Ben Adler | The Nation

Ben Adler

Ben Adler

 The 2012 election, Republican politics and conservative media.

How Romney Beat Gingrich in Florida

Florida is a big state in terms of both geography and population. Consequently—and also because it does not receive the wildly disproportionate attention that Iowa and New Hampshire do—it cannot be won through old-fashioned grassroots politicking alone. The Florida campaign is fought primarily on the airwaves, so it takes money to compete there. That’s why candidates who excel more in exciting an ideological base on a limited budget, such as Ron Paul and Rick Santorum, skipped Florida to focus on upcoming caucus states, starting with Nevada.

Paul had his weakest showing thus far in Florida, with only 7 percent. Santorum told CNN on Tuesday night that he stopped campaigning in Florida because he lacked the funds to compete there. It’s too bad for him. After a strong debate performance on Thursday, this might have been his moment. Despite barely campaigning in Florida, he came in at third place with 13 percent.

But Tuesday night belonged to Mitt Romney, who vastly outspent his opponents. According to USA Today, “Restore our Future, an outside group supporting Romney, accounted for about $8.8 million in the ad wars, and the candidate and the ‘super PAC’ combined outspent Gingrich and Winning The Future, the organization backing him, by about $15.5 million to $3.3 million.” These ads were overwhelmingly negative. Romney did not so much win as he defeated Gingrich.

Here are the two main reasons Romney won Florida by a commanding 47 percent to Gingrich’s 32 percent.

Demographics are destiny. As exit polls show, Romney’s relative strengths and weaknesses among different segments of the Republican electorate remain fairly stable from state to state, but the composition of the electorate changes. Florida’s Republican electorate was more demographically favorable to him than than of Iowa or South Carolina. First of all, it’s old, which helps Romney and Gingrich and hurts Santorum and Paul. In every state thus far we’ve seen Paul’s support, and to a lesser extent Santorum’s, skew younger, while Gingrich’s and Rommey’s lean older. Among voters 65 and older, who compose 36 percent of the Florida Republican electorate, Romney won 51 percent and Gingrich got 34 percent. Only 6 percent of the electorate was under 30, and no exit poll breakdown for how they voted is available. But among 30–39 year-olds Romney got 37 percent to Gingrich’s 25, while Paul got 18 percent and Santorum won 17 percent.

The other big demographic advantage for Romney was the relative moderation of Florida’s Republican voters compared to South Carolina’s. He’s still having trouble sealing the deal with the most conservative Republicans, but luckily for him they were not as big a factor. Among the one-third of voters who identified themselves as “very conservative,” Gingrich won with 41 percent to Romney’s 30 and Santorum’s 22. But Romney trounced Gingrich and Santorum among voters who identified as “somewhat conservative” and voters who described themselves as moderate or liberal, winning majorities in both categories. This is why Romney is clearly the GOP’s strongest potential candidate in swing states such as Florida. That, in turn, is why the Republican establishment came out with overwhelming force in Romney’s favor, or at least against Gingrich.

Here’s another way—one that is being largely misrepresented in the media—of looking at the conservative-versus-moderate divide. Commentators are pointing to the fact that Romney edged out Gingrich 41-37 among the 65 percent of voters who said they support the Tea Party as evidence that Romney is finally winning over the Tea Party movement. But simply saying “yes” to the question of whether you support the Tea Party is not the same as really being a member of the Tea Party. If you asked Democrats whether they support the environmental movement you might find two-thirds say yes, but the vast majority of those people would not be representative of dedicated environmental activists.

Among the 35 percent of voters who said they “strongly support” the Tea Party movement, Gingrich beat Romney 45-35. But Romney won 50-28 among the 30 percent who said they “somewhat support” the Tea Party, and he won landslides among those who said they hold neutral or negative views of the Tea Party. (Romney beat Gingrich 57 to 22 and 62 to 17 among those two groups, respectively.)

So among Florida Republicans “Tea Party support” is just another term for conservatism. The bad news for Romney: the voters who are very conservative and strongly support the Tea Party might be the voters most likely to show up in lower-profile primaries and caucuses, where turnout is lower and the most partisan, ideological and activist voters tend to be over-represented. The good news? Romney remains stronger with prospective swing voters, which might bode well for relatively moderate upcoming states like Michigan and Ohio, and in the general election.

You can even view this same phenomenon through the prism of geography. In Florida, as you go north Romney’s numbers go south. He dominated Gingrich in South Florida, 56 to 28, but he had smaller margins of victory in the Tampa and Orlando areas. In North Florida and the Panhandle, Gingrich beat Romney, 39 to 38. Of course, in Florida the north is the South. The South is the Republicans’ strongest region, and it remains relatively favorable to Gingrich and unfavorable to Romney. That being said, Romney performed better in the Panhandle than he did in South Carolina. And central and Southern Florida look a lot more like some of the upcoming states—and crucial swing states this Fall—such as Nevada and Colorado.

Another important demographic factor for Romney was religion. Only 40 percent of the electorate in Florida were white evangelical Christians. Gingrich edged Romney among those voters 38 to 36. Romney beat Gingrich 2 to 1 among all other voters. Romney is lucky that evangelicals are not a majority of Florida Republicans, as they were in the Iowa caucus and South Carolina primary.

Effective attacks. Gingrich and Romney may make a lot of petty accusations about whose personal gains from lobbying or investing were more ill-gotten, but Romney also went after Gingrich on substance.

He had plenty to work with. One devastating Romney ad consisted entirely of a clip from the NBC Nightly News in 1997, when Tom Brokaw opened with a report on then-Speaker Gingrich being found guilty by his colleagues of ethical improprieties. The text was so strong it’s worth repeating in full:

Good evening. Newt Gingrich, who came to power, after all, preaching a higher standard in American politics, a man who brought down another speaker on ethics accusations, tonight he has on his own record the judgment of his peers, Democrat and Republican alike. By an overwhelming vote, they found him guilty of ethics violations; they charged him a very large financial penalty, and they raised—several of them—raised serious questions about his future effectiveness.

