October 20, 2005.
Scene: The United States Senate.
Players: Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, Arizona Senator John McCain, Illinois Senator Barack Obama, Delaware Senator Joe Biden, Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn.
Subject: Coburn’s amendment to remove the $223 million Alaskan “Bridge to Nowhere” from a Senate Appropriations bill and use it instead to repair the heavily damaged Interstate 10 bridge over Louisiana’s Lake Pontchartrain ruined by Hurricane Katrina.
Results: Intimidated by the power of Appropriations Chairman Stevens, who angrily threatens to resign if he doesn’t get his way, the Senate votes 82-15 to deny the funds to Louisiana and the Katrina victims who need the bridge.
Senator John McCain, a longtime opponent of Stevens and the Bridge to Nowhere, is not in the Senate the day Coburn brings up his amendment, but is well on record as opposing the Alaska bridge. His relationship with Stevens over the issue of earmarks has been explosive. Senators Obama and Biden vote for this Stevens earmark — against giving the Bridge to Nowhere money to the Katrina victims who need their bridge rebuilt.
Scene: Alaska. 2002-2006.
Players: Stevens ally, former Senate colleague of 22 years and current — and powerful — Republican Governor Frank Murkowski. Sarah Palin, a young Alaska mother, former mayor of a small Alaska town, ex-chairman of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
Subject: The ethics of powerful members of the Alaskan Republican Establishment.
Results: Angered by what she calls the “lack of ethics” of a fellow Commission member, the state Republican Party chairman, Palin resigns and files formal complaints against the GOP chair and Alaska’s GOP Attorney General. Both men are forced to resign, the party chairman paying a record $12,000 fine. Furious at the atmosphere of corruption, Palin turns her sights on the powerful Governor Murkowski, challenging him in a primary. She wins, and goes on to beat another Alaska insider, a Democratic former governor, to capture the governorship.
What we have here are two vivid examples of how to deal with corrupted power.
Example # 1: The Obama/Biden way. Beat your chest in public about the need for change, but when you think nobody’s watching — stick with the good old boy network. So what if you screw a few Katrina victims out of $223 million for desperately needed hurricane-induced bridge repairs for a Bridge to Nowhere? You don’t want to upset the old boy network, do you? Particularly when you are really part of it.
Example #2: The Palin way. Raise holy hell about the misbehavior of your fellow party members no matter how powerful they are. Go public. Tell the truth. File a complaint. Rattle every cage in sight. Challenge the powerful Governor head-on so you can put a stop to this kind of thing. You don’t give a flying fig about the old boy network, don’t want to be part of it and think it’s about time somebody stood up and said so. You just go do it.
Example number two is what’s known generally as reform. Change. It’s the kind of thing Obama supporter and VP vetter Caroline Kennedy’s father called a “profile in courage.” Living this value takes guts. There will be consequences for you if you fail. Which is why people appreciate you when they know you have taken the risk — and succeeded.
“If I got my way I’d take Sarah Palin.”
So said a conservative activist here in Pennsylvania days before Senator John McCain did indeed name the 44-year-old Alaska Governor as his vice presidential pick, immediately energizing the GOP’s conservative base. Word of her Alaska stance on reform already had Pennsylvania’s conservative reformers abuzz well before her selection. They felt instinctively that one of her biggest attributes here in Pennsylvania is success in Alaska taking on the old-boy network of GOP Alaskan politics. This particular credential of the young Governor — as a conservative reformer — strikes to the marrow here in Republican Central Pennsylvania, an area that McCain will need to carry heavily if he is to have a chance at overcoming Obama’s margin in heavily African-American and Democratic Philadelphia.
WHY IS WHAT Palin did in Alaska — and what Obama and Biden failed to do for Louisiana — such a big deal? Here’s the story, one which Pennsylvania political activists are still talking about.
Back in 2005, in the wee morning hours of July 7, the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed, on a bipartisan vote, a pay raise for not only itself — all members of the State House and State Senate — but judges and some executive branch officials as well. Depending on your length of service, it wasn’t small either, with some salaries going up anywhere from 16% to 34%. There was also a provision in this legislative jewel that allowed legislators to take their raise as an “un-vouchered expense.” Why? Well, because there was this troubling clause in the state’s constitution that flatly forbade legislators from raising their own pay. They could pass a raise for the next session, but not the one for which they were currently sitting. So to get around this small problem, the idea of the “un-vouchered expense” took flight.
To understate the case, when this “pay grab” as it quickly came to be known was discovered, all political hell broke loose in the state, particularly in Central and Western Pennsylvania, the more conservative sections of the Commonwealth. In one of the more remarkable political stories in the entire history of the state (which is saying something considering the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were written here) a completely bipartisan campaign to repeal the raise and punish anyone connected with it began almost on the spot. It stretched from the furthest right all the way to the furthest left in a stunningly effective fashion. In particular, attention was focused on the legislative leaders of both parties, who, in the fashion of legislators, had neatly constructed this package in a deeply bipartisan manner.
Long story short, Republicans at the grassroots level were especially furious with two of their own, State Senate President Robert Jubelirer and Senate Majority Leader David “Chip” Brightbill. Candidates emerged to take the two men on in the next primary. Both incumbents were entrenched and had lots of campaign cash at their disposal.
