Palin vs. Obama on Reform and Ethics

Sen. John McCain shocked the chattering class by picking Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to share the GOP ticket. Commentators on the left and right offered predictable talking points about the selection, depending on their ideology.

But the libertarian reaction has been mixed, for good reason. Palin has an encouraging record on reform, but she must own up to a few notable blemishes on spending and tax issues. On balance, though, libertarians have much to admire about Palin’s tendency toward small government, especially compared to Sens. Barack Obama and Joe Biden, who rarely encountered a government program or tax hike they didn’t like.

Palin has branded herself a crusader against corruption in the GOP establishment in Alaska. In 2006, Palin crushed corrupt GOP governor Frank Murkowski 51 to 19 percent in a three-way primary. One of her first acts as governor was to sell the state jet on eBay for $2.7 million. She also made waves by passing ethics reform legislation.

“In her short time in state office, she has repeatedly thwarted [Sen. Ted] Stevens’s and [Rep. Don] Young’s interests and, at times, challenged their candidates — including their children,” The Washington Post noted.

In 2004, she joined a Democratic representative in filing an ethics complaint against Republican Attorney General Gregg Renkes over a trade deal. Renkes resigned.

As a Murkowski-appointee to the Alaska’s Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, Palin went after fellow commissioner Randy Ruedrich, also chairman of the state GOP, charging him with doing political business on state time. That investigation led to his resignation and a $12,000 fine. Quick: name one member of Chicago’s Democratic machine that Barack Obama took down along his rapid ascent to the U.S. Senate.

Palin also endorsed Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell to challenge Young, who is under investigation for secretly steering a $10 million earmark to a campaign contributor in Florida, in this year’s GOP primary (Young leads by about 150 votes, with thousands of ballots yet to be counted).

Parnell visited Young’s D.C. office in October 2006. Parnell said Young erupted with a ten-minute tirade about Palin, calling her a “crystal figure” and said he was “going to crush her,” according to a New Republic story.

The main chink in Palin’s reform armor lies in the so-called Troopergate scandal, which is being investigated by the Alaska legislature. While this dings Palin’s ethical image a bit, it could also garner her sympathy from the independent women she’s trying to court.

Palin says she told the public safety commissioner that state trooper Mike Wooten, her sister’s ex-husband, was abusive and committed other violations. The commissioner, Walt Monegan, says Palin never told him outright to fire the trooper, but that her aides pressured him.

Palin said Wooten made a phone call threatening her father, saying, “I will kill him. He’ll eat a [expletive] lead bullet, I’ll shoot him,” if her father got an attorney to help [her sister],” according to newspaper accounts.

Wooten was reprimanded for violating nearly a dozen laws and departmental policies since December 2001. Perhaps most strangely, he’s accused of Tasering Palin’s nephew.

In contrast, Obama’s record as a state senator in Illinois hardly represents reform. He spent eight years cozying up to the Chicago machine and failed to challenge status quo politics there.

Emil Jones, president of the Illinois senate and Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s enforcer, was Obama’s mentor. Obama often points to an ethics bill he “sponsored” in 1998 to bolster his reform and bipartisan credentials. The ethics bill allows Jones to retire next year and convert $578,000 (the amount he had in his account in 1998 minus income taxes) to his personal bank account. That’s not change you can believe in, it’s change Jones can bank on.

Obama’s bill barred fundraising on state property and blocked lobbyists from giving gifts to legislators. It did not, however, end the pay-to-play system of patronage championed by another Obama associate — Tony Rezko. Don’t blame Obama, though. He didn’t actually write the law, as reported by author David Freddoso:

“[Obama] was not the one to propose the ethics bill in the Illinois senate. He was not even a cosponsor until the day it passed. Five months after the ethics bill was introduced, and more than one month after it reached the senate, Obama was invited by Emil Jones to become its chief Democratic cosponsor. As David Mendell writes in Obama: From Promise to Power, former Rep. Abner Mikva convinced Jones to let Obama handle the legislation. Sen. Dick Klemm (D.) was removed as chief cosponsor and replaced by Obama on May 22, 1998 — the very day the bill passed.”

Obama has had a mixed record of reform in the U.S. Senate. He declined to seek earmarks this year. In past years, he has released his earmark requests. He worked on the Democrats’ ethics legislation in 2007, which required disclosure of earmark sponsors but balked at further reforms; earmark requests are still secret. Despite Obama’s lofty talk about bipartisanship, he and McCain furiously clashed on ethics reform, and Obama was used by Senate leaders as a hatchet man to hammer Republicans on corruption.

Sorry about the length of these posts, but considering Palin’s unknown status I figured it was warranted. Also, as a matter of full disclosure, I volunteered for the McCain campaign during the GOP primary.