Could McCain's Crusade Against Pork Backfire?

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Christopher Morris / VII for TIME

Gotcha! It turns out that John McCain, while crusading against wasteful spending, specifically objected to three earmarks that Sarah Palin requested as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, including a dubious agricultural-processing facility designed to promote local produce. In fact, Palin has a consistent record of chasing the bacon that McCain has fought for years. She pulled in $27 million in earmarks as mayor, requested $450 million in earmarks as governor and even supported the state's notorious Bridge to Nowhere before she opposed it. There isn't enough lipstick in Alaska to cover all that pork. (See photos of Sarah Palin campaigning here.)

But as awkward as it was to watch Palin try to explain to ABC's Charles Gibson why taxpayers should pay to study the mating habits of Alaskan crabs, voters probably won't mind that Palin doesn't really hate pork as long as it's hers. What could be a real problem for the GOP ticket would be voters recognizing that McCain really does hate pork — not only when it's Palin's, but when it's theirs.

Through his work as a pork buster, McCain has opposed flood-prevention projects in swing states like Missouri and Virginia, drought aid for Nevada and New Mexico, and economic development for Pennsylvania and West Virginia. His has been a lonely vote against funding for the Florida Everglades and Yellowstone National Park. He has opposed money for schools, bridges, military bases, disaster relief, military housing, senior housing, renewable energy programs, job training programs, health care for veterans, services for disabled kids and just about everything else his Senate colleagues have stashed into spending bills, which is to say just about everything. The National Center for Manufacturing Sciences and the Center for Ecology Research and Training might be boondoggles, and the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary might not have needed $1.786 million for a new exhibit, but they're all located in the must-win state of Michigan, and McCain is on record against all of them.

Americans may despise pork in someone else's district, but they tend to view it as vital infrastructure when it comes home; that's why so many Americans despise Congress but still support their local members of Congress. And that's why McCain's steadfast opposition to all earmarks requested by individual members of Congress — the common definition of pork — could be a political liability. As a procedural matter, it makes sense to stop Representatives from slipping pet projects into law, although some legislators argue that earmarking is a useful check on executive power, and that earmarks are just a tiny sliver of the federal budget. As a moral matter, McCain's heresy on pork has made him all the right enemies, including shameless Republican porkers like Ted Stevens of Alaska; I was especially sympathetic to McCain's unpopular stand blaming the Minnesota bridge collapse on highway pork, because I took the same position. But as a political matter, McCain is on the wrong side of tens of thousands of popular goodies.

This wasn't a problem when McCain was just an Arizona Senator, burnishing his maverick credentials by blasting the explosion of earmarks under the GOP Congress and highlighting the role of earmarks in GOP scandals. But when he became the Republican nominee, his across-the-board opposition suddenly became inconvenient. Aid to Israel and military housing is funded through earmarks, so McCain had to make it clear he'd protect those programs from cuts. He made a similar exception during his anti-poverty tour in April, when he visited an African-American community in Alabama that got ferry service through an earmark. He then met a Pennsylvania woman with ovarian cancer who was being treated through a clinical trial funded by an earmark; he assured her that program was worthwhile too. "It's the process I object to," McCain explained.

That's not just political double-talk. With two or three debatable exceptions, McCain has abstained from pork for Arizona, and he's been a principled gadfly objecting to the pork-making process. For example, McCain has consistently voted against Army Corps of Engineers water projects, Capitol Hill's most popular form of pork; he and Democrat Russell Feingold have fought a quixotic battle to reform the dysfunctional Corps and the haphazard process by which its projects are funded. McCain has even argued that water pork contributed to the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina, another argument I have made. But that fealty to principle has required him to vote against funding for the Everglades and new levees for New Orleans, as well as a ridiculous Mississippi flood-control project he's been trying to kill for years. He was right to do so, but Barack Obama's campaign pounded him for his Everglades votes when he visited the River of Grass this spring. And not too many voters noticed his admirable stand against the Mississippi project outside Mississippi, where it was considered a must-have before the Bush Administration killed it.

Obama hasn't said much about McCain's pork-bashing; on a national level, it would just play to McCain's maverick strengths. But on a local level, when McCain has spoken at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, Lehigh Valley Hospital and the city of Youngstown, Ohio, the Obama campaign has released lists of earmarks those places have benefited from. And in a speech to aerospace workers, Obama himself recently accused McCain of hurting the American economy by battling Boeing, even though McCain's investigations into a sweetheart deal for Boeing helped expose a Pentagon scandal.

With the modern tools of niche marketing, Obama might be able to punish McCain for his pork-busting, not only by highlighting his general opposition to farm subsidies in farm country, but also by highlighting his specific opposition to Youngstown State's engineering program, Youngstown Air Reserve Station's logistics facility, the Ursuline Sisters of Youngstown's HIV/AIDs Ministry and Youngstown's sewage overflow project. When it comes to sewage overflows, most Youngstown residents probably agree with what Palin told Gibson: "It's not inappropriate for a mayor or a governor to request and work with their Congressmen, their Congresswomen, to plug into the federal budget — along with every other state — a share of the federal budget for infrastructure."

It is to McCain's credit that he so steadfastly disagrees, and it is unfortunate that voters might end up punishing him. But it's hard to feel too sorry for McCain. His distaste for earmarks is a byproduct of his distaste for deficits, following his belief that the government ought to live within its means. But McCain's current economic plan would explode the deficit, mainly by making permanent the Bush tax cuts he once opposed. The Brookings Institution has estimated that that would add $5 trillion to the national debt by 2018; meanwhile, the plan would eliminate only $18 billion in earmarks — and much less if McCain truly intends to preserve aid to Israel and other worthy programs.

The larger point is that opposing earmarks is not the same thing as shrinking government or balancing budgets or getting the economy going again. President Bush opposes earmarks too, but spending and deficits have soared on his watch. McCain was right to fight the Bridge to Nowhere, but it's worth keeping in mind that when Palin finally gave up on it, the money didn't go back to the Treasury — it stayed in Alaska to be used for a different project. Most pork, even egregious pork, doesn't go Nowhere.

(See photos of John McCain on the campaign trail here.)

(See a gallery of campaign gaffes here.)