And in two huge upsets, they lost. Big time. In Brightbill’s case to a political novice. This wasn’t all, by any stretch. The number two Democrat in the House leadership — House Minority Whip Rep. Mike Veon — lost his primary as well. A State Supreme Court Justice was unceremoniously rejected in a retention vote, an unheard of event even though he insisted he had played no role in advising legislators on the issue. Finally, chastened legislators got the message. Governor Ed Rendell did indeed sign a bill that repealed the pay raise.
The story still simmers, as does the unpopularity of the legislature and the seething resentment over the pay raise. Only months ago Republican Attorney General Tom Corbett announced the indictment of 12 Democrats — including former Rep. Veon — on charges of using state funds to pay bonuses to staffers for political work. Rumors abound in Harrisburg that Corbett is getting ready to pounce on a similarly lengthy list of Republicans.
ENTER THE PALIN HALF of the McCain ticket. Already noticed before her nomination, word is now spreading like wildfire in these parts that Governor Palin is where she is precisely because she fearlessly took on corruption in the Alaska GOP. While her positions on social issues will doubtless help her in the state that elected the namesake pro-life son of a famous pro-life Democratic Governor (the late Robert P. Casey Sr.) to the U.S. Senate over a pro-life incumbent Republican, make no mistake that Palin’s reputation as a giant killer in the conservative reform movement will help the McCain ticket considerably.
Indeed, Democrat Veon’s angry blue-collar constituents reside in Southwestern Pennsylvania, one of the first stops for the newly minted McCain-Palin ticket that took place before the Convention in St. Paul had even been gaveled to order. McCain strategists looking at a county map of the state cannot miss the fact Senator Obama failed miserably in exactly these same areas in his Pennsylvania primary race against Senator Hillary Clinton, carrying a mere 7 of 67 counties statewide. Obama even lost Lackawanna County (Scranton), the hometown of not only Senator Casey but, as is much noted, the Democrats’ VP choice, Senator Joe Biden.
So too does the weak showing of Senator Santorum in his 2006 race against Bob Casey Jr. in Central Pennsylvania reflect a problem with the Republican base. Grumbles on local talk shows about Santorum’s boasts of earmarks and bringing back pork for the state were heard consistently in the 2006 race against the socially conservative Casey. Here is the place that allowed then-GOP Congressman Pat Toomey to come precariously close to upsetting the GOP’s longtime Senator Arlen Specter in a 2004 primary. For non-Pennsylvanians who focus primarily on Democratic Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the state’s two largest cities, this vast section of the state in the middle is ripe with not only conservative Republicans but conservative Democrats as well. Stretching from the Maryland border to the New York border and extending along the Northerner tier, it forms what local politicos refer to as the “T.” It is in exactly this T — in Altoona and Lebanon — where defeated GOP powerbrokers Jubelirer and Brightbill received their thrashings.
All of which means the selection of the vividly and quite seriously reform-minded Governor of Alaska to run on McCain’s “maverick” ticket has the very real potential of carrying the day for the GOP in Pennsylvania as a whole if she proves to be the base energizer in November that she seemed to be in August. Already the region’s main newspaper, the Harrisburg Patriot-News, which endorsed Casey in 2006, has hailed the Palin choice as “bold.” Said the paper’s lead editorial this past Sunday: “That outsider vs. insider counterpoint has the potential to coopt the line in Sen. Barack Obama’s speech Thursday accepting his party’s nomination when he said, ‘The change we need doesn’t come from Washington. Change comes to Washington.'”
As word gets out that Obama and Biden were not only afraid to challenge Senate power Stevens over his Bridge to Nowhere, but quietly voted to deny the funds to the Katrina-struck Louisianans, the contrast between who is serious about real change and who is not will be particularly vivid in a state where voters have become very demanding of the need for the real thing. Not to mention the rest of the nation.
THE INFURIATING FACT for Democrats is that Obama and his call for change have been trumped by the Palin selection. Trumped big time. This explains the ferocious attacks already unleashed on Palin. Liberals in the media and elsewhere for whom she does not represent their idea of a “woman” (all women are pro-choice professionals, right?) will be going after her with the vitriolic poison that is reserved for any woman or minority perceived as leaving the intellectual plantation. Think of the treatment of Clarence Thomas. Times a hundred. Governor Palin is going to have everything but the kitchen sink thrown at her. It has already begun. She will be mocked, made fun of, savaged for everything from her taste for moose hunting to her clothes and hair to having five kids. The business about her daughter’s pregnancy and whether or not she should even be campaigning when she has a Down’s syndrome infant is but the opening round designed to make her look like a fool, a boob and an idiot.
Why? Because Sarah Palin is a threat. A serious threat. She is the very embodiment of fundamental change. If she had the guts to take on the old boy network in Alaska she clearly will be unafraid to do the same in Washington. And every liberal interest group in town and their allies around the country and the blogosphere know it, so they are rallying to do their damnedest to destroy this woman, her family and everything she represents. They simply cannot afford to have real change.
But to use McCain’s terminology from his announcement speech of his pick the other day, Governor Palin has thrilled a lot of people in these parts. It’s not simply because she’s a woman, either.
It’s because she’s the very embodiment of a profound and powerful change. Unlike Obama and Biden, she quite demonstrably means business. Unlike them, she has, as did Margaret Thatcher, what our Spanish friends refer to as “cojones.”
That simple fact will make her a star — and quite possibly Vice President.
Bring it on.
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania.