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July 25, 2006
We Haven't Changed The Paradigm At All

I find it very helpful to read columnists from across the political spectrum, and not just to find targets for fisking; sometime one needs an outsider's perspective to see a larger truth. In this case, E.J. Dionne provides that perspective, and the larger truth is that after a generation of demanding smaller federal government, Republicans -- especially Republican incumbents -- have not succeeded in changing the political paradigm of pork-barrel politics at all:

Most people outside Virginia's Hampton Roads region have never heard of Craney Island -- and neither had Webb, an anti-politician whose career has taken him from the military to the Reagan administration to writing and now back to the Democratic Party.

Allen asked: "Jim, what's your position on the proper use of Craney Island?"

Webb replied, candidly: "I'm not sure where Craney Island is. Why don't you tell me?"

No doubt feeling very pleased, Allen replied: "Craney Island's in Virginia."

Just last week -- as Jim Hodges of the Daily Press in Newport News, Va., reported -- the Senate authorized a $671.3 million expansion of Craney Island, adding 580 acres and "offering a boost for a future port there."

Allen wanted no one to miss the significance. "This is huge," he told reporters. "It's a big, big deal."

Part of the problem for Webb is his complete ignorance of Craney Island. It has special historical significance to Virginians; the Confederate ship Virginia was built from the shell of the Merrimack. The US also repelled a British invasion force on Craney Island in the War of 1812, a rare military victory in that difficult war. Now it serves as a major fueling depot for the Navy and employs, one assumes, hundreds of Virginians. For a Virginian running for a Senate seat to have no knowledge at all of Craney Island shows at least a lack of preparation, if not cluelessness regarding Virginia's assets on Webb's part.

It also appears that Allen wanted Virginians to know more about the economic impact of Craney Island in the future - a future that includes some significant pork-barrel spending, thanks to Allen. The $671 million may indeed serve some critical federal need, considering the use of Craney Island at present. However, the pandering to Virginians on earmark spending shows that Republicans still have not learned to trust the message of limited government and reduced federal spending. Dionne buttresses that with other examples from campaigns by Senators Mike DeWine and Conrad Burns, all of whom highlight federal dollars for local initiatives as reasons for their re-election.

Republicans will point out that electing Democrats would make the situation worse, and that is true, but even that points out the basic inconsistency. Dionne doesn't include examples from the campaigns of Democratic incumbents. Even if he did, however, the Democrats argue, for the most part, that increased federal spending benefits people as a basic principle. No one doubts that Democrats spend money on pork; Robert Byrd has made a name for himself in that process, and he's stuck that name on everything that doesn't move in West Virginia.

Republicans, expecially conservatives, argue that federal spending puts too much power in Washington and takes money away from where it can be most effective, or at least they argue it in the hypothetical. In the practical, however, and especially when incumbents feel threatened, the GOP starts relying on pork-barrel politics to get themselves back in office. Despite a generation having passed since the election of Ronald Reagan and the demand for limited government, the Republicans seem to have abandoned the difficult work of increasing freedom by limiting federal government for the lazy approach to power -- through the pork they once abhorred.

If the GOP intends on establishing itself as a credible authority on limited government, it has to start selling that to the voters, and set examples that count. Instead of bragging about bringing home $670 million in federal projects, Republican incumbents should be telling voters that they saved, say, $2 billion in wasteful spending, and that meant that Virginians (or Ohioans or Montanans) created hundreds of new jobs. We can't change the paternalistic paradigm of pork-barrel politics until politicians stop relying on it for re-election.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at July 25, 2006 8:11 AM

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