Ben Adler | The Nation

Ben Adler

Ben Adler

 The 2012 election, Republican politics and conservative media.

The Right-Wing Effort to Smear Obama and Liberals as 'Anti-Israel'

New York Times readers found an unpleasant surprise on page A11 on Thursday. A full page advertisement by the Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI) attacked the Center for American Progress (CAP) and Media Matters as “anti-Israel” and listed the names and numbers of donor foundations whom they want readers to pressure into de-funding these groups. “The Center for American Progress and Media Matters claim to be in the liberal mainstream. But is being anti-Israel a liberal value?” blares the ad. Having worked at CAP for two years, I was surprised to see it characterized as “anti-Israel.”

But to understand the accusation you must first understand the players. ECI is not a group like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) that was founded by American Jews to marshal support for Israel across the American. ECI is a conservative group with a conservative agenda. Its founders are William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard and a former speechwriter for Dan Quayle; Gary Bauer, a Christian social conservative activist; and Rachel Abrams, a writer married to former Bush administration official Elliot Abrams. They are conservatives first and Zionists second. The ad turned out to be just their opening shot in a barrage of partisan attacks, mostly directed at President Obama, in the run up to his speech to AIPAC on Sunday. (To be fair, ECI presumably thinks that its agenda of driving a wedge between pro-Israel Americans versus President Obama and CAP is also ultimately in Israel’s best interest.)

CAP’s Think Progress blog and ECI have been attacking each other for months. Think Progress has noted Abrams’s penchant for using bigoted language when criticizing bisexuals and Palestinians, and that ECI executive director Noah Pollak initially praised President Obama for calling for Israel to make peace along the 1967 borders with land swaps before ECI joined the rest of the right in attacking Obama for it. (Pollak tells The Nation that he did not immediately appreciate some of the subtleties of how Obama was shifting US policy away from Israel and that he changed his views after reading an analysis of the speech.)

The strange thing about the ad is that it does not cite any actual statements or actions by either of its targets. Rather, it collects quotes from various Jewish organizations that appear to be critical of CAP and Media Matters. Several of those quoted, though, including journalist Spencer Ackerman, the American Jewish Committee and Alan Dershowitz, said they were displeased to be included in the ad and they should not be presumed to support its content.

I asked Pollak why ECI chose to use quotes criticizing CAP and Media Matters rather than objective evidence of any bias against Israel in their work. He offered to send me such evidence, but the articles he passed along simply cited the same accusatory quotes used in the ad and reported on the controversy.

“[CAP and Media Matters] are two very far-left organizations that have advanced very poisonous slanders against Israel,” said Pollak. Those are strong words, and they aren’t proven merely by pointing to quotes from Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Much of the furor revolves around use of the ugly phrase “Israel firster” by Media Matters’ foreign policy fellow M.J. Rosenberg and a few intemperate tweets from the personal accounts of junior Think Progress bloggers. (Rosenberg responded to the first complaint by demanding, “Can anyone argue with the assertion that for neocons Obama is always wrong and Bibi is always right?” I certainly can’t.) Whether you agree with Rosenberg that justifies using the term “Israel firster” or you agree with Ackerman that it does not, it hardly seems fair to tag Rosenberg’s entire organization as anti-Israel on that basis. Think tanks, after all, are supposed to be like academia: places where scholars debate ideas. If one professor at Harvard—where Kristol received his BA and PhD—used the phrase, would ECI call the whole university “anti-Israel” and call on donors to boycott it?

The work that CAP has done on the Middle East contains multitudes. But their overarching position would fall well within the parameters of what has long been the accepted “pro-Israel” American mainstream. As CAP has noted, “Our view in favor of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the consensus view of administrations of both parties dating back to President Clinton.”

In the last few years, conservatives have shifted away from this stance. Believing that Israel “does not have a partner” with which to make peace, they argue that West Bank expansionism is Israel’s right. Through that prism, criticizing Israel for actions such as illegally tossing Palestinians off their land to build new settlements is “anti-Israel.” But to progressives—and to President George W. Bush, who as part of his “Road Map” to peace called on Israel to stop building settlements—this is simply advising a friend not to engage in self-destructive behavior. You can come down on either side of that debate without being anti-Israel.

But ECI defines “anti-Israel” much more broadly than just those who think it shouldn’t exist. Here’s the definition Pollak offered me: “People who traffic in untruths, in false accusations such as Israel is a routine violator of human rights and international law; people who apologize for Israel’s enemies; people who minimize the threats Israel faces; people who take an obsessively critical approach, along with people who say Israel shouldn’t exist.” I can understand Pollak’s reasons for defining anti-Israel so broadly. There certainly are Americans who take an obsessively critical approach toward Israel. But who defines obsessive? By most definitions, ECI has not presented sufficient evidence that CAP and Media Matters meet that threshold.

Some of the other categories Pollak offers are even more problematic. For example, conservatives are insistent that Iran’s suspected nuclear ambitions pose a grave threat to Israel’s security. Presumably they would then characterize someone who says that we can live with a nuclear Iran, because the United States and Israel have their own nuclear deterrent, is minimizing the threat Israel faces and is thus “anti-Israel.” I think that’s a specious politicization. Reasonable people who support Israel’s existence as a Jewish state can differ over the severity of the threat from Iran, and how best to respond.

Sure enough, ECI released another ad, this one in bus stations in Washington, DC, depicting Obama as insufficiently committed to combating Iran. The ad shows Obama in shadow and reads, “He says a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. Do you believe him?” Below Obama it shows Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Grand Ayatollah Khomeini, and asks, “Do they?” The suggestion that Obama should be assumed not to really believe the pro-Israel things he says and does courses through ECI’s work. The reasons conservatives give for this suspicion focuses on his professional biography. They think Obama, a professor and community organizer, must be secretly sympathetic to the left’s anti-colonial worldview. As Pollak says, “progressives have a long history of siding with enemies of Western civilization.” Someone who views ECI’s ads or hears their statements might suspect Obama’s loyalty to Israel for other biographical reasons, such as his name or skin color, even though ECI doesn’t cite those factors. But the clear intention is to appeal to the notion—whatever its source—that Obama just seems viscerally untrustworthy on the Middle East.

