Doctrinaire Conservatives Beware
THE WEEKLY STANDARD
by Fred Barnes
09/22/2008, Volume 014, Issue 02
Conservatives are rushing to crown Alaska governor Sarah Palin as the new Ronald Reagan. And indeed there are similarities. Like Reagan, Palin has a dazzling star quality and an appeal to voters outside the conservative orbit. But there’s another likeness to Reagan that conservatives may find a bit off-putting. She governs as a pragmatic conservative—with heavy emphasis on the pragmatic.
Palin, John McCain’s vice presidential running mate, is a strong social and religious conservative. She opposes abortion and gay rights and, as an evangelical Christian, believes in a God-centered universe. But these matters are neither her top priorities as governor nor even her second-tier concerns. Her social conservatism has been muted.
Instead, her agenda since being elected governor in 2006 consists of oil and gas, taxes, and ethics reform. “Just look at the bills she put her name on,” says John Bitney, her policy director during her first year as governor. “They speak for themselves.” The bills involved a new arrangement for building a natural gas pipeline, higher taxes on oil companies, and new ethics rules covering the governor’s administration and the legislature.
Those were her major initiatives. Next on Palin’s list of priorities were maintaining the solvency of the pension program for teachers, cutting spending in the state’s capital budget, and assuring that parents who home school their children aren’t discriminated against by state regulations.
Palin has frequently voiced her support for anti-abortion bills requiring parental consent for girls under 17 and outlawing partial-birth abortions. “Alaskans know I am pro-life and have never wavered in my belief in the sanctity of every human life,” she declared in April.
But she refused to introduce the pro-life measures in a special legislative session last spring devoted to the gas pipeline. “These issues are so important they shouldn’t be diluted with oil and gas deliberations,” she said.
Later, she declined to call a separate special session to take up the abortion bills. Her reasoning: Pro-lifers had failed to persuade her the bills could pass the state senate. Nor would she intervene to pressure two Republican senators who opposed the legislation to change their minds. Palin isn’t willing “to jump out in front of the bus on things that aren’t moveable” in the legislature, says state Republican chairman Randy Ruedrich.
Palin’s conservatism, like Reagan’s, has never been in doubt. When I talked to her last year, she described herself as “pro-business and pro-development.” The Anchorage Daily News said the spending cuts she imposed in 2007 “may be the biggest single-year line-item veto total in state history.” Of course, Palin is also pro-gun.
When she attended a governor’s conference in Washington last February and was interviewed on C-SPAN by Steve Scully, she endorsed “across the board” tax cuts because Americans “know best” how to spend their own money. Palin said she’s “committed” to making Alaska “more of a contributing state and less reliant on the federal government.”
Her biggest task as governor has been to start construction of the gas pipeline to the lower 48 states. She tossed out the sweetheart contract her predecessor, Republican Frank Murkowski, had reached with three oil companies and negotiated a new deal with a Canadian company. The goal, she said, is “to feed hungry markets in our state, reduce energy costs, help secure the nation, [and] flow that energy into hungry markets across the nation. That’s my mission.”
Her record as governor hardly qualifies her as a doctrinaire conservative. She proposed a graduated tax on oil as the price soared, then signed a bill passed by the legislature that set the new tax rate even higher. Reagan, by the way, cut taxes in 1981 and raised them the next year.
Why did Palin push a pipeline and favor a tax hike? Bitney says the answer is simple: Alaska needs more energy as older oil fields become depleted, and the pipeline will generate jobs and revenue. As for raising taxes, Palin follows the command of the state constitution to get the maximum benefit from the state’s natural resources.
Bitney says Palin never instructed her gubernatorial staff to “go after abortion” or any other issues of concern to social conservatives. In a campaign debate in 2006, she said that both evolution and creationism should be taught in public schools. “You know, don’t be afraid of education,” she said. “Healthy debate is so important and so valuable in our schools.”
The next day she thought better of her comment. “I would not push the state board of education to add creation-based alternatives to the state’s required curriculum,” she said. But there shouldn’t be “a prohibition against debate if [creationism] comes up in class.”
As governor, Palin has appointed a commissioner of education and nine members of the state board–without applying a litmus test on creationism or evolution. And there’s been no effort, either by Palin or her appointees, to add creationism to the curriculum.
Palin’s most celebrated actpractical conservatism was killing the notorious Bridge to Nowhere in Ketchikan. She had endorsed it in a gubernatorial campaign debate, but changed her mind after being elected. By then, the project had become a symbol of wasteful spending, and the congressional earmark with money for it had been rescinded.
But the three members of Alaska’s congressional delegation–Ted Stevens, Lisa Murkowski, and Don Young–still favored the project. Their expectation was that Palin would keep it alive with federal highway funds and state money. She refused.
The anointing of Palin as the new Reagan is surely premature. Let’s say she’s a potential Reagan. Like him, Palin has focused on a few big issues, while allowing others popular with conservatives to fall by the wayside. This brand of pragmatic conservatism worked for Reagan. It’s worked for Palin too.
THE WEEKLY STANDARD.