The Gingrich campaign put out a press release combating the claims—Gingrich was cleared of most of the charges—but once you’re explaining and defending yourself, you’re losing. Anyway, the voters who saw the commercial mostly probably never heard Gingrich’s rebuttal.


Other Romney ads noted that Gingrich—who constantly inveighs against “Washington elites”—is the ultimate Washington insider.

Speaking of being a Washington insider, Gingrich’s rhetoric in stump speeches and debates claims credit for virtually all of President Ronald Reagan’s political and policy successes. Gingrich, who was a freshman in Congress when Reagan was elected in 1980, is wildly exaggerating the role he played in getting Reagan’s tax cuts passed or winning his landslide re-election in 1984. Restore Our Future, a Romney-supporting Super PAC, put out an ad noting, “From debates you’d think Newt Gingrich was Ronald Reagan’s vice president.” But, as the ad noted, Reagan’s diaries mention Gingrich only once and Reagan opposed Gingrich’s foreign policy ideas.  


Romney also criticized Gingrich in debates for his aggravating and hypocritical habit of promising targeted government largesse to every early primary state. In New Hampshire Gingrich demanded a new local Veterans Administration hospital. In South Carolina he promised a new Interstate highway connection and upgrades to the port of Charleston. In Florida, he jumped the shark, promising the Space Coast a major investment in colonizing the Moon. Making such a ridiculous promise backfired on Gingrich, and Romney took advantage of it.

Romney did, of course, run commercials hitting Gingrich for the money he earned consulting for Freddie Mac. In fairness to Romney, though, this is actually a more legitimate attack than Gingrich’s complaint that Romney made money at Bain Capital by sometimes laying off workers at firms Bain bought. For the same reason it’s also more effective. If you’re a Republican, you supposedly believe in the free market but not crony capitalism. Thus lobbying, or even just providing political strategy consulting, for a government-sponsored corporation such as Freddie Mac will strike you as much more distasteful than simply competing to increase your wealth in the private sector through reducing labor costs, as Romney did. This is especially true in Florida, which has been hit hard by the mortgage crisis. Romney, naturally, capitalized on this fact, accusing Gingrich of profiting off the misfortune of Floridians.

All of this effective negative campaigning resulted in a bonus for Romney: he got under Newt’s skin. Gingrich is pompous, and he appears to have an inflated but somewhat fragile ego. Gingrich’s ham-handed efforts to get back at Romney, such as by noting that Romney had investments in Freddie Mac, seemed like pathetic grasping. Speaking on Tuesday night, Gingrich seemed churlish and increasingly detached from reality. As everyone knows, Gingrich is capable of being his own worst enemy. If Romney succeeds in making Gingrich behave that way, his own path to the nomination will be a lot easier.

Has the GOP Establishment Defeated Gingrich?

Republican presidential candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney participate in a presidential debate at St. Anselm College in Manchester, NH, June 13, 2011 (AP Photo/Jim Cole, File).

On the night of Newt Gingrich’s victory in the South Carolina primary, Republican strategist Steve Schmidt predicted on MSNBC that the GOP establishment would “panic” if Gingrich won Florida. They didn’t wait that long. As soon as Gingrich’s bounce from South Carolina briefly brought him to the top of the polls in Florida, the Romney campaign and the Republican establishment amplified their attacks on Gingrich.

The Romney campaign holds daily press calls criticizing Gingrich. In addition to the lower-profile surrogates such as Senator Jim Talent (R-MO) and former Representative Susan Molinari (R-NY), they’ve started dispatching some heavy hitters. Last week Senator John McCain held a call complaining that Gingrich was a profligate pork-barrel spender.

Many in the conservative media, in collaboration with current and former government officials, have been digging into Gingrich’s congressional tenure. National Review, which endorsed Romney in 2008 and has already editorialized against Gingrich’s candidacy in this cycle, has spearheaded the campaign. Last week it ran another editorial against Gingrich. NR’s editors did not bother pretending that their concerns about Gingrich revolve around some phony issue like pork-barrel spending, a fixation for conservative purists who seem not to care that the military budget they refuse to cut is roughly 100 times as expensive. They cut right to the core of what bothers establishment Republicans about Gingrich: the fact that he is an incredibly weak candidate in the general election. “Amid all the tumult of the last 18 years there has been this constant: Gingrich has never been popular,” they wrote. “Polls have never shown more than 43 percent of the public viewing him favorably at any point in his career.”

Meanwhile NR’s Jim Geraghty exhumed a story of Gingrich’s strong-arm tactics from his tenure as Speaker. According to Geraghty, Senator Tom Coburn’s (R-OK) memoir of his tenure in the House of Representatives under Gingrich “paints a picture of Gingrich as a raging egomaniac, wildly hypocritical and quick to toss Class of 1994 principles.”

National Review’s most significant blow to Gingrich last week surely came in the form of an article by Elliot Abrams. Abrams is the epitome of a neoconservative Republican insider: son-in-law to Commentary’s Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter, Abrams served in President Reagan’s State Department and on George W. Bush’s National Security Council. Abrams recalls with tremendous bitterness that during the 1980s, Gingrich was frequently critical of Reagan’s foreign policy. And in typical Gingrich fashion, he used wildly over-heated rhetoric to make his argument. Abrams depicts Gingrich as a hostile critic of Reagan's policies that supposedly slayed the Soviet Union. This cuts directly into the central argument of Gingrich’s candidacy, that he is the “Reagan conservative” who worked with Reagan and will replicate Reagan's successes.

National Review’s second-biggest score against Gingrich was a scathing statement former Senate majority leader and 1996 Republican nominee Bob Dole provided them. “If Gingrich is the nominee it will have an adverse impact on Republican candidates running for county, state, and federal offices,” wrote Dole. “Hardly anyone who served with Newt in Congress has endorsed him and that fact speaks for itself.”

Even Tom DeLay, a former deputy to Gingrich in Congress, told a radio show that Gingrich is “erratic, undisciplined.”

As Politico reported, these attacks reverberated widely in the conservative echo chamber. The Drudge Report linked prominently to anti-Gingrich items such as the Abrams piece.