Even using the most generous interpretation of ECI’s argument, they are making a category error. They are labeling Obama as part of the academic left, where anti-Israel sentiment is often strong. In fact, Obama is part of the mainstream of the Democratic Party, where anti-Israel sentiment is nonexistent. Obama’s first chief of staff was Rahm Emmanuel, a former Israeli soldier. His secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, has always been a strong supporter of Israel (as well as an advocate for Palestinian human rights and the peace process; contra ECI, these attributes are not mutually exclusive.)

Most importantly, looking into Obama’s heart on Israel is pointless. While suspicions that Obama secretly dislikes Israel are less well founded than, say, suspicions that he really has no problem with gay marriage, they are equally irrelevant. If you want to know how a president will govern, look at his record and his employees, not what you imagine is in his heart. This is a mistake conservatives make across a wide array of professions. For example, they constantly harp on the fact that journalists and professors tend to vote Democratic, as if it were impossible for mainstream newspaper reporters to write as nonpartisans, or for professors to teach physics without a liberal bias.

On Sunday ECI released a thirty-minute Web video intended to build a case that Obama has not been a loyal friend to Israel. Its documentation takes the same approach as the ads. They quote partisans leveling criticisms against Obama rather than offering strong independent evidence. They ask what Obama’s real approach to Israel has been and then answer with a long quote from Peter Berkowitz, a senior fellow at the very conservative Hoover Institution.

When ECI starts giving actual facts, they are not evidence of anything about Israel, but rather that Obama has sought some rapprochement with Arabs and Muslims. For example, they complain that Obama gave his first Oval Office interview to Al Arabiya, “an Arab language channel,” without noting that Al Arabiya is the more pro-American alternative to Al Jazeera in the Arab world. They also complain that he visited Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Apparently, ECI thinks anything other than belligerence to everyone else in the Middle East constitutes some sort of betrayal or Israel.

The video contains some outright falsehoods, such as characterizing a settlement freeze as “a complete cessation of any building by Jews on lands claimed by the Palestinians.” Actually, settlements refer to building outside the Green Line, Israel’s border before 1967. Many Palestinians may want to lay claim to land inside the Green Line, but that’s not what Obama is talking about when he says settlement construction needs to stop. Nor is he kowtowing to Palestinian land claims as such. Rather, like anyone who wants to see a secure, democratic Israel, he is conceding to the demographic reality that the West Bank has far more Palestinians than Israelis living in it, so Israel cannot annex that land without surrendering its Jewish identity or its democratic values.

Obama has gotten the strongest-ever sanctions against Iran through the United Nations. As Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz noted in a Washington Jewish Week op-ed:

Even as he directs an economic recovery that has required difficult spending decisions, President Obama sent Israel the largest security assistance packages in U.S. history…. President Obama’s commitment to Israel continues in his recently released 2013 Budget, raising his request to $3.1 billion, an increase of $25 million from last year’s aid to Israel. Last year, President Obama supplemented our security assistance to Israel with $205 million in emergency funds for the deployment of the Iron Dome rocket-defense system which is currently protecting Israeli communities on the Gaza and Lebanese borders.

When Palestinians launched their unilateral bid for statehood at the United Nations, President Obama pledged to veto it….

He also used his first Security Council veto to block efforts to condemn Israel.

None of that is good enough for ECI and other conservatives. They insist that the Obama administration and left-of-center groups that have similar views, are endangering Israel. It’s nonsense, but this is an election year, and we’ll be hearing a lot more of it.

Romney’s Contraception Flip-Flop Reminds Everyone Why They Hate Him

On Wednesday Mitt Romney managed within hours to take two diametrically opposing positions on an issue. And, in doing so, he gave voters across the political spectrum a reminder of why they find him untrustworthy.

Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO) proposed a rider to the completely unrelated Surface Transportation Reauthorization. (For an explanation of why the transportation bill would be disastrous if passed, for other reasons, see here.) The amendment would have allowed employers providing health insurance not to cover any treatment they find morally objectionable. The impetus was a desire to overturn President Obama’s administrative requirement in implementing the Affordable Care Act that employers cover contraception. But Blunt’s proposal went much further than that.

What happened next is amazing, even though if you know Mitt Romney it should be familiar by now. When first asked about the amendment Romney gave the answer that a Republican from the party’s deceased moderate Northeastern wing would. Shortly thereafter he reversed, kowtowing to the extreme right. From the Cleveland Plain Dealer:

Asked in an interview with the Ohio News Network if he supported a Senate amendment that would allow employers to deny insurance coverage for birth control on religious or moral grounds, the GOP presidential hopeful said he did not. “I’m not for that bill, but look, the idea of presidential candidates getting into questions about contraception within a relationship between a man and a woman, a husband and wife—I’m not going there,” Romney told reporter Jim Heath.

Previously, when Romney has made sane statements regarding the existence of anthropogenic climate change or Ohio Governor John Kasich’s unpopular assault on unions, he came under intense criticism from conservative pundits and activists. Then he flip-flopped.

The conservative movement’s ability to discipline presidential aspirants for apostasies has become so ingrained that they no longer even need to exercise it. Romney’s campaign immediately claimed that he does in fact support the Blunt amendment and he only said otherwise because he didn’t understand the question.

That was the line Romney took in a radio interview later in the day:

I didn’t understand his question. Of course I support the Blunt Amendment. I thought he was talking about some state law that prevented people from getting contraception so I was simply misunderstood the question and of course I support the Blunt amendment.

Of course, a law that actually banned contraception would be more extreme than one that merely allows employer-based insurance not to cover it. But for many American women, as a practical matter, the result would be the same. Many tests and medicines are prohibitively expense for the average American if they have to pay out of pocket, the dismissive jokes of wealthy Republicans to the contrary notwithstanding. The DNC released a video laying out just what Blunt’s amendment would mean. Employers could deny coverage of such essential preventive care as mammograms, prenatal screenings, cervical cancer screenings, contraception and vaccines.


So in one day, while commenting on an amendment that had no chance of becoming law because President Obama would have vetoed it, Romney managed to give everyone across the political spectrum a reason not to trust him. Conservatives will be concerned by his initial response. Liberals will be offended by the second. And everyone has another example of how Romney is a sleazy politician, with no core values, who will say anything to get elected. If you’re wondering how Romney has managed not to dispatch the unpleasant, unpopular, washed-up extremists Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, this is your answer.

The Blunt amendment was defeated Thursday morning, but the political damage to Romney should last at least through this election cycle.

More Weak Wins for Romney

It may be true that you can’t buy love, but Mitt Romney has proved that in politics you can buy enough distaste for your opponent that the outcome is the same.

In Arizona, where Romney won comfortably, he outspent his closest competitor, Rick Santorum, twelve to one. In Michigan Romney outspent Santorum two to one. Michigan was too close to call for more than two hours after the polls closed. Eventually Romney was declared the winner. But while he edged Santorum by a few points in the total vote—with 92 percent of the votes counted, Romney was up forty-one to thirty-eight—he comes away from the night a loser. As of 10:30 pm, when the networks had just called Michigan for Romney, Santorum was ahead of Romney in nine of the state’s fourteen Congressional districts. The winner of each Congressional district will be awarded its two delegates, with only two at large delegates going to Romney for winning the statewide vote. The result? Thanks to the way their votes are distributed, Santorum could actually take more delegates from Michigan’s primary than Romney. Whatever the precise count ends up being, it’s fair to basically call the results a tie.

But a tie is really a loss for Romney. Romney grew up in Michigan, where his father was the governor, and he was expected to easily win the state. By letting Santorum get ahead of him in Michigan polls last week, Romney had already lost. Previously when one of Romney’s opponents passed him in a poll or beat him in a contest I thought the media overstated the extent to which this showed Romney’s weakness. Polls are volatile and campaigns have ups and downs. But entering a stretch of states that are especially congenial to Romney, it was finally time for him to demonstrate that he could unite Republicans—at least outside the South—behind his candidacy. If so many Michigan voters were so lukewarm to Romney—an impression reinforced by a series of underwhelming events in the state this past week—then the widespread aversion to him is undeniable.

As David Weigel noted in Slate on Monday, until Santorum’s surge, “No one had bested Romney in [statewide] polls since 2009. Santorum adviser John Brabender has said his candidate ‘already won’ here, because he’s forcing Romney to hustle in the place where he was born.” Brabender is not entirely correct. Santorum won’t become the Republican nominee merely by proving how unenthusiastic Romney’s support is. The nominee will be decided by delegates. Thanks to Arizona, Romney will come away from Tuesday’s primaries with far more delegates than Santorum. But it’s true that Santorum can call his result in Michigan a partial success, while for Romney the primary represents a near-total failure.

Romney has no excuses for tonight’s results, and the feeble excuses he has been trying to mount won’t wash. He wasn’t outspent. He wasn’t at a geographic disadvantage. Michigan is not a state dominated by evangelicals or other social conservatives, who are naturally suspicious of the formerly pro-choice Mormon from Massachusetts. In 2008 Romney beat John McCain in Michigan by nine points. The Upper Midwest is where general elections are decided.

Romney will try to spin his loss as being an unrepresentative of Republican sentiment because 9 percent of the voters in Michigan’s open primary were Democrats, and Santorum performed better among them than among the Republicans and independents who voted. (Santorum won 53 percent to Romney’s 17 percent among Democrats, while they tied among independents and Romney won, 47 to 37 percent, among Republicans.) Indeed, Santorum openly pursued their votes. “Senator Santorum did something today which I think is deceptive and a dirty trick, which is he’s put an ad out there sounding like a labor ad telling labor folks and Democrats to go vote against me and vote for Rick Santorum,” Romney said to Fox News’s Sean Hannity Monday night. This is just pathetic. There’s nothing unethical about asking members of another party vote for you in a state that holds an open primary. It’s possible some of the Democrats were mischief makers trying to bolster Santorum, who is widely viewed as less electable than Romney. But some of them might have been swing voters whom any Republican candidate must win if they are to carry Michigan.

Michigan is where political scientist Stanley Greenberg invented the term “Reagan Democrats.” The exit polls suggest that Santorum did better among this working-class demographic. Santorum won by a slim margin among voters who make less than $100,000 per year while Romney won among those who make more than that. Perhaps that’s why Romney has lost his advantage over Santorum in polls that match each of them up against President Obama. (Santorum also beat Romney among voters who never attended college, while Romney won those who did, which Santorum—being so contemptuous of higher education—would view as a badge of honor.)

As Santorum pointed out, Romney’s whole electability argument is, in essence, that he will do better than Santorum among Democrats in November. He can’t honestly say that but then turn around and complain that Santorum’ beating him among Democrats is illegitimate.

So how did Romney reverse Santorum’s momentum and avoid total embarrassment? The same way he usually wins, by burying his opponent in a barrage of negative advertising. The Romney campaign and the Restore Our Future Super PAC spent $4.27 million on television and radio advertising in Michigan. Ninety-one percent of that was spent on negative advertising. From the time Romney starting running the ads, Santorum lost a point and a half in polling per day. (Romney also got an assist from Santorum himself, who made a series of offensive statements such as saying that President Kennedy’s commitment to the separation of church and state made him “want to throw up.”)

