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From union wife to union buster

Craig Medred

Few things political can be much more confounding than self-labeled "common-sense conservative" Sarah Palin standing in front of a Wisconsin crowd to proclaim government knows best.

But that's exactly what she did over the weekend when she announced Badger state Gov. Scott Walker is "not trying to hurt union members. Hey, folks, he's trying to save your jobs and your pensions!"

Let's assume for a minute that this is true. Does that mean Walker's view should trump the decisions of thousands of Wisconsin wage slaves who vote on union labor agreements governing jobs, pensions and salaries? Shouldn't state union workers in Wisconsin have as much right as other Americans to make bad decisions, or are we all now bound to some new common-sense idea that the politicians know best?

What Walker is trying to do in Wisconsin, of course, is eliminate collective bargaining for state employees, and the reasons are simple and understandable. It takes politicians with guts to negotiate fiscally conservative contracts with public employee unions. It's much easier to tell individual employees, "We're paying you the minimum wage, take it or leave it," than to try to work out a deal with a union leaders who say, "Look, if you do that, nobody -- and I mean NOBODY -- is showing up for work. We want the minimum wage plus a dollar for starters, and a pay scale that increases from there based on experience and performance, and we want yadda, yadda, yadda."

Collective bargaining without argument makes life difficult for government, not to mention business, by giving some measure of power to working folk. Collective bargaining is what ensured a fat salary for Sarah's husband, Todd Palin, when he had a job in the Alaska oil patch. His old oil buddies on the North Slope might have been shocked to hear Sarah announce that getting rid of collective bargaining, which essentially makes unions meaningless, was a great idea in Wisconsin.

State of the union flip-flop

Long-time observers of Palin in Alaska, however, were hardly surprised. Her politics have always been basic. No matter how she might now describe them as "common-sense conservative," her politics are far simpler than that.

Sarah Palin's politics are Sarah Palin. They can be summed up in four words: "It's all about me."

Palin is a self-serving pragmatist. When Americans were struggling and the country seemed on the verge of a second Great Depression, she sounded like an advocate of unions seeking good wages for workers. In 2008, on the campaign trail, she credited her husband's union for among other things, providing good family health care.

We've gone through periods of our life here with paying out of pocket for health coverage until Todd and I both landed a couple of good union jobs ... Early on in our marriage, we didn't have health insurance, and we had to either make the choice of paying out of pocket for catastrophic coverage or just crossing our fingers, hoping that nobody would get hurt, nobody would get sick.

Now that the threat of an economic meltdown has passed and America is more concerned with a deficit piled up after a decade of war and inflated government budgets, Palin thinks it a good idea to gut unions by banning their ability to bargain collectively.

She might be, in all of this, the ultimate 21st century American politician. Palin judges what the electorate -- or at least her vocal minority -- wants and she tries to get there before her competitors.

Some who have watched this evolution, and who counted themselves among her constituents for two years, see a gifted uniter led astray. If national political polls are to be believed, the rest of the nation has concluded as Alaskans have that she's chosen division over unity. But an ideologue? Sarah Palin?

Aside from being a former mayor, Sarah Palin is a former television sports reporter and beauty pageant contestant. TV announcing and cat-walking offered her a life lesson that she's embraced: Appearances matter. But ideology? Palin has really never had time for that. Development of an ideology takes study and thought, reading and thinking.

Former aides in Alaska government are spilling the beans now about their two short years working with her. What they all seem to agree on is that Gov. Palin wasn't into studying much of anything. She didn't have time to bother with it. She was too busy worrying "what everyone was saying about Sarah Palin" and trying to spot political trends she could latch on to and run with.

Maverick, socialist, vice presidential nominee

When open and transparent government was a public desire in Alaska after the oil-political corruption scandal early in her term as governor, Palin was all for open and transparent government.

When taxing business was in vogue -- specifically the oil business, with big and unprecedented progressivity taxes Republicans in Alaska are now trying to rescind -- Palin was all for it.

When energy costs skyrocketed in Alaska in 2007, Palin took that tax revenue and redistributed it in the form of government checks, a uniquely Alaskan form of welfare, to every man, woman and child who qualified for a Permanent Fund Dividend. Hey, if providing handouts to the needy will get you some votes, think of the votes you can get with handouts for everyone!

But when Palin went national as the Republican vice presidential candidate in 2008 and the political playing field shifted away from big taxes and government handouts, well, Palin was all about little taxes and government cost-cutting and accusing Barack Obama of "palling around with terrorists."

Palin didn't know beans about Obama acquaintance Bill Ayers, let alone Ayers' involvement with the Weather Underground or the group's domestic political role at a time when America was deeply divided over Vietnam. Lest anyone forget, Palin cited Alaska's proximity to Russia as a foreign policy credential. She qualified that assertion with the "trade missions" between Alaska and Russia.

After bumbling through that encounter with Katie Couric on CBS News, Palin wised up and quit agreeing to interviews, period. But she hasn't fundamentally changed. She is no deeper intellectually. Her zeal for Wisconsin union busting follows the same formula she favored when she inferred that Obama was a community organizing domestic terrorist. It's a message that resonates with a certain segment of America, and the former beauty-pageant contestant recognizes locking up one judge can impart peer pressure on the others.

Replace voters with judges and pretty soon the crown is hers, according to this formula.

Alaskans have watched Palin's self-serving behaviors long enough now that most of them have abandoned her. The exodus started when she fled from the idea of transparent government because it ceased to be in her interest. Transparency meant the voters knew she was collecting per-diem travel checks from taxpayers while living at home instead of in Juneau. It meant her constituents learned she and her husband secretly tried to get an Alaska State Trooper fired for crossing her family.

Mike Wooten was protected by a public employees union -- another reason, a very good one in Palin's world, to join the union-busting bandwagon.

About 60 percent of Alaskans now have an unfavorable view of the half-term former governor. But a strong and loyal minority of true believers remains. They will spin and rationalize anything to make Palin look like what they fundamentally believe her to be: honest and God-fearing.

God-fearing? Maybe.

Honest? Well, how does one measure that? Especially when it comes to American politicians?

Politicians need votes to get elected. Voters tend to support the people with whom they agree. Thus, the key to political success is to make a lot of voters believe you share their beliefs and values.

Over the course of 35 years in Alaska journalism, I've had a lot of them lie to me or about me, including the late and revered Gov. Jay Hammond who I, like many Alaskans, greatly admire.

Politicians bend the truth because sometimes it is necessary. The best of them know when they are bending the truth, and they try to do so as little as possible.

Palin started out that way. She got off to a great start by selling herself as open and honest. Her early approval ratings were astronomical, more than 80 percent positive.

Eventually, and unfortunately, she decided that open and honest thing really wasn't working for her.

And so she went rogue. She's been going rogue ever since. In Palin's world now, the union comments from Wisconsin can really be simplified to this: "We've got ours. Who the hell needs unions anymore. If bashing them will get me more; I'm all for bashing them."

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com