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Palin’s phony claim

When will McCain-Palin stop repeating the most blatant exaggeration about Palin’s record?

When will McCain-Palin stop repeating the most blatant exaggeration about Palin’s record?

You probably know by now that Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin favored the construction of the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” as a gubernatorial candidate in 2006. It is true that Palin, as governor, canceled the project. But only, as she said at the time, because Congress had repealed the earmark requiring that the money be spent on the bridge.

Also, after canceling the project, she didn’t return the federal appropriations for the bridge to the federal treasury. She spent the money on other projects. Also she actively sought earmarks, and praised the Alaska congressional delegation for its ability to deliver. None of these, which are not in dispute, are consistent with the impression Palin and the Republicans are trying to create when they portray Palin as the reformist, pork-barrel-hating, earmark-rejecting governor who killed the Bridge to Nowhere, although she did put the final fork in it.

In her first big coming-out speech in Dayton, Ohio, Palin made the claim:

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“I’ve championed reform to end the abuses of earmark spending by Congress. In fact, I told Congress, ‘Thanks, but no thanks,’ on that ‘Bridge to Nowhere.’ ”

In acceptance speech
In the age of more aggressive journalistic fact-checking, the media had found within the day that this was a colossal overstatement. So I was actually surprised that Palin repeated the phony claim a week later in her acceptance speech:

 “I told the Congress, ‘Thanks, but no thanks,’ for that ‘Bridge to Nowhere.’ If our state wanted a bridge, we’d build it ourselves.”

Then the McCain-Palin campaign put it into a TV ad:

Narrator: “He [McCain] fights pork barrel spending. She [Palin] stopped the Bridge to Nowhere.”

McCain used to pride himself on his reputation as a straight talker. How does he square that with the continuation of this falsehood? Palin hasn’t taken questions since she was chosen so she hasn’t had a chance to explain how she squares her statement on the bridge with what all the fact-checkers have found. McCain, so far as I know, hasn’t been asked. Bob Schieffer had him on “Face the Nation” and didn’t find time for the question. (Poor choice.)

The McCain campaign has put out an email to the media “In an effort to ensure that your reporting is accurate and reflective of the facts — not hysterical attacks from the Obama campaign,” It affirms that Palin did indeed stop the Bridge to Nowhere, but it doesn’t deal with any of the contradictions between the facts in my fat paragraph above and the impression that they are trying to create.

The e-mail, for example, cites an article by the excellent fact-checking site Politifact, which reported:

“It’s true that on Sept. 21, 2007, Palin officially killed the project.”

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But that’s the only sentence from the Politifact article that made it into the McCain campaign email – not the headline, which states that Palin had supported the bridge as a candidate in 2006, not the fact that Politifact awarded Palin a “full flop” for her complete reversal of position on the bridge, not the fact that Politifact wrote an earlier piece on the issue and ruled that Palin’s “I told Congress thanks but no thanks” claim was “half-true,” because “She killed it, but it was nearly dead.” That’s a reference to the fact that Congress had already de-earmarked the project, which freed Palin to spend the money on other projects. In discontinuing the project, rather than calling it a boondoggle:

“Ketchikan desires a better way to reach the airport, but the $398-million bridge is not the answer,” Palin said. “Despite the work of our congressional delegation, we are about $329-million short of full funding for the bridge project, and it’s clear that Congress has little interest in spending any more money on a bridge between Ketchikan and Gravina Island.”

A counterattack
The simplest reading of that quote is the Palin was happy to have the bridge if the federal taxpayers were footing the bill, but not if Alaska had to pay for it.

The McCain campaign did raise a few facts by way of counterattack:

  • Sens. Barack Obama and Joe Biden both voted for the original appropriation bill that contained the Bridge to Nowhere (and a whole lot of other pork-barrel projects).
  • They also voted against a 2005 proposal that would have redirected $125 million of bridge money from Nowhere to New Orleans, to reconstruct a bridge there. (The McCain email doesn’t mention this, but McCain missed that vote.)
  • Democrats, in their campaign against Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens (one of the champions of the bridge), used to give credit to Palin for stopping it. Now they’ve removed some of those statements from their websites.
  • Obama has asked for hundreds of earmarks. (Unlike McCain, Obama does not abstain from earmarking government projects, like roads and bridges, but says he has a policy against earmarking for projects that benefit private companies.)

None of these do much to rehabilitate the halo that Palin has tried, undeservedly, to don in the matter of the Nowhere Bridge.

In the great scheme this is a small episode, and other examples of Palin claims to a reformer’s reputation are more substantial. But the McCainiacs continuing use of and defense of the phony bridge claim says something about Team McCain’s commitment to straight talk.

I fear it also says something about the value our whole political culture places on honest discourse. By doubling down and then tripling (with an ad) on a false statement, the McCain campaign seems to be saying: Let the fact-checkers, with their puny audiences, say what they want. We don’t need no stinkin’ facts. We have gross rating points.

Are they right?