As the presidential campaign comes to a close, an increasing number of prominent Republicans and conservatives are voicing their concerns about Sarah Palin's sheer cluelessness on every possible issue, from economy and energy independence (drill, baby, drill? seriously?) to Iraq and foreign policy. (If Palin's closeness to Russia makes her an expert on Russian policy, my seventeen years of life in Iran makes me an expert on Iraq, the neighboring country. And as such an expert, I strongly believe that Sarah Palin's position will lead to disaster in the region). Although she doesn't even know what the Vice President of the United States does (no, Sarah, the VP is not "in charge" of the Senate), she has already revealed her political ambitions to ABC news, possibly for 2012. Her actions have even led a number of McCain advisors to describe her as a "diva" and "a whack job."
In light of McCain's disastrous VP decision, he has begun to use yet another one of Bush's tactics, which is to never admit a mistake, but to continue to "stay the course" and defend his mistakes. And he has been dealing with the Palin mistake by being in denial, and one of the arguments that he and his surrogates make tirelessly is that she is "the most popular governor" in America.
There are a number of flaws in that argument. The first one is that Alaska is also ranks 47th in population among states, with less than 700,000 people. Of course it is much easier to keep a small population happy than a big one, such as that of, say, California, which is over 36.5 million people. Secondly, Palin owes a lot of her popularity in the state to her state's natural endowments and high oil prices, rather than personal qualifications. Last year, Palin began to send every Alaska resident $1,654 through the state's oil royalty investment program just for living in the state for a full calendar year. She could do it because Alaska sits on major oil resources. I don't know about you, but when someone starts to send me multi-thousand dollar checks every year, I start to kind of like them!
But I'm starting to think maybe the third reason for Palin's high popularity rating has something to do with the priorities of the people of Alaska. Ted Stevens, the Republican senator from Alaska, was found guilty on seven felony corruption counts in Washington DC on Monday, after getting caught lying about hundreds of thousands of dollars in free home renovations and other gifts he received from wealthy oil contractors. So basically, he was found guilty of bribery in its most naked form. These revelations would have led to the end of a senator's career in any other state. But instead, when he went back to Alaska on Wednesday, he was greeted as a hero by ordinary people, whose interests he had tossed out the window for cash from oil companies. Despite these major convictions, he continues to run a competitive race in Alaska with Pollsters' average of polls showing him only 3% percent behind Mark Begich, the accomplished Democratic mayor of Alaska's largest city.
One may understand why Alaskans love Ted Stevens; over his forty years in the Senate, he has showered Alaska with billions of dollars for pet projects and special interests, and he didn't even want to give up his 460 million dollar "bridge no nowhere" so Alaska could pay its fair share to the recovery of the victims of hurricane Katrina. He would rather spend the money on a bridge over a puddle of water to nowhere over helping to save sinking people from water in New Orleans. This kind of one-sided loyalty is bound to buy him a lot of brownie points.
But if his ability to shower the state with cash is the only factor that Alaskans consider when voting for their Senator, where does ethical behavior come in? Ted Stevens is now a convicted felon who can be sentenced to 35 years in prison. What else does a Senator have to do to be voted out of office in Alaska?
The founding fathers of this country created democracy, not because they thought that it was a system that guaranteed good government, but because they understood that democracy at least allowed people to get rid of bad government on a regular basis, and that made the system responsive to people's needs and values. The people in democracies deserve the governments and representations they have, and Alaska is no exception. Will Alaska vote for a corrupt and convicted felon this year, or will it set a standard for what kind of behavior it will or will not tolerate? We'll see on November 4.