Sometimes you eat the bear: Sarah Palin demonstrated that two weeks ago in St. Paul, when her rousing acceptance speech hit the media like a twelve-gauge slug. But as Alaskans know well — anybody remember Timothy “The Grizzly Man” Treadwell? — sometimes the bear eats you. Palin’s insistent use of the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” as an example of her fiscal conservatism has awoken a hibernating bear, pried its jaws open, and invited it to take her by the head.
As any likely voter with a television now knows, Palin supported the $400 million boondoggle during her 2006 gubernatorial campaign, striking a populist note with Alaskan voters by modeling a pro-bridge, “Nowhere, Alaska 99901” T-shirt and urging the bridge’s rapid commencement. When asked during that campaign if she would fund the bridge, Palin responded, “Yes. I would like to see Alaska’s infrastructure projects built sooner rather than later. The window is now — while our congressional delegation is in a strong position to assist.”
That delegation, spearheaded by Ted Stevens, the now-indicted Senator from Alaska and former chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, ultimately failed. Fiscal conservatives led by Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) removed the $223 million earmark from the 2005 transportation spending bill. Nonetheless, Alaska still received the federal money sans earmark and was free to spend it on other transportation projects. To her credit, when Palin took office, she bucked many in her own party and re-allocated the money toward other vital infrastructural projects, ending the by-then scandalous bridge project.
All of this had faded into irrelevance until two weeks ago. Alaskan pork-barrel politics were wet powder for Senators Obama and Biden, both of whom have made ample use of earmarks. Unfortunately, Palin herself reignited the fuse, weaponizing what would have been a non-issue. She could have boasted that she scuttled the project against the wishes of prominent Alaskan Republicans, reinforcing her status as a maverick. Instead, she proudly announced, “I told the Congress ‘thanks, but no thanks,’ for that Bridge to Nowhere. If our state wanted a bridge, we’d build it ourselves.”
In light of the aforementioned facts, this statement’s inclusion in the convention speech certainly didn’t pass actuarial muster from a cost-benefit standpoint. It took a good, honest talking point (“I ended that Bridge to Nowhere!”) and tried to finagle it into a great talking point. The new narrative — presumably conceived by campaign handlers eager to bring her into alignment with McCain’s longstanding opposition to earmarking — implied Palin had indignantly stiff-armed Congress on principle. In the process, it misrepresented the truth, which was unnecessary to demonstrate the Alaskan governor’s compatibility with McCain on earmark reform (she has halved Alaska’s earmarks in two years) and actually provided the left with a legitimate criticism. It might have been the only point Charles Gibson actually scored against Palin in the ABC interview, but it was an important one.
No fewer than 35 times has Palin delivered the “thanks, but no thanks” line in the last two weeks. In Ohio, Pennsylvania, Delaware — everywhere Palin has stumped, except (tellingly) Alaska — the incantation has been the same, recited with the exact same phraseology and intonation. What’s next? The McCain campaign replaces the lenses in her glasses with slowly spiraling pinwheels? Barring that, or some help onstage from mass-illusionist David Copperfield, this dog isn’t going to hunt. Palin has plenty of strong points, but the bridge simply isn’t one of them. As communications strategist Conn Carroll at the Heritage Foundation put it, “By the time you explain the earmarking process you’ve already lost the battle. Especially when you have to explain the story through a media filter that is out to get Sarah in the first place.”
Instead of continuing to chum the waters with losing talking points, the McCain campaign needs to choose its battles better. The bridge to nowhere is, electorally speaking, still a bridge to nowhere — it can only hurt the Republican ticket. Moreover, Palin’s great strength is that she is new and shiny — bottled lightning for conservatives and independents who are tired of the same old faces. Having her recite ad nauseam “thanks, but no thanks” in the most rehearsed possible way is not the way to keep Palin new or exciting. Notwithstanding, the McCain campaign stated earlier this week there were no plans to remove the “thanks but no thanks” line.
Though she has so far weathered and arguably capitalized on the media storm, the Alaskan governor is not invulnerable. McCain was sharp enough to pick the right candidate, and all things considered, her unveiling at the convention was fantastically executed. Now it’s time to hone in on what is flying for Palin and what is not. Family values, ethics reform, and energy are winners. Stick with them, and let sleeping bears sleep.