A Good Pick for McCain, in Spite of Himself

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Sarah Palin is certainly one of the more interesting characters to emerge in the national political scene of late. John McCain's selection of the Alaska governor to be his running mate was widely reported to be last-minute, a compromise choice when advisers and party insiders expressed concern over his preferred pick, independent Sen. Joseph Lieberman. The pick smacked of desperation, and it seems clear now that McCain's camp didn't have time to vet Palin in the way it might have liked.

But it may ultimately go down as a serendipitous oversight — and provide a lesson to future candidates to eschew the overly risk-averse vetting process and be willing to take chances — to look outside the Beltway establishment for political talent. Palin wowed the GOP convention, may have united the party, and won begrudging praise from the very punditocracy and media elites she skewered in her speech.

If Palin helps McCain get elected, he'll of course have no regrets about having selected her. But it's worth wondering whether if McCain's campaign had vetted Palin more thoroughly, she'd have made the cut. I suspect not.

It's now been widely reported that McCain's biggest selling point on Palin — that she's been a trailblazer on pork-barrel spending, one of McCain's pet issues — was off-base. Palin did eventually oppose the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere," but only as of late last year, and only after initially supporting it, and only after the two Alaska politicians most associated with the bridge — Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young — were under federal investigation. Palin then still took the money for the bridge, she just diverted it to other projects.

Over the course of her brief career, Palin has also had no qualms about working with Young and Stevens to procure federal dollars for local projects — at least until she was savvy enough to realize that public sentiment had turned sour on the process. Under Palin's stewardship, Alaska still leads the nation in per capita spending on federal pork projects, and under her tenure as mayor, the town of Wasilla raked in hundreds of millions of dollars in federal earmarks.

Now, one could argue that a governor or mayor who's able to deftly game the earmark system to the advantage of her constituents is only doing what's expected of her. The problem, of course, is that McCain introduced Palin as a maverick reformer of the earmark process — someone who has eschewed wasteful spending despite the fact that doing so may hurt her politically. That simply isn't true.

But perhaps she has learned from the experience. And all of that said, as a libertarian, there's plenty I like about Palin. I don't agree with many of her culturally conservative positions, but she has for the most part declined to enshrine those views in public policy. Her lack of experience doesn't bother me much at all. Washington's in desperate need of fresh blood and fresh ideas, not the promotion of another five-term senator who's found a permanent place in the Beltway morass.

But that I like about Palin should bother McCain. Palin actually has staked out unorthodox positions on a number of interesting issues, and they're issues that McCain and the RNC crowd that so eagerly embraced her might find troubling. Palin's taken a lot of heat, for example, for her (relatively loose) ties with the Alaska Independence Party, an organization that favors a vote on whether the state should secede from the union. Palin has also been friendly with the state's Libertarian Party. Palin's willingness to engage pro-liberty, deeply anti-federal political organizations — even fringe ones — is refreshing. But it's wholly at odds with John McCain's "country first" nationalist fervor.

Palin was also one of just three governors in the country to issue a proclamation in support of "Juror's Rights" day, an event sponsored by the Fully Informed Jury Association, which encourages the doctrine of jury nullification — an idea abhorred by tough-on-crime conservatives.

Palin comes from a state whose constitution has one of the strongest privacy provisions in the country. Alaska's traditional reverence for privacy and personal autonomy is reflected in a number of issues that would likely be at odds with the national Republican Party — or at least the Bush administration — including a rejection of the Real ID act, and the de facto decriminalization of marijuana.

Palin supported both the Iraq War and the surge, but in the past she has said she also supports a defined "exit strategy," an approach explicitly rejected by McCain, who has said we may well be in Iraq for decades.

Palin's persona thus far seems to be more in the tradition of Alaska's frontier, individualistic conservatism than John McCain's Weekly Standard-style national greatness conservatism. It's a philosophy that's skeptical of government, not one that tends to embrace government, so long as the right people are running it.

Of course, John McCain is still at the top of the ticket. If he's elected, it will be his policies and philosophy that determine public policy, not Palin's. And there's always the chance that Palin's views could morph during a McCain administration to align more with the president's.

But of all the aspiring politicians McCain could have boosted with a bump into the national spotlight of a presidential campaign, he could have done a lot worse than Palin. If she manages to hold on to her more pro-individual, limited-government instincts, she'd be a welcome force in a party that has generally abandoned its "leave-us-alone" constituency — thanks in no small part to the man at the top of the ticket. She's certainly a world away from Lieberman, McCain's reported favored pick.

In short, John McCain may have actually made a good pick, in spite of himself.

Radley Balko is a senior editor for Reason magazine and maintains a personal blog at www.TheAgitator.com. Respond to this column at radley.responses@gmail.com.