GOP on earmarks: I love you, I love you not

In political campaigns, rule No. 1 is never doing anything that ends up hurting your campaign. It’s pretty simple. If you want to attack your opponent for unpaid parking tickets, you’d better have paid all yours.
 
In the earmark-ban era we are in now, Republicans are conflicted by their past support for — wait, I mean drunken spending on — earmarks. Last week I wrote about reports that the House GOP is considering repealing and replacing its ban on earmarks with something that allows what they call “member-directed spending” and exemptions for transportation and other priorities. The disarray on earmarks at the federal level is trickling down into nascent races for the U.S. Senate.
 
This week, aspiring candidate for Senate Jon Bruning (R) attacked Nebraska’s Sen. Ben Nelson (D) for his support of earmarks. The problem with the attack is that Bruning, as Nebraska attorney general, has sought federal earmarks in the past. He even asked Nelson to secure funding to fight methamphetamine use in Nebraska.
 
The misstep put Bruning’s camp on the defensive and embarrassed the candidate. “I was not requesting an earmark,” Bruning told reporters. Ha! Nelson pounced, charactering the misfire as “setting a bear trap then stepping in it.”
 
But it wasn’t just Nelson who pushed back on Bruning’s limp attack. Former Nebraska Republican Party State Chairman David Kramer took Bruning to task. He told reporters:
 

“Earmarks are a great sound bite. But in terms of their total impact on the federal budget it’s almost nothing. I think Ben [Nelson] believes in his own mind that he can make much better decisions on how money should be spent in Nebraska than … someone in the federal bureaucracy. Ben’s going to say: ‘I’m fighting for Nebraska’ ... is it a slam-dunk he’s going to lose? Ask Harry Reid.”
Lincoln Journal Star, Dec. 17
 

Kramer doesn’t have much faith in Bruning as a candidate. He said “there is a significant component of people in the state who believe there might be a better option.”
 
In the interest of full disclosure, I worked as Sen. Nelson’s communications director for more than seven years. During that time the competition for earmarks among Nebraska’s congressional delegation was fierce.
 
The Nebraska “meth-gate misstep” story is emblematic of the larger problem for the GOP. These days Republicans don’t know who they are when it comes to earmarks. House Republicans are looking for a backdoor way out of the ban. Senate Republicans requested nearly $2 billion for 1,029 earmarks, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense — all in one bill. The former chairman of the Nebraska Republican Party doesn’t see earmarks as a winning issue. This disarray and disagreement among Republicans on earmark policy leads candidates like Bruning, who was for earmarks before he was against them, to make embarrassing and costly mistakes.

 
David Di Martino is CEO of Blue Line Strategic Communications Inc. The views expressed in this blog are his and do not necessarily represent Blue Line’s. Follow David: @bluelinedd

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