The result of all this? A depressed Republican electorate. As a whiny Monday night memo from Newt Gingrich’s campaign shows, the states where Romney has won through heavy negative advertising, such as Nevada and Florida, have had lower significantly lower turnout than they did in 2008.

In fairness to Romney, the religious extremism among many Republicans is part of what hurt him in Michigan. He lost to Santorum, 51 to 35 percent, among the 32 percent of voters who identify as evangelical Christians. Santorum also won among voters who said a candidate’s religion matters and Romney among those who disagree. And a bright spot for Romney is that he won among suburbanites, who will be the crucial swing voters in Michigan this November.

While Romney won by a wide margin in Arizona—with 74 percent of precincts reporting he was ahead of Santorum 48 to 26 percent—it may come at a cost in the general election. Romney has been pandering to the far right on immigration since 2008 when he won Tom Tancredo’s endorsement. He has attacked Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich from the right on immigration in this campaign. In Arizona he pandered to the state GOP’s notorious xenophobia. Luis Heredia, Arizona’s Democratic Party Executive Director, issued a statement predicting adverse consequences for Romney in the general election:

“By pandering to the Tea Party and some of the most divisive politicians in the nation, Romney has alienated the voters he needs in November’s general election, including Arizona independents, moderates, and the Latino community.

Romney confirmed that he would be the most extreme presidential nominee of our lifetimes on immigration. He called this state’s divisive and anti-immigrant law a ‘model’ for the nation, promised to veto the DREAM Act and derided it as a ‘handout’, and embraced the inhumane policy of ‘self-deportation.’”

The longer the primaries go on, the more our initial understanding of the race seems assured: Romney will likely win the Republican nomination, but his party doesn’t like him very much. And to win them over he has to run hard to the right. President Obama has been a lucky man in many ways, but mostly he has been lucky in his opponents. This year will be no exception.

Conservative Hobbyhorses for 2012

Traditional Republican concerns—opposition to domestic spending and gender equality—have dominated the Republican presidential campaign thus far. But there are some new conservative fixations that will be important in the months to come. Generally, they have all been invented—much like opposition to an individual health insurance mandate—in reaction to President Obama’s moderate and generally successful policies and political strategies. Here’s a guide to five of them.

Election fraud: Ever since the paranoid fringe of the right, by which I mean most Republicans, convinced itself that ACORN stole the 2008 election, conservatives have been trying to pass laws to prevent voter fraud. Republican-controlled state legislatures all over the country are passing rules that risk disenfranchising large numbers of voters, especially the poor, minorities and people with disabilities. At the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, DC, earlier this month, Hans von Spakovsky, senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation and former member of the Federal Elections Commission, told a panel what he thinks are “three best things your state can do to prevent voter fraud”: require presentation of a photo identification when voting, require proof of citizenship when someone registers to vote and “tighten up the rules on absentee ballots, so [for example] when you request an absentee ballot you have to put in a copy of your driver’s license.”

As Laura Murphy, Washington Legislative Officer of the ACLU noted Thursday at the National Press Club, “There is a long history of efforts to restrict the right to vote to gain partisan advantage.” Murphy says laws requiring proof of citizenship or photo identification at the polling place, along with restricting early voting or eliminating same day registration, are all examples of these Republican vote suppression tactics. People who lack mobility due to disability or inability to afford a car may be disenfranchised. “These anti-fraud laws are the real threat to our constitutional rights,” says Murphy.

Down with the EPA: Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), the leading climate change denier in Congress, spoke at CPAC this year, the first time he has done so in five years. He proudly restated his famous assertion that climate change is the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people,” receiving big cheers.

What happened in the intervening years? Republicans flirted with reality. Their 2008 presidential nominee, John McCain, supported taking action against climate change. But Barack Obama won the election. As soon as he did, Republicans dropped their concern for the environment in favor of rigid partisan opposition. The energy magnate Koch brothers have largely funded the rise of the Tea Party movement and other current Republican campaigns, and the grateful beneficiaries in the new Republican Congress have introduced reams of legislation to repeal or prevent actions taken by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

It has become a conservative shibboleth, repeated by Republican presidential candidates on the campaign trail and at conferences such as CPAC and the Americans for Prosperity “Defending the American Dream” summit in November 2011 that the EPA is preventing economic and job growth. With Republican candidates promising that increased oil drilling would reduce rising gasoline prices, you can expect to hear a lot more of this argument in months to come.

Keep out the immigrants: Republicans and conservatives typically claim that their concern about immigration from Mexico is in no way racially motivated; it’s supposedly all about border security. But when conservatives speak to each other, they sometimes admit the truth: they’re afraid that more Latinos will mean a diminution of the cultural and political power of non-Latino whites. “After Obamacare, immigration is the most important issue [in this campaign], otherwise the whole country goes the way of California and we never win again,” Ann Coulter told CPAC.

When I interviewed anti-immigration leader and former Republican congressman Tom Tancredo in South Carolina last month, he was even more blunt. “Santorum has actually taken a step in the right direction, and did so in a pretty gutsy way, by saying we need to reduce legal immigration,” said Tancredo, when I asked why he hasn’t endorsed Romney, as he did after dropping out in 2008. “One of the biggest problems with immigration today is lack of assimilation…. we are trying to actually stop [assimilation]. All the crap about multiculturalism is just that, crap.”

Tancredo’s sentiments were echoed at an anti-multiculturalism CPAC panel that featured notorious xenophobes such as Peter Brimelow, with a guest appearance by Representative Steve King (R-IA).

