Tuesday, November 9, 2010; A17
Alaska is darker in winter, colder all year and less densely populated than any other state. Alaskans are unique, too: They enjoy a higher level of per capita federal spending than anyone else in the union, as well as a state constitution that they think allows them to defy the Supreme Court. Yet for all of its anomalies - or perhaps because of them - Alaska's current electoral morass might well be a harbinger of the Republican Party's future.
For whatever the reason, the hypocrisy at the heart of the party - and at the heart of American politics - is at its starkest in Alaska. For decades, Alaskans have lived off federal welfare. Taxpayers' money subsidizes everything from Alaska's roads and bridges to its myriad programs for Native Americans. Federal funding accounts for one-third of Alaskan jobs. Nevertheless, Alaskans love to think of themselves as the last frontiersmen, the inhabitants of a land "beyond the horizon of urban clutter," a state with no use for Washington and its wicked ways.
Though they are usually not bothered by this contradiction, in the recent Senate race, Alaska's split personality finally split the Alaskan Republican Party. The party's official candidate, Joe Miller, campaigned as the candidate for the Alaska of would-be rugged individuals. Although endorsed by Sarah Palin and the Tea Party Express, Miller proved an exceptionally poor choice for this role. He said all the right things about fiscal insanity, the repeal of Obamacare, lower taxes and slashing welfare spending. But like many of his comrades in arms, he gave no specifics and offered no plan for how to reach fiscal sanity or replace Obamacare. During the campaign, it also emerged that he had once collected farm subsidies; that his wife had once collected unemployment benefits; and that his family had received state health benefits. Perhaps it's just hard for Alaskans to avoid feeding from the federal trough.
The incumbent and write-in candidate, Lisa Murkowski, represented Alaska-as-federally-funded-paradise. The scion of a political family, Murkowski had no need for hypocrisy. "I will not apologize for seeking more funding for Alaska," she declared when re-launching her campaign. She pointed out that her senatorial seniority gives her a higher rank on committees, which dispense money. She talked up her friendship with the late Sen. Ted Stevens, whose ability to send cash to Alaska was legendary.
And she won: Even if some legal obstacle prevents her from becoming senator, Murkowski's write-in campaign got the most votes. When offered a direct choice, in other words, the majority of Alaskans chose the corrupt, big-spending Republican Party of Murkowski over the shallow, hypocritical radicalism of Miller.
If nothing else, Alaskans' interesting choice must be keeping the Republican leadership awake at night: When faced with the reality of actual funding cuts, a year or two from now, might not other Republican voters suddenly feel they need someone like Murkowski, too? This must be a particular dilemma for the new Republican speaker, John Boehner. During his two-decade career as a Washington insider, Boehner has resembled Murkowski a lot more than Miller. As chairman of the House Education Committee, for example, one of his primary tasks was to entertain and indulge the companies that make hundreds of millions of dollars from federally funded student loan programs and that have been major donors to his campaigns.
At the same time, Boehner owes his new job to the anti-government rhetoric of candidates like Miller. So do many of his colleagues: Despite its profligate spending policies of the past decade, the Republican establishment attached itself to this year's wave of anti-establishment resentment and must at least pay lip service to its goals. Poor Boehner must feel pulled in two directions, particularly because so many Republicans - and so many Americans - don't practice what they preach. They want lower taxes, higher defense spending, more Social Security and, yes, balanced budgets. They want the government to leave them alone, but at the same time they aren't averse to the odd federal subsidy. They like the way Miller talks, but, in the end, will they vote for Murkowski? Which path will Boehner follow?
In theory, there could be a third way. If the Republican Party were serious about the deficit its leaders could, just for example, eliminate subsidies for farmers and homeowners. They could raise the retirement age and "privatize" Social Security. They could simplify our hideously complex income tax. They could impose a carbon tax instead. They could even do some of this together with President Obama. In practice, I'm afraid that for the next two years, we'll be watching the Millers and the Murkowskis struggle for the soul of the party. As Alaska goes, so goes the nation.