reinforced his own anti-establishment credentials. “I found someone with an outstanding reputation for standing up to special interests and entrenched bureaucracies,” he declared in announcing her selection. So in an election in which everyone claims to be for change and reform, which ticket has the best record of going against government-as-usual?

Sarah Palin’s record of butting against her own scandal-wracked party in Alaska is a local legend. Time magazine called her “the Frank Serpico of Alaska politics: she ratted out her state party chairman [and] whupped the good old boys’ network” by defeating an incumbent governor who’d won statewide election five times. Last year she demanded that Ben Stevens, the son of the now indicted Sen. Ted Stevens, resign as Alaska’s member of the Republican National Committee after the younger Stevens had his office raided by the FBI. This year she personally recruited her lieutenant governor to launch a primary challenge against pork-barreler Rep. Don Young, a father of the “Bridge to Nowhere” that Palin helped kill as governor.

The media wasted no time taking shots at Palin’s record, noting that during her 2006 campaign she told residents of Ketchikan, where the infamous bridge would have been built, that she felt their pain in being called “nowhere.” While mayor of Wasilla she asked for congressional earmarks, but none have been attacked as wasteful or corrupt. Her renegotiation of contracts drawn up between oil companies and an ethically suspect legislature and her decision to rebate much of the resulting increased revenue to residents is being labeled a tax increase by liberals who never previously met a revenue hike they disliked.

Would that level of scrutiny be applied to, say, Barack Obama’s claims that he supported reform in Illinois, where U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald has a full-time job just prosecuting corrupt appendages of the Chicago Daley machine to whom Obama is close? Obama’s chief strategist is David Axelrod, who has long performed the same role for Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Axelrod didn’t respond to interview requests, but in 2005 he wrote an eye-opening piece in the Chicago Tribune entitled “A Well-Oiled Machine,” which described how he changed his early view as a crusading journalist that the Chicago machine was “corrupt and contemptible.” But since becoming a political consultant, Axelrod wrote, he now sees that “diverse constituencies fight fiercely for their priorities” and in meeting those needs elected officials often engage in patronage, i.e., “the exchange of favors--consideration for jobs being just one.”

Axelrod defends this system as often creating employees “who go the extra mile because they know the quality of services they provide citizens reflects on their political sponsors.”

But that’s hardly the reality of Chicago government. As Axelrod’s client, Obama sat on the sidelines when good-government liberal Forrest Claypool challenged Cook County Executive John Stroger in the 2006 Democratic primary. The Chicago Tribune concluded that “county government works for Stroger’s pals, not for the people and businesses that pay taxes. And it certainly doesn’t work for the impoverished people who have nowhere else to turn.” Stroger won his primary but then had to resign after a stroke. He was replaced on the ballot by his son, Todd Stroger, who in turn was endorsed in the general election by Obama. Stroger fils has since raised taxes, further padded the county payroll with “friends and family,” and presided over further deterioration in services.

When it comes to state government, Obama is equally AWOL in supporting reform. Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a longtime ally of Obama, has been identified as “Public Official A” in the corruption trial of Chicago financier Tony Rezko, who was a key fundraiser for both men. After Rezko was convicted on 16 felony counts in June, it became clear the governor was under active investigation by the feds. Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan’s office prepared a 14-page memo to his party’s legislators on why they should support impeachment proceedings against Blagojevich. Madigan’s “talking points” compared the corruption festering on the governor’s watch to a tumor that must be removed.

But Madigan’s move drew an immediate rebuke from Senate president Emil Jones, who was a close mentor to Barack Obama when he served in the Illinois senate. Jones said he thought it wrong for the Speaker to “promote the impeachment of a Democratic governor.…Impeachment is unwarranted in my opinion, and should not be used as a political tool.” Jones has been a huge force in Obama’s rise. He recounts a conversation he had with Obama in 2003, in which his protégé told him, “You can make the next U.S. senator.” Jones replied, “Got anybody in mind?” “Yes,” Obama said. “Me.” Over the next year, Jones burnished Obama’s thin reform credentials by making him lead sponsor of a watered-down ban on gifts to lawmakers, while all the while Jones personally blocked more substantive ethics legislation from reaching the floor.

The Blagojevich and Jones ethics issues sound like something voters both inside and outside Illinois would want to hear about from Sen. Obama. Does he side with those Democrats who want to move aggressively against a governor who appears to be corrupt—or with his old Chicago buddies who prefer to wait? Obama’s campaign failed to respond to requests for his views.

Obama always had a so-so reputation among those trying to clean up Illinois politics. “We have a sick political culture, and that’s the environment Barack Obama came from,” Jay Stewart, executive director of the Chicago Better Government Association, told ABC News. Stewart noted that he’s “been noticeably silent on the issue of corruption here in his home state, including at this point, mostly Democratic politicians.”

Every candidate is using the rhetoric of change and reform this year, but voters would do well to look beyond the rhetoric for examples of actual change. Barack Obama has gone along to get along with his local party’s machine. In contrast, Sarah Palin fought hers tooth and nail. John McCain challenged his own party countless times in the Senate, while Joe Biden has been a loyal Democratic wheelhorse in that body for 36 years. But when it comes to informing voters, the media seem far more interested in the assertions candidates make than in the reality their records reveal.

John H. Fund, The American Spectator’s Politics columnist, is author of Stealing Elections: How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy (Encounter Books).

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About the Author

John H. Fund is a senior editor of The American Spectator and author of the Stealing Elections (Encounter Books).