Obama is bad for Israel: “If you want to see how to treat an ally, look at how Obama has treated Israel and do the opposite,” declared former UN Ambassador John Bolton at CPAC, to big applause. “He has pressured Israel mercilessly not to attack Iran.” The presupposition that it would be in Israel’s interest to attack Iran is debatable at best, but it’s one that conservatives share.

Obama’s position on the Middle East peace process has been no less favorable to Israel than his predecessors’, including George W. Bush. But Republicans have been attacking him repeatedly for imaginary infractions, such as supposed rudeness to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. They also complain that Obama called for a two-state solution that begins with the pre-1967 borders with land swaps to follow. This has always been US policy, but that hasn’t stopped Republican presidential candidates from complaining that Obama “failed to stand for Israel.”

This is, of course, all about politics rather than Israel’s security. Evangelical Zionists want Israel to steal the entire West Bank and eject its Arab residents to fulfill a biblical prophecy. By supporting Israeli expansionism, Republicans are hoping to excite that element of their base and, if possible, win over a few Jewish votes in Florida. It also helps keep Sheldon Adelson’s money flowing.

Obama kowtows to America’s enemies. Given that Obama has done a much better job than Bush of finding and executing members of Al Qaeda, Republicans will have a hard time painting Obama as weak on national defense. But they’re trying to find a way. Since Obama has been more effective at taking out the organizations and regimes that have actually attacked the United States than President Bush was, Republicans are reviving the cold war menace from China and Russia, and fear-mongering about Iran.

Bolton and National Review’s Jonah Goldberg, among others, repeated this theme frequently at CPAC. “The Obama administration has forgotten that American strength is not provocative to our enemies, American weakness is,” said Bolton, “and Obama specializes in that…. What are we doing about Russia and China? Zip.” Specifically, Republicans such as Romney complain that Obama has failed to confront China for manipulating the yuan. They also argue that Obama was mistaken to try to sooth tensions with Iran and Russia, and that those efforts have gone unrewarded. While some of the specific accusations may be debatable, the overall theme—that Obama is endangering American security through cowardice—is preposterous. But since Republicans equate foreign policy strength with boisterous swagger, it’s fair to assume they actually believe it.

Romney's Irresponsible Tax Plan

As of last week, Mitt Romney had already released plans to cut taxes and a larger plan for economic recovery. But last week Romney was continuing to slip behind Rick Santorum in national polls, despite his small victories at the Conservative Political Action Conference and the Maine caucus.

Apparently Romney panicked and reacted by offering to trade the whole country’s fiscal future for a few more conservative votes. On Wednesday, Romney released a new tax plan. He already had pledged to cut $2 trillion in tax revenues over the next ten years. Now he wants to take another $3 trillion more.

Romney makes fiscal responsibility and balanced budgets the center of his platform and biography. He boasts of having balanced budgets and assails his opponents for having voted to raise the debt limit while they served in Congress. Here’s what he said in Wednesday night’s CNN debate in Arizona:

I’m a guy who has lived in the world of business. If you don’t balance your budget in business, you go out of business. So I’ve lived balancing budgets. I also served in the Olympics, balanced a budget there. And—and served in the states. And all four years I was governor, we balanced the budget.

But he wouldn’t balance the budget as president. And his new tax plan would cause the federal deficit to increase dramatically. As University of Connecticut Professor James Kwak explained Thursday in The Atlantic:

According to yesterday’s bullet points, Romney wants to cut all tax rates by 20 percent, meaning that the top income tax rate, which is currently scheduled to rise from 35 percent (George W. Bush, 2001) to 39.6 percent (Bill Clinton, 1993), would instead fall to 28 percent.

There are several things about this plan that are either loony or deeply misleading. One is the claim that it would "address the debt crisis" because it will be paid for by $500 billion in spending cuts by 2016. But the only proposals mentioned would (a) repeal the Affordable Care Act (increasing deficits, since the ACA has been scored as deficit-reducing); (b) convert Medicaid to a block grant (no deficit impact); (c) increase government efficiency (yawn); and (d) cut Social Security and Medicare benefits for "younger generations" (no impact until well after 2016). In other words, it’s a complete fantasy.

I disagree with Kwak on point B. Converting Medicaid to a block grant program could, in fact, save money over time because the federal government could refuse to increase the size of the block grant when need rises. That’s how block grants can be cheaper than entitlement programs. The problem? Those savings come at terrible social cost. Refuse to raise the value of a Medicaid block grant when times are tough and the poor and disabled will suffer a devastating cut in social services.

It’s a shame that Romney wants to take from the poor to give to the rich. And it’s especially perverse that he pledges fiscal responsibility while promising to increase defense spending. As a senior Obama campaign official mentioned in a Thursday conference call, “Romney has pledged to increase defense spending to 4 percent of GDP. That’s an arbitrary figure untethered to any assessment of national security needs.”

While Americans are concerned about unemployment and underwater mortgages, Romney is only coming up with more ways to reward his rich contributors. As the Obama official said, “[Romney previously] rolled out a 59 point economic plan earlier in the campaign and not one restores middle class security or creates jobs now.” Adding marginal rate reductions won’t do those things either.

What’s especially disappointing about Romney’s plan is not just its ideological extremism but also its total lack of intellectual seriousness or honesty. He says he will increase tax revenues through closing loopholes in the tax code, but he doesn’t specify which loopholes. It’s safe to assume that Congress, filled with the representatives of the various interests that have won those advantages, isn’t going to do this hard work for Romney. Without bold presidential leadership, it won’t happen.

The Committee for a Responsible Budget (CRFB) released a study scoring the Republican candidates’ budget plans. As Ezra Klein reported, “CRFB estimates that if the plan isn’t paid for at all, it will add $2.6 trillion to the deficit, leaving Romney’s debt-to-GDP at 96 percent.” The only nice thing you can say about Romney’s plan is that Rick Santorum’s and Newt Gingrich’s proposals are even more irresponsible.

