When Larry Craig brought disrepute onto the Republican house, conservatives did not circle the wagons. They immediately demanded his ouster. Even the party's leadership, normally slow to respond, did the right thing by setting aside Senatorial collegiality and demanding an explanation and eventually his resignation. With the case now a month removed from the headlines, Craig has snuck back in under the wire by delaying his resignation (that's right, after he initially retracted the initial trial balloon earlier this month).
Regardless of its ultimate outcome, the Craig case demonstrates that there is a growing grassroots movement within the Republican Party to clean house before a hostile media and an impatient electorate do it for us. To date, the movement's impact is mostly theoretical. Only 16 House Republicans consistently reject the backscratching earmark gravy train, scoring 100% on the Club for Growth's RePORK Card. And Republicans may be powerless to stop Larry Craig's embarassing flip-flop-flip on resignation.
But there is at least one Republican for whom ethical governance is more than just a theory. Meet Sarah Palin, Alaska's rockstar governor.
The rise of Sarah Palin has been improbable and meteoric. A losing primary candidate for Lieutenant Governor in 2002, Palin was eagerly sought out by then Gov. Frank Murkowski for a number of jobs in his new administration. After rejecting every job offer up to that point, she eventually settled on the chairmanship of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
Months later, she resigned after blowing the whistle on ethical improprieties within the Commission. Then she took on the Governor's attorney general/campaign manager and forced him to resign. In 2006, the 43-year old mother of four and mayor of Wasilla challenged Frank Murkowski in the Republican primary. In a three way race, Palin emerged victorious with a majority of the primary vote while Murkowski took less than 20% in his race for renomination. In the general election, she defeated popular former Governor Tony Knowles by 8 points.
Most candidates stop playing the part of ethical crusader once they win the election. Not Sarah Palin. She immediately rescinded many of Murkowski's midnight appointments, and pushed some of the largest budget cuts in the state's history. As she put it to Fred Barnes in the Weekly Standard , Alaska should be self-sufficient and not subsist off "federal dollars."
That's why Sarah Palin's crusade for clean, efficient government doesn't stop in Alaska. This week, it was Palin who singlehandedly killed the leading symbol of Republican spending excess in Washington: the Bridge to Nowhere.
The Bridge to Nowhere was actually a state project, to be built with funds earmarked by the state's powerful Congressman Don Young. Last week, Palin killed the $398 million bridge to Gravina Island (pop. 50), directing that the money be spent on more "fiscally responsible" projects.
In a small state that generally votes Republican, the divide between Alaska's Republican elected officials could not be more clear. Palin was elected as a whistleblower, and routinely rails against the state's transactional Republican establishment. Don Young has screamed "It's my money!" when conservative lawmakers challenge his pet projects and blamed the Republican loss of Congress on conservatives who want to cut spending. And Senator Ted Stevens' record as a porker is rivaled only by the patron saint of the West Virginia highway system.
With Palin now in office for the better part of a year, we have some data points to evaluate whose brand of politics works better. A poll out last month put Palin's approval rating at 84%, and Fred Barnes has noted that she probably America's most popular elected official in any party.
Not content with Palin's public approval numbers as vindication for clean, fiscally responsible government, the Club for Growth decided to do some polling of its own. The Club found that Palin would handily beat Stevens, a 40-year Senate veterans, by 56 to 32 percent in a Republican primary, a number certainly helped along the by ongoing FBI bribery investigation that has implicated Stevens and his son. When asked about the Bridge to Nowhere, only 25% of Alaska Republicans approved while 66% disapproved. And when Young's own constituents were asked to evaluate his claim that Republicans can only win by bringing home the bacon, they disagreed by wide margins. 71% said it was more important to cut spending, while just 17% endorsed Congress lavishing billions on home state projects.
The idea that more government spending is in the "interest" of the voters back home is being upended by the voters themselves. Republicans need to ride this wave, not fight it as the majority of them do by voting for earmarks on the House and Senate floor. Sarah Palin could be just the leader we need to convince Republicans to return to their roots.
Palin's devoted fans in the blogosphere aren't waiting for the Governor to be anointed by the powers that be. Barely a year into her term, blogs like Draft Sarah Palin for Vice President and Palintology track the Governor's every move, hoping that the GOP nominee will pluck Alaska's rising reformer for a spot on the ticket.
Palin's boosters aren't wrong, just a bit early. Let Palin get a term or two under her belt as governor. And then: watch out Washington.