Opinions

In Senate race, consider how Alaska will fare in partisan D.C.

Ernest Gruening and Bob Bartlett were the first two senators for the state of Alaska. Bob Bartlett was more folksy and down to earth and was accordingly more effective in the halls of the Senate and with executive persuasion. Ernest Gruening was a man of education and principle. He knew that getting deeper into the Vietnam War was a big mistake and he was one of only two senators who voted against the Tonkin Gulf resolution that deepened our commitment to that war.

Bartlett thought the war was a mistake too, but he knew that his vote was not going to make any difference and, moreover, that President Johnson would not take kindly to any vote against his will in the matter. The economy of the new state of Alaska was deeply dependent on federal spending, as it still is today. President Johnson, like almost all politicians with leverage in the political process, engaged in pressure tactics. You can't vote for my war? I can't keep your base open or support a local capital improvement.

Gov. Jay Hammond, in his book "Tales of Alaska's Bush Rat Governor," made no bones of the fact that, to get an important bill passed, he told reluctant legislators that they could kiss goodbye any capital expenditures in their district if they didn't vote yes. This kind of pressure is endemic in politics. Bartlett, by submerging his doubts, kept lines open to the executive branch for our needs.

At the moment, Alaska is represented in the Senate by one Republican and one Democrat. In a Democratic administration, the Democratic senator is going to have much better access to the executive branch and its decisions. If a Republican is elected to the presidency, Republican senators are going to have much better access.

There are, of course, questions of great moment that go well beyond Alaska's interests, interests that to some Outsiders seem petty. Questions of war and peace, overall economic direction, the social issues, etc., are voted on in the Senate, but historically, these have been relatively free votes for Alaska's senators. Federal expenditures and land and water policies are the goodies on an Alaska senator's table.

We are surely not so oblivious to history as to forget Uncle Ted. Getting stuff for Alaskans is not a partisan issue. Though our senators may well have differences sometimes on the national issues, these are critical primarily to people absorbed in ideology. Most Alaskans want a senator who brings home the bacon and protects our local interests.

It doesn't look like much is likely to happen in Congress in the next two years. If the Republicans pick up a majority in the Senate, it will still be a stalemate. But the appropriation process and executive allocation will still go on.

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Looking ahead to the presidential election two years later is more determinative of the long-term future. If you think that we will get a Republican president, then having two Republican senators from Alaska will be pretty good for us. The Republican powers that be will want to keep it that way and we should do very well on Uncle Ted stuff.

However, if, for example, Hillary Clinton is president, Alaskans will find their two Republican senators lucky to get scraps. That is likely to be very hurtful. One particular issue will have special bite. The national environmental movement contains a spectrum of beliefs. Though many Republicans, particularly in the East, rely on environmental constituencies, on the whole, the movement is a national Democrat asset. The radical edge of this movement is anti-oil, period. We should make do on other sources of energy. As policy, not so good for Alaska. If you think Hillary is likely to become president, that's a pretty good argument for re-electing Begich to the Senate.

Beyond that, the youthful Senators Murkowski and Begich look to be there, growing in power, long after the next presidential race. Keeping a senator from each party is a pretty good way of hedging bets on all issues, keeping channels open for what we want.

John Havelock is a former Alaska attorney general and White House Fellow. He lives in Anchorage.

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

John Havelock

John Havelock is an Anchorage attorney and university scholar.

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