When pundits speculate that a strong challenge to Romney will pull him rightward in the primary and hurt him in the general election, this is what they’re talking about. As the Obama official gleefully noted, “[Romney] has now embraced very large tax cuts, which is going to make it difficult for him to talk about fiscal responsibility with any credibility.”

In Defense of Republican Debates

It has become de rigueur to lament the wild proliferation of Republican presidential primary debates. And, as someone who has had to watch all twenty of them, I certainly agree that they can numb the mind.

But they have actually been good for the Republican nomination process. Cast your mind back to last summer. Michele Bachmann surged to the top of the polls when she entered the race, and Rick Perry replicated the feat when he declared his candidacy. Meanwhile, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich wallowed near the bottom of the polls. Santorum and Gingrich raised far less money than Perry and were widely dismissed and ignored by the media.

What killed Perry’s candidacy and breathed life into Gingrich’s and Santorum’s? The debates. And that’s a good thing. You might have a hard time imagining worse prospective presidents than Gingrich and Santorum, but such people exist. Three of them are former Republican front runners: Perry, Bachmann and Herman Cain.

Say what you want Santorum and Gingrich—they’re extremists, they’re cruel, they’re corrupt Washington insiders—but they aren’t morons. Gingrich and Santorum are genuinely knowledgeable about policy, and they are capable of stringing together complete sentences in which they articulate their policy agendas.

Cain, Perry and Bachmann were shockingly ill-prepared to lead the free world. Each was more ignorant of basic facts regarding American and international politics and policy than the next. And the debates, which force the candidates to answer questions, not merely deliver memorized stump speeches, is what undid them.

Everyone knows that Perry’s poor debate performances, most especially his painfully embarrassing inability to remember which cabinet departments he proposes to eliminate, destroyed his campaign. But what about Bachmann? Her downfall isn’t explained by any scandal. Perhaps her constant insistence on answering every debate question with an irrelevant talking point failed to impress audiences. It certainly didn’t help.

Likewise Cain’s rote incantation of “9-9-9” grew tiresome. His campaign was damaged more by multiple accusations of infidelity and sexual harassment than his lack of policy knowledge. But his failure to demonstrate sufficient knowledge, especially in international affairs, harmed him as well.

You wouldn’t think that a political movement so proudly anti-intellectual would narrow its presidential field down to its four smartest candidates. But so it has. And we have the debates to thank for that.

GOP Debate to Rape Victims: Drop Dead

I wrote Monday night about the emerging conservative war on women’s sexuality, and it looks like I was on to something. At Wednesday’s GOP debate in Arizona the Republican candidates for president competed to be the most vociferous in their opposition to reproductive health and freedom. 

CNN’s John King read a viewer-submitted question about whether the candidates support birth control and why or why not. The audience immediately booed, because they hate when their candidates are forced to expose their extremism on social issues. In recent weeks all the Republican candidates have all volunteered their opposition to making contraception available, specifically with regard to the Obama administration’s requirement that employer provided health insurance cover it. But somehow asking about that is considered unfair. “You did not once in the 2008 campaign, not once did anybody in the elite media ask why Barack Obama voted in favor of legalizing infanticide[when he was in the Illinois State Senate],” complained Gingrich. You’ll be shocked to know that Obama never actually voted for infanticide but rather for protecting doctors who complete abortions when the fetus shows “signs of life” from unfair prosecutions.

But we already knew Gingrich was prone to cheap demagoguery; Gingrich makes a hypocritical attack on “elites,” the media or the “elite media,” in every debate. What we don’t get to see as often is just how inhumane the Republican candidates all are on women’s health.

King noted that Gingrich and Rick Santorum have criticized Mitt Romney for having signed a law requiring hospitals, even Catholic ones, to provide emergency contraception to rape victims when he was governor of Massachusetts. If Romney were a decent person, this would be an easy question to answer. He would say, “Of course any institution in our society that purports to care for the sick must provide contraception to rape victims.” But Romney isn’t running for decent person, he’s running to be the Republican nominee for president.

And so Romney defensively insisted he would never have dared tell anyone to provide contraception to a rape victim. “There was no requirement in Massachusetts for the Catholic Church to provide morning-after pills to rape victims. That was entirely voluntary on their report. There was no such requirement.”

Think a little bit about what this means: a woman who is violently raped and has no control of which hospital she is taken to, or who lives near only a Catholic hospital, will be forced to carry her rapist’s fetus.

The even greater irony, of course, is that this woman who does not want to be forced to carry her rapists’ fetus will end up getting an actual abortion, not using the morning after pill, which Gingrich falsely characterized at the debate as a kind of abortion.

Santorum and Gingrich were not in the least bit embarrassed to have been referenced opposing contraception for rape victims. Indeed, they pressed the point. “The reports we got were quite clear that the public health department was prepared to give a waiver to Catholic hospitals about a morning-after abortion pill, and that the governor’s office issued explicit instructions saying that they believed it wasn’t possible under Massachusetts law to give them that waiver,” said Gingrich.

“If you voted for Planned Parenthood like the senator [Santorum] has, you voted for birth control pills,” noted Ron Paul. “And you literally, because funds are fungible, you literally vote for abortions because Planned Parenthood gets the money.”

That’s an easy argument for Paul to make because Paul opposes the federal government providing any health services. For a big government anti–sexual freedom conservative such as Santorum, though, it poses a conundrum. Santorum’s response was that he opposes federal spending on contraception (through a law called Title X), but knowing he couldn’t get rid of it settled for trying to balance it with abstinence education.

