The Earmarks Candidate

In his last State of the Union speech, when President Bush promised to make his top budget priority the trimming of earmarked special projects, it may have seemed like a gimmick; after all, there was no veto threat when his own party had control of Congress and special projects ballooned. But at CPAC this afternoon, the earmarks obsession took center stage, and provided an aimless crowd of activists with a clear path to the only candidate they seem to have left.

It began with Rep. Jeb Hensarling, chairman of the right-wing Republican Study Committee in the House, and continued through a panel on the GOP being “lost”: Rep. Jeff Flake, Rep. Thad McCotter, Sen. Tom Coburn, and Sen. Jim DeMint all endeavored to explain that, although earmarks only make up about one percent of the budget, they are a threat “even greater” than that of terrorism, in the words of Coburn. And so they launched, parallel with the war on terror, a “war on pork—the gateway drug,” Coburn said, “to the spending addiction” that in turn will be “bankrupting” the country. The battle against earmarks, as former House Speaker Dick Armey put it, is a method of “leading the Republican Party back to its way.”

But in the short term, it was method of leading the CPAC crowd to the GOP candidate. DeMint, as he lectured on earmarks, complained that Republican voters “missed an opportunity of a lifetime” by not rallying around Romney, but he looked through his “tears [!] and disappointment” to a need to oppose Democrats in the general election. Armey groused about McCain’s one-time position on high-end tax cuts, but complimented him on the issue of earmarks, urging activists to “shape” their inevitable nominee—to extract promises. Surprise speaker George Allen—two years ago, speaking as CPAC’s hope for 2008—lauded McCain’s “character” and promised leadership in the war, in appointing judges, and in vetoing earmarks. And Coburn offered his grudging support, saying McCain would have the “courage” to face down Congress (except on immigration, he added quickly). McCain, he said, would appoint “strict constructionist judges” like Bork, Roberts, Alito, and Janice Rogers Brown, and yes, would take on those earmarks.

After all that, it was an anticlimax to hear McCain pledge that he “will not sign a bill with any earmarks in it.” But the rest of the candidate’s speech consisted of his effort to make clear to the assembled activists that he himself would emerge from CPAC larded with right-wing policy earmarks. Of course there was his about-face on comprehensive immigration reform and his revelation that he now supports making the “Bush tax cuts” permanent. But more broadly, he promised to fight for “our principles”: from protecting the “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” of “the unborn” to appointing judges like Roberts and Alito.

Ignoring Laura Igraham’s dig earlier in the afternoon, McCain told CPAC he had “come to public office as a foot soldier” in their movement, and assured them he remains one today.