Other prominent conservatives and Republicans came out against Gingrich: The American Spectator’s founder, Emmett Tyrrell, compared Gingrich to Bill Clinton in a widely reprinted column. (That’s a serious insult coming from Tyrrell since his magazine was behind many of the smears and conspiracy theories about Clinton.)

More insurgent-friendly conservatives have tried to push back on Gingrich’s behalf. The Daily Caller’s Matt Lewis posted a video of Nancy Reagan saying, “Barry Goldwater handed the torch to Ronnie, and in turn Ronnie turned that torch over to Newt.” In a Republican primary that’s like being anointed by Saint Mary herself.  Gingrich’s campaign blasted the video out and Gingrich then mentioned the event at a debate as a fond recollection, although he had clearly forgotten about it until recently. The American Spectator ran an article pointing out that, however tenuous Gingrich’s ties to Reagan, they were obviously stronger than those of Romney, who insisted in 1994, “I was an independent during the time of Reagan/Bush. I'm not trying to return to Reagan/Bush.”

The biggest boost to Gingrich may have come Friday evening when Herman Cain endorsed him. Even though the accusations of long-term adultery and serial sexual harassment—along with Cain's embarrassing feeble grasp of important policy issues—derailed Cain’s candidacy, he remains a popular figure on the right. Many times on the campaign trail I interviewed former Cain supporters who said they were having trouble choosing a new candidate and they would vote for Cain if he got back in the race.

Even so, the onslaught of establishment criticisms and negative ads from Romney’s campaign and his Super PAC seemed to have succeeded in reversing Gingrich’s momentum. Recent polls show Romney headed for a double-digit victory in Florida. Unlike revelations of his past infidelity in mainstream news outlets, Gingrich cannot turn these criticisms to his advantage by attacking the media. The result, as we saw in Thursday’s debate in Jacksonville, was Gingrich’s being hoisted by his own petard on everything from his relationship with Freddie Mac to his attacks on Romney’s wealth to his past support for an individual mandate in health insurance.

The question going forward will be whether Romney and his establishment backers have Gingrich down or out. Gingrich has come back from the dead twice before in just the last two months. Maybe he can again.

ALEC's Latest Actions

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative organization that has been leading recent coordinated attempts to move state laws rightward, has some busy minions in the New Hampshire state legislature. In the past week, they introduced seven pieces of ALEC’s model legislation.

These include bills that are plainly counterproductive, such as an act to eliminate payments for additional children of parents on welfare. According to Granite Progress, “This legislation would eliminate support services for newborn children whose parents are utilizing TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families).” How that will break the cycle of the poverty or give the disadvantaged children of poor people a more fair shot at becoming productive citizens is unclear. It seems to proceed from the false premise that people decide whether to have children on the basis on minuscule increases in aid they may receive. In any case, it punishes children for the perceived sins of their parents.

Some of the other proposals are just doctrinaire right-wing ideology, such as instituting a tax credit to divert money from public education to private school vouchers.

The farthest-reaching proposal would impede the people of New Hampshire from tossing out the Republican legislative majority that is trying to impose this agenda. That’s a bill to require voters to present photo identification at the polling place. Such laws are designed to combat a non-existent problem of in-person voter impersonation. But they are very effective at disenfranchising poor people, young people and people of color. In other words, it’s a partisan scheme to stop Democrats from voting.

It’s similar to the South Carolina law that the Department of Justice denied pre-clearance under the Voting Rights Act. New Hampshire is not subject to pre-clearance under the VRA. But New Hampshire is a key swing state. In 2000 Al Gore would have won if he had carried it.

Meanwhile ALEC is pumping out reports to justify its agenda, and ignoring the contradictions between the facts and their preconceived notions. On Tuesday ALEC released a “Report Card on American Education.” In ranking the fifty states and Washington, DC, some interesting trends emerge. Blue states tend to outperform red states. Based on standardized test scores, these are the top five states: Massachusetts, Vermont, New Jersey, Colorado and Pennsylvania. Numbers forty-seven to fifty-one: Missouri, Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina and West Virginia.

The other funny thing about ALEC’s education report card is that they grade each state on whether they’ve adopted ALEC’s education reform agenda but are unconcerned with how their reforms affect outcomes. Some of the states with the highest marks for reform rank in the bottom half on their performance, such as Missouri, California and Arizona.

I e-mailed ALEC and asked whether this demonstrates that their reform agenda is not necessarily the right solution for every state, but they did not respond.

Jack Abramoff Dishes on Newt Gingrich

Former Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff told The Nation this week that in his dealings with former Speaker Newt Gingrich, Gingrich demonstrated a bigoted, irrational and somewhat flippant attitude toward policy-making. The revelations came during a visit by Abramoff to The Nation’s offices on January 24.

“Meeting with Newt was exceedingly frustrating,” said Abramoff. When Abramoff visited Gingrich to discuss sovereignty issues regarding his client, the Mariana Islands, Gingrich simply said they should become a part of Hawaii. “They’re all Islanders,” reasoned Gingrich. Problem solved.

Gingrich loves to proclaim his affection for big ideas. In this context, making the Mariana Islands part of a state nearly 4,000 miles away would qualify as a big idea. But not every big idea is a good one. Gingrich has a penchant for tossing off silly suggestions in public, but this shows that he brings that tendency to bear in actual policy-making conversations while serving in government.

More troubling is a story Abramoff related about Gingrich’s response to Abramoff’s lobbying on behalf of Indian tribes. When Abramoff went to Congress to protest a tax increase on tribal gambling proceeds, Gingrich insisted—supposed conservative principles about taxation notwithstanding—that such a tax increase was warranted. His reason? He had recently sat next to a Native American in first class on an airplane. “Where do you think he’s getting that kind of money?” Gingrich demanded.

“To his mind this was an offense that they have all this money: he’s an Indian, he must own a casino.” says Abramoff. “What are you doing in first class, Newt? You’re a public servant.”

To be fair, Abramoff noted that he has a personal bias on the subject. Having known Gingrich since 1982, he does not care for him and fears the result of a Gingrich presidential nomination. “I would hope [Republicans] would be less knuckle-headed, but they seem to be marching headlong to anoint Newt” said Abramoff. “To me that’s the height of silliness.”

Gingrich’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment by the time of this post’s publication.

You can listen to Abramoff’s recollections of Gingrich here.

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Republicans' Veterans Exception

The last two debates have made one aspect of Republican ideology abundantly clear: they think socialism is terrific and they are pledging to increase it. That’s not always the case: socialized medicine, for example, is an un-American heresy for teachers, cops, janitors or firefighters. But for military veterans, Republicans think it is not only acceptable but our sacred duty to provide abundant government services. If veterans come up in Thursday night’s debate in Jacksonville, you can be sure the candidates will contradict their supposed faith in the magic of the market.

When asked at last Thursday’s debate in Charleston about the needs of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, even Ron Paul, otherwise a consistent believer in the free market and small government, abandoned his principles. “Where the veterans really deserve help, both as a physician and as a congressman, is the people who've come back and aren't doing well health-wise,” said Paul. “They need a lot more help. We have an epidemic now of suicide of our military coming back. So they need a lot of medical help, and I think they come up shortchanged. They came up shortchanged after Vietnam War, Persian Gulf War and even now. They don't get care from the Veterans Administration.”

Rick Santorum agreed with Paul about medical care but disagreed with Paul’s assessment that cuts in taxes and spending would solve the veterans’ unemployment problem. “We need to be much, much more aggressive,” said Santorum, who noted that his parents worked for the VA and he grew up in a government-provided apartment on VA grounds. “We have a president of the United States who said he is going to cut veterans' benefits, cut our military, at a time when these folks are—four, five, six, seven tours, coming back, in and out of jobs, sacrificing everything for this country, and the president of the United States can't cut one penny out of the social welfare system and he wants to cut a trillion dollars out of our military and hit our veterans. And that's disgusting.”

Of course, the fact that healthcare and employment programs are a form of social welfare appears not to occur to Santorum. While he views social welfare as bad except when the beneficiaries are a group he favors, this does not change his view of social welfare in general. Instead, he lies and says it’s not social welfare. It’s also untrue that Obama wouldn’t “cut one penny” out of other social welfare programs. In fact, the same deficit reduction deal that cuts security spending cut domestic discretionary spending by an equal amount.

The security spending cuts Santorum refers to were passed by Republicans in Congress, not dictated by fiat by President Obama. And they are cuts to national security spending, which includes the Pentagon, CIA, Homeland Security and other agencies. There’s no reason to expect major cuts to veterans services, but nonetheless Santorum and Mitt Romney have been accusing Obama of cutting spending on veterans.

Romney wanted to find a way to square the Republican affection for veterans’ welfare programs with their distaste for the federal government. He arrived at a preposterous solution, presumably inspired by his tortured position on healthcare reform: that social spending is great, but only if it’s implemented at the state level, as he did in Massachusetts. “In our state we found a way to help our—our veterans by saying, Look, if you're going to come back, particularly if you're in the National Guard, we'll pay for your education, college degree, both the fees and tuition—we'd give you a full ride,” bragged Romney. “And we also had a plan that said, if you come back and you've been out of work for a year or more, we're going to put a—like a bonus on your back, which, if anyone hires you, that bonus goes to them to pay for your training. So we can encourage that to occur. But let's do it at the state level. Let's not have the federal government continue to extend its—its tentacles into everything that goes on in this country.” As Romney frequently points out in defense of his moderate record as Governor of Massachusetts, that state has an 85 percent Democratic state legislature. The fact that Republican states such as, say, Mississippi might not provide these same services to their veterans appears not to bother Romney. But is the service of a soldier any less valuable if he has the misfortune to come from a right-wing state?

Newt Gingrich, who may have even less commitment to principles than Romney despite being Romney’s supposed conservative alternative, outflanked his opponents from the left. He took issue with Paul’s contention that the free market found jobs for 10 million veterans returning from World War II all on its own. “They created a GI Bill which enabled literally millions of returning veterans to go to college for the very first time,” recalled Gingrich. “My father, when—who was in the Second World War, went to college on a GI Bill. So there was an enormous expansion of opportunity that enabled them to integrate into a new, emerging society.”

Gingrich’s apparent view: that federal college tuition subsidies are good for veterans, but only for veterans. The same goes for healthcare. The next question in the debate was how to repeal “Obamacare.” The candidates pledged to do so without any apparent awareness that they had just accepted the premise that providing government healthcare is a good thing when they think the recipient is deserving. Left unexplained is why military veterans are the only people whose work they value. What about police officers and firefighters? Aren’t these first responders on the front lines of our current war against terrorism? We lost more of them than soldiers in the attacks of September 11. What about schoolteachers or home health aides? Perhaps the most relevant group is entrepreneurs. Unlike payroll employees, someone starting a small business does not get health insurance through his or her job. Republicans love to lionize small-business owners. They defend them as job creators and argue (disingenuously) that we cannot raise income taxes on top earners because that would hit successful small business owners. But fear of losing one’s health insurance is a major disincentive to strike out on your own and start a business. Why don’t these pillars of society deserve medical care?

The implied moral superiority of veterans is a recurrent theme on the Republican campaign trail. Mitt Romney asks veterans and active-duty service personnel to raise their hands at his rallies and the audience applauds them. Newt Gingrich wraps himself in military figures and paraphernalia, holding a “veterans’ town hall” in front of a tank at a World War II museum in New Hampshire, and being introduced by veterans among fighter planes at a speech on an aircraft carrier in South Carolina. Paul plays the veteran card, blasting Gingrich for dodging the draft and touting his own service. “I'm the only US veteran on this stage tonight,” Paul declared at the debate last Thursday in Charleston.

In Monday’s debate in Tampa, Gingrich and Romney both declared their support for one component of the DREAM Act: allowing immigrants who serve in the military to become citizens. But they oppose letting illegal immigrants brought here as children receive in-state college tuition.

Mark Krikorian of National Review criticized Gingrich for taking this position by noting how irrelevant it is. Only 3,000 people per year would qualify for Gingrich’s exception. Moreover, the Secretary of Defense already has the authority under current law to enlist illegal immigrants, and, once enlisted, they can apply for citizenship. Poor innocent Krikorian, he thinks that Republican candidates articulate policy positions based on whether they actually think they are necessary. Obviously Gingrich didn’t take this stance because he knows and cares about the details of immigration policy. It’s all about politics: among Republicans every principle flies out the window where veterans are concerned. Socialized medicine and federal investments in education become good things, and illegal immigrants are transmogrified from criminals deserving speedy deportation to model citizens. This plays well among the types of voters who slap “Support Our Troops” stickers on their SUVs, but it has little to do with rational policy or principle. 

As Florida Primary Nears, Republican Candidates Amp Up Anti-Castro Extremism

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum gestures as former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, right, listens during a Republican presidential debate Monday, January 23, 2012, at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Florida. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Alert viewers of Monday night’s Republican presidential debate on NBC might have caught an odd digression by Rick Santorum:

“They’re now with the Cubans and the Venezuelans, the Nicaraguans. There is a growing network of folks now working with the jihadists, the Iranians, who are very, very excited about the opportunity to having platforms ninety miles off our coast, just like the Soviets were, very anxious to have platforms ninety miles off our coast, or in Venezuela, or in Nicaragua, and other places they could come across the southern border.”

This is not the first time Santorum or his competitors have warned of the supposed jihadist threat gathering at our southern border. In an earlier debate, Rick Perry brought up this same Latin American menace, and Santorum echoed him, saying, “Well, I’ve spent a lot of time and concern—and Rick [Perry] mentioned this earlier—about what’s going on in Central and South America. I’m very concerned about the militant socialists and there—and the radical Islamists joining together, bonding together.”

Islamists and secular socialists from Catholic countries sounds like an odd couple. What this is all about? Florida. Next Tuesday’s primary there is crucial for the GOP nominating contest. And the Sunshine State could prove decisive in the general election. Florida Republicans are heavily influenced by the Cuban immigrant community, which is fiercely opposed to the Castro regime and its leftist allies in Latin America. (In Miami-Dade County 72 percent of the roughly 368,000 registered Republicans are Hispanic.) In 2010 Florida elected Republican Marco Rubio to the US Senate in a landslide. The handsome young senator is widely popular in the Tea Party movement and is viewed as a likely vice-presidential nominee. Winning the favor of Florida’s Cuban-Americans, and Rubio in particular, is important for any Republican presidential aspirant.

So politically it makes sense for Republicans to sound the alarm, and you can expect them to continue to do so in the days ahead. But substantively, it’s bogus. “You hear allegations that Hezbollah is in Cuba, but you don’t hear the CIA talk about it because it isn’t substantiated,” says Christopher Sabatini, the senior director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas.

It’s true that there are large Middle Eastern communities in some South American countries and some members of those communities may send money to groups back home that the United States considers terrorist organizations. But there’s no evidence of operational relationships between Hezbollah and Latin American governments. “There is no immediate risk of a terrorist attack that is spawned and orchestrated from the south that will put Americans at risk,” says Sabatini. “There are things to watch.”

One of the other complaints from the right is that we sided with Venezuelan President Hugo Ch´vez in Honduras. What actually happened is that the military overthrew the president, Manuel Zeleya, and the US government supported the rule of law rather than the coup. Ch´vez happens to have the same position as we do, but so does every other government. Nonetheless, it has become a major cause for conservatives such as Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC), who is holding ambassador nominations until we recognize the interim government in Honduras. “As much as right-wingers want to support democracy, they want to support outcomes, not processes,” says Sabatini.

Alas, that was the legacy of conservative American governments such as the Reagan administration, which supported right-wing autocracies in Latin America as a bulwark against even democratically elected socialists. A Republican administration might revive that policy.

The Problem With Mitt Romney's Tax Rate

Mitt Romney's 2010 tax return (Image courtesy of mittromney.com)

After weeks of hemming and hawing, Mitt Romney has finally released some of his tax returns. In 2008 Joe Biden released ten years’ worth of tax returns. When running for president in 1968 Romney’s father George Romney released returns for twelve years. Romney released just the returns for one, 2010.

In 2010 Romney paid only 13.9 percent in federal taxes on his income of $21.7 million. Does that sound low to you? It should. The highest marginal income tax rate is 35 percent. But Romney has the good fortune to live off unearned income. “It’s slightly lower than the total payroll, excise and lowest marginal income tax rates combined paid by Americans earning between $40,000 and $50,000 per year,” noted Ed Kleinbard, a law professor at the University of Southern California on a call organized by the Democratic National Committee.

The reason is that our tax code gives preferential treatment to unearned income, such as dividend payments and capital gains. Capital gains, which are overwhelmingly earned by the wealthiest Americans, are taxed at only 15 percent. That’s why, as Brad Plumer shows at the Washington Post, our wealthiest presidential candidates have often paid the lowest rates. This is obviously unjust. The argument in favor of this policy is that it encourages investment and by extension economic growth. Unfortunately, it’s not true: the economy has grown the most during periods when the capital gains tax rate was closest to the income tax rate. That’s why, as I’ve argued before, liberals should make taxing capital gains as regular income a top priority and a major deficit reduction proposal.

Conservatives, naturally, have found an intellectually dishonest justification for Romney. They argue that since Romney’s dividend income was first taxed as corporate income, “a competent campaign, and candidate, would explain that Romney’s real federal tax rate on his investment income was more than 40 percent (being conservative, after deductions and such), since the revenue stream was subject to both a personal tax rate and the corporate tax rate,” writes John Hood of National Review. “A competent campaign would then point out that state taxes would bring the effective income tax rate on Romney’s investment income to 50 percent or higher.”

The Wall Street Journal editorial page made the same argument. But, as Timonthy Noah points out in The New Republic, this is just hypocrisy. Corporations are separate legal entities from their owners. When corporations lose money, their owners are not personally liable. Conservatives have taken this idea to its logical extreme, as in the recent Citizens United Supreme Court decision, holding that corporations have the same First Amendment rights as individuals and so their spending on political messaging cannot be limited.

But if corporations are legally separate entities, then they obviously should pay taxes separately too. It’s also worth noting that if you are a housekeeper paid out of your employer’s after-tax income, conservatives never argue that your effective income tax rate is doubled and you should receive a special exemption. Everyone’s income taxes come from somewhere that may have been previously taxed – businesses are paid by customers using their after tax income—but conservatives object only when it’s a rich person, in the form of corporate profits or capital gains, who is subject to “double taxation.”

Romney will be hit for other aspects of his tax returns. Some of these are valid grounds for questioning Romney’s patriotism, such as his offshore accounts in Switzerland and the Cayman Islands. Others are just examples of Romney playing by the current, immoral rules of the game, such as his availing himself of the “carried interest” loophole that allows him, like hedge fund managers, to be paid deferred salary from Bain Capital in the form of capital gains.

The real problem is not that Romney takes advantage of the current system, it’s that as president he would make it worse. Romney proposes cuts in social spendingto pay for lowering taxes on the wealthy.. “Romney pays a lower tax rate than most police and firefighters and he doesn’t want that to change,” notes DNC executive director Patrick Gaspard.

But it’s also important to keep Romney’s taxes in perspective: as Romney noted at Monday’s GOP debate, his main opponent, Newt Gingrich, proposes a wildly regressive tax scheme that is infinitely more beneficial to Romney. Gingrich would eliminate capital gains taxes altogether. As Romney pointed out, he would pay zero percent in taxes under that program.

Santorum Touts Birther Endorsement

On Friday night the Santorum campaign sent out a press release boasting that “OVER 30 NATIONAL CONSERVATIVE LEADERS ENDORSE SANTORUM.” Just who were these leaders? Some were utterly obscure figures who do not actually qualify as national conservative leaders. (For example, “Ken Campbell, California Conservative Leader” does not appear anywhere on the Google search results for “Ken Campbell.”)

A few were legitimate, if polarizing, national conservative leaders, such as Gary Bauer, Richard Viguerie and James Dobson. (All are more precisely described as social conservatives rather than just conservatives generally.)

But one name in particular stood out: Joseph Farah, editor and chief executive officer of WND.com and WND Books. If you don’t know about Farah, you should. He edits World Net Daily, an extremely nasty, conspiracy-minded cesspool of far-right fear-mongering. It may sound marginal, but it has a surprisingly large reach and readership.

What has made Farah more widely known outside the margins of the conservative movement is his relentless advocacy of “birtherism,” the racist lie that President Obama was not actually born in Hawaii.

Farah has been promoting bogus conspiracy theories about Democratic presidents since the Clinton administration. A 1996 Columbia Journalism Review article called “The Vincent Foster Factory” reported the role played by Farah, then head of the Western Journalism Center, in promoting suspicions surrounding the death of Clinton White House counsel Vince Foster.

As Terry Krepel of ConWebWatch.com reports, “Farah and WND have reported numerous claims regarding the birth certificate that have been proven false, but WND has made no effort to correct the record. WND has also told numerous falsehoods about Obama in general.”

Farah repeatedly demanded that Obama release his long-form birth certificate, pledging $15,000 to the hospital where Obama was born upon its release. When the White House released the document last year, he called it “fraudulent.”

It might seem strange that Rick Santorum—who eschews the kind of dishonest slander of Obama that Newt Gingrich engages in—would boast of being endorsed by such a person. Indeed, it seems strange that relatively mainstream conservative figures such as Gary Bauer would want to be associated with him.

I emailed the Santorum campaign asking for his stance on birtherism and got no reply.

But the reasons are not too hard to figure out. Conservatives and Republicans play this game—where they stay above the fray and wink at others who do their dirty work—all the time. From the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth's lies about John Kerry to birtherism, Republicans and conservatives, even seemingly responsible ones, rely upon people such as Joseph Farah to keep their base angry.

And if ever there were evidence that the media has no liberal bias, just look at how this issue has been ignored. Can you imagine the reaction if a Democratic candidate for president bragged of being endorsed by, say, Noam Chomsky, never mind an actual bigot and liar like Joseph Farah?

Cultural Populism Catapults Gingrich to South Carolina Victory


In a reversal of what was widely projected by polls just a week ago, Newt Gingrich won a solid victory over Mitt Romney -- 40 percent to 28 percent -- in South Carolina’s Republican primary on Saturday. 

How did he do it? In short, cultural populism. Gingrich won among voters in every income bracket below $200,000. Romney won the metropolitan counties surrounding Charleston and Columbia, while Gingrich carried the rest of the state. The class discrepancy was notable from Gingrich’s and Romney’s rallies. The former crowds included a few buzzcuts, camouflage and non-ironic moustaches. The latter’s were dominated by khaki pants and polo shirts.

Gingrich pursued this strategy along several different tracks:

Cultural reverse-snobbery. On Friday night Gingrich held his final campaign rally just outside Charleston on the USS Yorktown, an aircraft carrier that now serves as a military museum. Amid the retro warplanes Gingrich was introduced by Bud McFarlane, a former Naval officer who served in President Reagan’s National Security Council, and Major General James Livingston, a retired Congressional Medal of Honor winner. “Tomorrow we start taking our country back,” said Livingston, in a classic conservative formulation that lets the listener fill in which groups of foreign invaders they will take it back from.

Gingrich brought a troop of Boy Scouts onstage and joked, “This is probably not politically correct, but they’re practicing defeating the Japanese.” 

At his victory celebration in Columbia on Saturday night Gingrich repeated these themes of nationalism and cultural resentment. He invoked "people who feel that the elites in Washington and New York... do not represent them at all." 

"Tie them up!" Bellowed one man in the audience. Such violent rhetoric is increasingly common at Gingrich's events. A mention of the media during his speech the night before incited a woman in the crowd to shout, "Off with their heads!" 

On Saturday night Gingrich framed a general election contest between him and President Obama as "American exceptionalism versus the radicalism of Saul Alinsky." Only moments later he mentioned Alinsky again. "[Obama] draws his [ideas] from Saul Alinsky left wing radicals." That's two mentions of a community organizer who died forty years ago in a Republican presidential primary victory speech. Given that often the majority of Gingrich's audience probably knows little or nothing about the specifics of Alinsky's ideas, this is just a shorthand way of turning Obama into a 1960's radical through guilt by association. 