As Congressman Paul knows, I opposed Title X funding. I’ve always opposed Title X funding, but it’s included in a large appropriation bill that includes a whole host of other things, including the funding for the National Institutes of Health, the funding for Health and Human Services and a whole bunch of other departments. It’s a multibillion-dollar bill.

What I did, because Title X was always pushed through, I did something that no one else did. Congressman Paul didn’t. I said, well, if you’re going to have Title X funding, then we’re going to create something called Title XX, which is going to provide funding for abstinence-based programs, so at least we’ll have an opportunity to provide programs that actually work in — in keeping children from being sexually active instead of facilitating children from being sexually active. And I pushed Title XX to — to accomplish that goal.

You’d think voting for contraception, which helps reduce the number of abortions, would be unobjectionable. But Republicans think it’s so immoral that Romney actually accused Santorum of being insufficiently anti–reproductive freedom:

Senator, I just saw a YouTube clip of you being interviewed where you said that you personally opposed contraceptives but that you — you said that you voted for Title X. But you used that as an argument, saying this is something I did proactively. You didn’t say this is something I was opposed to; it wasn’t something I would have done. You said this — you said this in a positive light, “I voted for Title X.”

God forbid. The intellectual honesty award goes, as always, to Paul. Being an ObGyn, Paul had to point out that Gingrich was lying when he referred to the morning after pill as an abortion. “Actually, the morning-after pill is nothing more than a birth control pill… you can’t separate the two. They’re all basically the same, hormonally,” said Paul.

So, naturally it follows that Republicans who don’t want hospitals to provide birth control don’t want them to offer the morning-after pill either. That should teach those slutty trollops not to get raped, right?

The Conservative War on Women's Sexuality

Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum speaks during a campaign stop, Friday, Feb. 17, 2012, in Mason, Ohio. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

If you have been surprised to see an uptight prig such as Rick Santorum leading the Republican primary field in national polls, you shouldn’t be. Recent events have demonstrated that conservative positions on social issues are as much about repressing women and reversing the gains of the women’s movement as they are about saving the lives of the unborn.

The young people I saw at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington the week before last looked to me exactly like what you would expect from a bunch of college Republicans. They were dorks. They wore suits. Maybe some of the women’s suit skirts were short, but I was hardly scandalized.

But we learned last week that much of the conservative movement is still living in a different century—and I don’t mean the twentieth—with regard to women’s sexuality. Conservative bloggers were horrified that some young women at CPAC were dressed provocatively and engaged in loose sexual behavior with the young men in attendance.

CPAC has a well deserved reputation for being the time of year when earnest young conservatives unbutton their Oxford shirts, crack open a few Busch Lights and let loose. I see nothing wrong with that. But Erick Erickson, who runs the popular blog Red State, does. He wrote a lament that CPAC has gotten too debauched: “Young men, regardless of political persuasion or ideology, are intent on having sex, being boys, getting drunk—doing what young men in college often do. All to [sic] often there are also a few young ladies willing to shame their parents if their parents only knew.”

Erickson’s commentary is such a caricature of an avuncular misogynist that it’s amazing his post isn’t actually a parody. He almost literally says, “Boys will be boys.” But girls, on the other hand, are responsible for warding off boys’ advances. They, and they alone, are charged with protecting the conservative movement’s morality. If they don’t, they are “shaming their parents.” The notion that there is nothing immoral with enjoying oneself, as long as you aren’t spreading disease, doesn’t even cross Erickson’s mind. Nor does he consider the possibility that women and men are equally responsible for restraining their sexual urges.

Erickson also linked approvingly to Melissa Clouthier, a conservative blogger who plaintively demanded, “Have women so internalized feminist dogma that they see themselves in only two ways? Butch, men-lite wannabes or 3rd wave sluts who empower themselves by screwing every available horndog man?”

These posts, and criticisms of them, inspired James Poulos of the Daily Caller to write a meditation on Thursday about “What are women for?” He fails to answer his own question. Here’s the closest he comes: “Much good would come from a broader recognition that women have a privileged relationship with the natural world. That’s a relationship which must receive its social due—if masculinity in its inherent and imitative varieties (including imitation by quasi-feminized males of quasi-masculinized females!) is not to conquer the world.”

The item is so garbled I can’t really critique it, except to note that posing the question itself is absurdly sexist. (Rich Yeselson valiantly attempts to wade through Poulos’s inscrutable prose and explains what’s wrong with Poulos’ “hoisting [women] onto a grand pedestal far above the barbarism of men.”)

Meanwhile, the far more legible Ross Douthat demonstrated in Sunday’s New York Times how even the most seemingly reasonable conservatives oppose gender equality. Douthat’s column argues that conservatives must recognize abstinence teaching alone often doesn’t prevent unwanted pregnancies, and liberals must admit that access to contraception doesn’t either. That’s true, but for those of us who think that women should be able to avail themselves of a certain safe and relatively affordable medical procedure when confronted with an unwanted pregnancy, it’s not clear what the problem is. The problem, to Douthat, is that abortions are an inherent social ill.

(Unfortunately, far too many liberals, by saying that every abortion is a “tragedy” best avoided, have reinforced this widespread superstition. Hence, Douthat can pose as a moderate consensus-seeker by accurately noting, “Even the most pro-choice politicians, for instance, usually emphasize that they want to reduce the need for abortion, and make the practice rare as well as safe and legal.”)

Douthat claims that lack of access to contraception is not a significant problem and so liberals should stop pretending it’s an answer to our abortion scourge. He writes:

A lack of contraceptive access simply doesn’t seem to be a significant factor in unplanned pregnancy in the United States. When the Alan Guttmacher Institute surveyed more than 10,000 women who had procured abortions in 2000 and 2001, it found that only 12 percent cited problems obtaining birth control as a reason for their pregnancies. A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study of teenage mothers found similar results: Only 13 percent of the teens reported having had trouble getting contraception.

