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Two Bridges to Nowhere

A Commentary by Joe Conason

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Is Sarah Palin the implacable pit bull of government reform, lipstick and all? The latest Republican campaign commercial pictures her in heroic terms at the side of John McCain as one of the "original mavericks," declaring that she "stopped the bridge to nowhere."

The fate of that canceled span -- which would have used nearly $400 million in federal funds to connect the tiny Alaskan island of Gravina to the mainland town of Ketchikan and the rest of the state -- is meant to symbolize her aggressive opposition to wasteful spending.

But even cursory examination shows that her posturing is wildly exaggerated and her campaign claims veer toward fraud. Details are important in these matters, especially when the lobbyists and consultants surrounding McCain are so intent on blurring the truth.

The true story of the Ketchikan bridge begins, like most fables of Alaskan government run amok, in the offices of Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young, the formerly powerful, ethically dubious Republican duo brought low by investigation and indictment. Although her gubernatorial campaign website once featured endorsements from both men, Gov. Palin has long since dumped them as inconvenient baggage. But her appetite for the federal dollars they brought back to her state was no less voracious than theirs -- until the state's reputation for budgetary gluttony became embarrassing to her.

As Congressional Quarterly points out, in its impeccably nonpartisan style, Palin continued to campaign enthusiastically for the "bridge to nowhere" long after McCain and others first exposed the project three years ago. Indeed, she literally campaigned for the Ketchikan project while running for governor in 2006, evidently because she believed that her support would draw votes in southeastern Alaska. By then Congress had already repealed any requirement that the state spend any money on the project, but she didn't care.

"Part of my agenda is making sure that southeast is heard," she said during a campaign visit to Ketchikan in October 2006. "That your projects are important. That we go to bat for southeast when we're up against federal influences that aren't in the best interest of southeast."

According to the Ketchikan Daily News, she then went on to denounce the bridge's opponents: "We need to come to the defense of southeast Alaska when proposals are on the table like the bridge and not allow the spin-meisters to turn this project or any other into something that's so negative." Those awful "spin-meisters" presumably included the senator from Arizona, who was leading Congressional opposition to the project.

At least Palin's belligerence toward anyone who questioned Alaska's right to enormous shares of the federal budget was consistent. During her tenure as mayor of Wasilla, then with a population of approximately 6,000, she hired a lobbyist -- the former Senate chief of staff to Stevens -- who was dedicated to bringing back pork from Capitol Hill. That effort produced between $6 million and $7 million in annual earmarks for the little town, making its residents among the most fortunate recipients of federal largesse in the nation.

A scam like the bridge to nowhere was merely business as usual, except bigger.

Has she reformed herself since then? When pressed, the McCain campaign explains that although she supported the Ketchikan project until well after her election as governor, she came to realize that earmarks are "bad" and that reform is imperative. That revised claim would be more persuasive, however, if she had not continued to support Alaska's other bridge to nowhere until as recently as last June.

Oh, didn't you know that there were originally two bridges to nowhere? The second bridge is to be built in Palin's own home region of Matanuska-Susitna, designed to connect the Knik Arm peninsula (and Wasilla!) to the city of Anchorage. Excoriated in precisely the same breath as the Ketchikan bridge by McCain in 2005, the Knik Arm bridge would actually be at least twice as expensive, with the latest estimate clocking in at approximately $1 billion.

So far, Ms. Palin has not "stopped" that second bridge to nowhere, perhaps because those Washington spin-meisters haven't generated as much negative publicity about the Knik Arm project. Instead she has ordered a "review" of its prospects and costs because, as she admitted in an interview with the Anchorage Daily News last June, the Alaskan Congressional delegation no longer has enough clout.

"You know, it was assumed that the feds would be paying for the project. Well, things have changed there on the federal front, haven't they?" So they have. Whether she has changed is another question entirely.

Two years ago, she portrayed herself as a straight-talking populist who supported the Ketchikan bridge. Now she portrays herself as a straight-talking populist who stopped the same bridge.

In New York City, this kind of behavior is known as "trying to sell the Brooklyn Bridge." Is America buying?

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