Gingrich went on to raise the issue of "growing anti-religious bigotry of our elites." He turns even the most technical issues into proxy battles of the culture war. Of the Obama administration's recent decisiont to reject construction of a proposed oil pipeline from Canada to Texas Gingrich claimed, "Obama is taking care of his extremist left wing environmentalist friends in San Francisco." San Francisco, of course, has nothing in particular to do with this. In fact, there were activists in states the pipeline would go through who effectively organized against it. But Gingrich doesn't care. He just wants to set himself up in opposition to whatever "San Francisco" conjures in the imagination of his base. 

Gingrich also plays to the fears old white people may harbor of a changing America. His proportionof the vote went straight up with the age of the electorate. He won 27 percent of voters under age 30, 37 percent of voters who are 30-44, 40 percent of voters 45-64, and 47 percent of voters 65 and older. That's who Gingrich is playing to when he says the election is a choice between whether we will "remain historical America," or become "a brand new European-style secular socialist state." 

Economic populism. Professional conservatives who actually believe in free market capitalism clucked their tongues at Gingrich’s attacks on Romney for having presided over some layoffs at Bain Capital. They even predicted it would backfire among Republican voters. But it didn’t. That’s because Republicans don’t actually favor free market capitalism or small government.

Gingrich's theme of making people work instead of living the easy life of getting by on food stamps and welfare appeals to Republicans because it is fundamentally a cultural appeal. It’s about attacking the values of some indolent pack of others, be they minorities, young people, immigrants, hippies or city-dwellers. That’s why middle-class and working-class whites—who do not benefit from Republican economic policies—vote for them.

The people who actually favor free market economics out of principle or self-interest—the rich and political professionals—mostly supported Romney in South Carolina. But they are relatively small in number. 

Gingrich knows this, which is why he stuck to his ideologically inconsistent criticism of Romney. And he pandered to the hypocrisy of the Republican base on economic policy. Gingrich constantly promised in campaign speeches and the debates that he would use federal money to build an Interstate highway connection from Myrtle Beach to I-95 and deepen the port in Charleston. Those might be good ideas, but it’s precisely the kind of buying votes with other people’s money that Republicans accuse Democrats of doing.

Religion. Gingrich won 42 percent of born again and evangelical Christians. The reason? His overt appeals to religiosity. A typical Gingrich stump speech in South Carolina was blatantly more religious than in New Hampshire a week earlier. Until South Carolina, Gingrich employed a brief line about the Declaration of the Independence saying the people "are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” with a slight verbal emphasis on “Creator.” Here, he drew it out into an explicitly theological and arguably anti-atheist digression. “Every one of us is sovereign because God has given us our rights,” said Gingrich on Friday night. “Barack Obama believes in Saul Alinsky and European socialism where the state is sovereign and you’re merely the subject.”

Later he went on a digression about Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address and the prominent role God plays in it. “I would ask our secular friends how you can you teach Lincoln’s second inaugural without God?” He demanded, attacking a straw man.

Gingrich also used religion as a shield against the late-breaking story that his second wife, Marianne, said he asked for an open marriage. Gingrich’s daughters defended him by saying he had since grown closer to God. Evangelicals love nothing so much as a story of a redeemed sinner. Just ask George W. Bush. Poor Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum have stayed faithful to their wives and have no such tale to tell.

Race. Have you ever heard of “the War between the States”? That’s the Civil War, but under a different title, more popular in the South, where it emphasizes states’ rights. And that’s also the name Gingrich used to refer to the Civil War Monday night. Do you think that’s what he’ll call it when he is back up North?

Gingrich’s winking approval of racial resentment was undoubtedly part of his appeal in South Carolina, albeit on a more subterranean level.

In Monday night’s debate Gingrich’s bombastic response to being asked by African-American moderator Juan Williams whether he understands why some might be offended by his assertion that black parents should demand jobs instead of food stamps for their children went over extremely well with South Carolina Republicans. It was a twofer for Gingrich: he got to condescend to blacks and journalists at once.

Gingrich’s debate performances were absolutely essential to his victory. In every speech Gingrich promises to challenge President Obama to seven debates in the general election, winning laughs for his stupid joke that he will let Obama use a teleprompter. Voters cited Gingrich’s “intellect” as making him electable, and Gingrich’s endorsers such as McFarlane would say they want Gingrich facing off against Obama in the debates. Among the most remarkable exit poll results was that Gingrich beat Romney 48 percent to 39 percent among voters who said electability was their top priority. Of course, Gingrich’s polarizing persona, embarrassing history of personal and professional immorality and unethical behavior and high negative ratings all make him less electable than Romney. But Gingrich managed to persuade voters of the laughable notion that he is so brilliant he will wipe the floor with Obama in debates.

The notion that Obama, who edited the Harvard Law Review and taught at the University of Chicago Law School, is not very smart himself is widespread on the right. Given how obviously false it is, it can only be explained as a combination of willfully ignorant partisanship and racism. On this front, as on so many others, Gingrich successfully capitalized on partisanship and bigotry.

Can Gingrich's Visceral Appeal Outweigh His History?

Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich listens to staff during visit to Children’s Hospital, Friday, January 20, 2012, in Charleston, South Carolina. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)


A visit to the Southern Republican Leadership Conference Friday morning provided a window into the central conundrum of Newt Gingrich’s campaign: how a candidate could be so appealing to voters that he keeps resurging, and so flawed in his history and campaign execution that he may blow every opportunity.

Talking to voters showed how Gingrich is weathering the storm created by the embarrassing revelation that he asked his second wife, Marianne Gingrich, for an “open marriage” so that he could continue to cheat on her.

Outside the college basketball arena where the conference is being held, a group of older women who drove up more than five hours on Wednesday from Longwood, Florida, to canvass for Gingrich were waving signs for passing cars. They are happy to give Gingrich a pass on his infidelity. “I’ve read about how he changed his life and I believe him,” says Jane Yeacle. “He’s a lot more mature now. That was a long time ago.” The events in question were in 1999 when Gingrich was 56 years old. It was after his heroic exploits to which he devotes most of his stump speech: Republican electoral triumphs in 1980 and 1994 and the tax cuts of the 1980s and 1990s.