I disagree with Douthat. I think lack of access to contraception is a major problem. My evidence? The Guttmacher Institute found that fully 12 percent of women who had abortions cited problems obtaining birth control and the CDC found 13 percent of teenagers had problems getting contraception. Twelve or 13 percent! In a country as wealthy and socially advanced as the United States, it is remarkable that so many women would be unable to access one of the many contraceptive options that should be available to them. In the Guttmacher study alone there were 1,200 women who had to have an abortion because they could not get contraception. One would be too many.

How can Douthat see these statistics and reach such a different conclusion than I do? Because he doesn’t believe access to contraception is a good unto itself. If you believe, as liberals do, that women should control their reproductive organs and that all aspects of healthcare, including preventive measures such as contraception, should be available to all citizens of a civilized country, then lack of access to contraception is bad. Conservatives such as Douthat don’t share either of those premises. They believe healthcare is a privilege that should only be bestowed upon the wealthy, and sexual freedom is a social ill. If you think that, then access to contraception is a neutral or a negative. It is only valuable to Douthat as a means for reducing the number of abortions, which he considers an even greater social ill. Since he approaches the data on contraception from that perspective, then he finds that only a 12 percent reduction in abortion isn’t saving nearly enough souls, so who cares about the underlying problem of women being prevented from exercising their bodily autonomy?

Back in October Rick Santorum said, “Many of the Christian faith have said, well, that’s OK; contraception is OK. It’s not OK. It’s a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.” After reading what leading conservative pundits have to say on gender and sexuality this last week, it’s no surprise they would find Santorum appealing.

Sorry, Republicans, Your Savior Won't Come

In Politico’s Playbook on Saturday Mike Allen reported that elite Republicans are still fantasizing about a superhero who will swoop in to free them from the limitations of their current crop of contenders [the all-capitalized phrases are Allen’s]:

A tippy-top Republican, unprompted, yesterday sketched the germ of a plan for a new candidate if Rick Santorum upsets Mitt Romney in the Michigan primary on Feb. 28. Our friend brought visual aids: chicken-scratched versions of prosaic documents that are circulating among GOP insiders like nuclear-code sheets…. The point: even after Feb. 28, it might be possible to assemble a Hail Mary candidacy that could garner enough delegates to force a CONTESTED convention….

AT THAT VERY MOMENT, ABC’S JONATHAN KARL was at the Capitol, having a conversation that resulted in this Richter-rattler: “A prominent Republican senator just told me that if Romney can’t win in Michigan, the Republican Party needs to go back to the drawing board and convince somebody new to get into the race. ‘If Romney cannot win Michigan, we need a new candidate,’ said the senator…. “Santorum? ‘He’d lose 35 states,’ the senator said, predicting the same fate for Newt Gingrich. It would have to be somebody else, the senator said.  Who? ‘Jeb Bush.’ ”

This is silly because no candidate exists who would be simultaneously more acceptable to the Republican base and independents than both Romney and Santorum. And if he did, he’d be a fool to sign on for this unpleasant adventure.

The candidates whose names are being tossed out as options—Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush—have plenty of potential liabilities. Daniels has been fined for drug possession. His marital history is complicated, although at least on the surface it’s much more sympathetic than, say, Newt Gingrich’s. He also was director of the Office of Management and Budget back when George W. Bush was running up the budget deficit, something Republicans claim to have been upset by at the time, although we know they are lying. Perhaps, like having supported an individual mandate in healthcare reform, it could become an ex post facto disqualification.

Chris Christie, who has already endorsed Romney, has taken a stance against Islamophobia, a position that offends many conservatives. Meanwhile, his angry, abrasive shtick might play badly among soccer mom swing voters.

Jeb Bush is the brother of former President George W. Bush. I don’t think that point requires further illumination.

And what would be their incentive for getting in the race? To have their histories pored over, to spend days raising money and rushing to put together a campaign only to risk embarrassment? Since it’s no longer possible for a new entrant to win the nomination outright, the reward would merely be winning enough delegates to force a fight at the convention. If these candidates couldn’t be persuaded to accept the hassles of a Republican primary when it was winnable, why would any of them do so now?

Republicans should come to grips with the fact that the nominee is going to be one of the remaining, unappealing candidates.


Rich Republicans Say Birth Control Is Cheap

At the Conservative Political Action Conference last week, Ann Coulter mocked the Obama administration for requiring health insurance to cover birth control by saying “birth control costs $20 a month; an abortion is $400 or $500 at the most, you don’t get insurance for that.” First of all, Coulter is wrong, or lying. Perhaps she’s never been without insurance herself and she doesn’t understand the difference between a co-payment and what something costs without insurance. Twenty dollars per month might be what one pays for the pill with insurance. Without it, you can pay over $100. This is, in other words, precisely what you have insurance for.

But just as disturbing is how economically out of touch such a leading conservative is. Coulter doesn’t think $240 per year for contraception or $500 for an abortion is unaffordable to anyone. Clearly, she’s never met many normal Americans. There are, in fact, milions of people—especially teenagers—who don’t have that money at their disposal. 

Conservative callousness about the financial hardship of preventive medicine is not limited to Coulter. Foster Friess, a billionaire investor who is funding Rick Santorum’s Super PAC, went on MSNBC to discuss Santorum’s campaign. Asked whether Santorum’s exteme Christianist views are too conservative to win a general election, Friess dismissed such concerns. “This contraception thing, my gosh, it’s [so] inexpensive. You know, back in my days, they’d use Bayer aspirin for contraception. The gals put it between their knees and it wasn’t that costly.” It’s nice to know that wealthy 61-year-old men who exercise outsized influence over our political process have such compassionate and modern views on women’s reproductive health. 

You can watch the video here:


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