At the debate on CNN Thursday night Gingrich bellowed at moderator John King for asking about his ex-wife’s allegations. “I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office,” said Gingrich. Luckily Gingrich is not a decent person, so he’s still running for president.

The debate audience ate it up. Speaking at the SLRC this morning, conservative blogger Erick Golub summarized the sentiment with his opening joke: “I apologize for my voice. I went to the debate last night and the minute John King spoke he made me sick.”

The problem for Gingrich is that he has staked much of his career on arguing for the importance of family values and traditional marriage. After the debate his spokesman, R.C. Hammond, and his surrogate, J.C. Watts, clarified that the Gingrich campaign does not claim his marital history is off-limits, only that King should not have opened the debate by asking about it. Whether you think King should have waited an hour to ask his question or not, it hardly seems significant enough to justify the anger Gingrich displayed.

But to Gingrich’s fans his anger is a feature, not a bug. Just as conservatives adore New Jersey Governor Chris Christie for verbally bullying liberal inquisitors, Gingrich’s fulmination against liberals, “elites” and lazy poor people is what they like about him. Throughout the primary process Gingrich’s attacks on the media for asking what he considers to be the wrong question has played well with conservative audiences. It’s related to his racial dog whistles. Both are ways of signaling to angry, old white people that he shares their feelings of aggravation at cultural foreigners, be they minorities or journalists.

And like the racial politics, it’s especially helpful to him in South Carolina, where the Republican electorate is fueled more by cultural resentment than it is in Iowa or New Hampshire. That’s why Michael Tomasky writes of Gingrich’s South Carolina surge, “It has turned politics completely away from the question of who might govern the country well to who can best embody our hatreds and revenge fantasies.”

The archetypal Gingrich supporter might be Doris B., an octogenarian SLRC attendee from Jackson, Mississippi, who refused to tell me her full last name. She asked me if I’m proud of my president, and when I said, “Sure,” she joked, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were a mental retard.” Doris so strongly opposes Obama because “he has created more racial problems. I’ve never had racist feelings until him.” Doris complains that Obama is “imperious” and adds, “I don’t like his work ethic.” Her friend Genie, also a Gingrich supporter, complains that Obama wants to “support additional babies out of wedlock.” Marriage is a big issue for Genie. When I asked why Gingrich twice leaving a wife for a new one isn’t a problem she noted, “At least he married them. A lot of [politicians] just shack up.”

But the debate also exposed some of Gingrich’s weaknesses. Rick Santorum was relentless in calling out Gingrich for being a cynical operator rather than a committed conservative, especially on social issues, during his tenure in Congress. He also scored points by emphasizing that Gingrich supported the TARP bailouts and an individual mandate to buy health insurance. At times it seemed as if Santorum felt personally betrayed by Gingrich.

He’s not the only one. In the spin room afterward, former New Hampshire Governor John Sununu recalled how Gingrich lied to President George H.W. Bush about supporting his tax deal in 1990. (Sununu was serving Bush as White House Chief of Staff at the time.) Indeed, Gingrich is despised for his dishonesty and selfishness by much of the Republican establishment. That’s why so many of Gingrich’s former colleagues in Congress are publicly supporting Mitt Romney and criticizing Gingrich’s record.

Gingrich clearly believes that Santorum’s voters would largely be his if Santorum dropped out. That’s why he constantly points out that he and Santorum combined have more supporters than Romney. But when you ask Santorum voters why they support him, they often cite the fact that they know what he truly believes. If Santorum does drop out, many of his supporters might see Gingrich as a less electable version of Romney.

While your average Southern Republican activist might not be swayed by Gingrich’s personal history, some religious social conservatives may be. “It reinforces the concerns some people already have [about Gingrich],” says Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.

The question for Gingrich is whether demonization of his enemies can boost him over these hurdles. Just as conservatives reflexively dismissed and slandered the women who accused Herman Cain of sexual harassment and adultery, some are impugning Marianne Gingrich’s character and motivation for coming forward. “Marianne should go back in her coffin before she turns to dust,” said Roy Luke, a Republican activist from Georgia who is leaning toward Gingrich.

Aside from Gingrich’s past personal and political baggage, the other big limiting factor on Gingrich’s ability to defeat Romney is the poor campaign he has run. In June most of his staff quit out of frustration with Gingrich’s stubbornness and the campaign’s resulting dysfunction. Since Gingrich’s first surge in December, the media have largely bought the line that getting rid of professional consultants and letting Newt be Newt has solved that problem.

But on the ground his campaign is a mess. His advance team is an incompetent disaster. In New Hampshire I went to a Gingrich town hall at an American Legion Hall. No one was there, and the door was locked. Eventually, I found a sign written in pencil and taped to a side window saying the Gingrich event “up and moved” to another location. On Wednesday, Gingrich didn’t show up for a press conference at the State Capitol in Columbia. His press team didn’t send notice of the cancellation until twenty-two minutes after the event was scheduled to begin.

On Friday morning his campaign’s amateurism was on full display. Gingrich was supposed to address the SLRC at 9 am in a sizeable arena. At 9:15 there were more journalists, around twenty, than there were audience members in the seats. Instead of Gingrich enduring the embarrassing spectacle of speaking to a nearly empty room, someone announced that a “scheduling conflict” prevented Gingrich from attending.

How did the Gingrich campaign fail to fill the room? A halfway capable presidential campaign can easily get a hundred supporters to an event in a major city by targeting their supporters in the area or organizing busloads of College Republicans. Ron Paul spoke an hour after Gingrich was supposed to, and the crowd size quadrupled with Paul supporters who came to see him and then left. If Gingrich can’t do that, how can he turn out his supporters on Saturday?

Perhaps he won’t have to. He is clearly connecting with voters, when he bothers to keep his engagements to speak to them. Jenny Beth Martin, a national Tea Party coordinator, says, “The South Carolina Tea Party people like Newt a lot.”

A better opponent than Mitt Romney would still beat Gingrich, because of all his aforementioned disadvantages. But if Mitt Romney were a better candidate, this whole campaign would be a foregone conclusion.

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