The 2012 election, Republican politics and conservative media.
Concord, NH—Watching Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum on the campaign trail, one gets the eerie sense that they may be sharing a speechwriter. Their respective messages are virtually identical. The former House Speaker and the former senator from Pennsylvania offer the same rationale for the candidacies: that Ronald Reagan proved in 1980 that being a stauncher conservative is actually an electoral asset rather than liability. Both Gingrich and Santorum say the election will require a “bold” “contrast” with President Obama. Therefore, they argue, a “Massachusetts moderate”—you know who that is—will be a weaker candidate in the general election than a “Reagan conservative.” The polling data on match-ups against Obama do not bear this out. Rather they show Romney nearly tied with Obama, while Gingrich and Santorum easily lose to the president.
Nonetheless, both Gingrich and Santorum adore the analogy to 1980. They beat the comparison to death. Santorum invokes the Democratic incumbent presiding over a weak economy and a “feckless” approach to Iran. Gingrich jokes that he’ll steal Reagan’s lines and just substitute Obama’s name for Jimmy Carter’s.
One notable difference in their styles is that Gingrich attempts to take credit for virtually everything that happened during his tenure in Congress. In the early 1980s, according to Gingrich, the economy grew rapidly because of Reagan’s policies as president, with a helpful assist from Gingrich in the House of Representatives. The stock market crash of 1987, during Reagan’s tenure, and the ensuing recession during George H.W. Bush’s term—Gingrich was in the House minority leadership during this era—get no mention. Gingrich simply fast-forwards to the economic expansion and balanced budgets of the Clinton years. Gingrich, of course, claims credit for this as well. So when there’s a Republican president and a Democratic Speaker of the House (Tip O’Neil), the president gets the credit for the economy. When there’s a Republican House speaker and a Democratic president, the speaker gets the credit. At least Gingrich is consistent: he always credits Republicans. Unfortunately, he isn’t too honest. He tries to claim responsibility for balanced budgets that happened after he resigned.
The most preposterous line advanced by both Santorum and Gingrich is that their respective experiences in Congress during the 1990s demonstrate an ability to work across party lines. Santorum and Gingrich were, of course, intensely partisan figures prone to demonizing their opposition. Both left office despised by liberals and not terribly popular even within their own party.
The idea that they will be more electable, or govern in a more conciliatory manner, than Romney is absurd. But making absurd claims with a straight face is what Gingrich and Santorum have been doing for decades.
A sign marks the entrance to the Occupy New Hampshire Primary camp in Manchester, New Hampshire January 8, 2012. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton
Manchester, NH—New Hampshire is a small state, so its primary does not allocate many delegates to the Republican National Convention. The reason New Hampshire’s primary is so important is the momentum it creates for the winning candidate. And the reason it creates momentum is because the national media obsessively cover it in great detail. So, in some sense, the media coverage is itself the primary.
Ground zero for the media in New Hampshire right now is the Radisson hotel in downtown Manchester. Television news networks and major news organizations have set up makeshift studios and filing rooms—akin to the media pavilion outside a national party’s convention—in the Radisson’s lower levels and on its front lawn.
Directly across the street from the Radisson is a park, which has been turned into an encampment, with a circle of tents and an information shack, and a rotating cast of protesters on the sidewalk in front. This is the heart of Occupy New Hampshire, a protest movement inspired by its more famous progenitor on Wall Street.
Wisely situated for maximum media visibility—the protesters wave signs for passing cars and get a supportive honk every minute—the movement is organized much like the media entourage. At any given moment the vast majority of Occupy activists are not in the park but out at campaign events, peacefully but forcefully making their voices heard. According to organizers, there are roughly 600 people taking part in Occupy activities in New Hampshire right now. The core group is from within the state, but many have come in from all over New England.
During the question-and-answer session at Rick Santorum’s town hall meeting in Hollis on Saturday, Santorum was peppered with challenges to his extreme social conservatism. He was asked by his mostly young interrogators why he doesn’t respect the separation of church and state, why he opposes civil rights for gays and why he opposes abortion rights. To his credit, Santorum engaged respectfully and gave thorough answers. Towards the end the protesters briefly broke into a chant of “We are the 99 percent.”
At Mitt Romney’s rally in Exeter on Sunday night the protesters were not treated with such courtesy, nor did they represent themselves as effectively. During Romney’s speech they started chanting, “Mitt kills jobs!” Romney said he is confronted by these activists everywhere he goes, and encouraged the rest of the crowd to shout them down with shouts of “Mitt! Mitt!” They did. At this point there wasn’t much to be gained from interrupting Romney again. It seemed rude to the rest of the crowd who wanted to hear Romney, and served no purpose except to excite Romney’s usually passionless supporters. But when Romney started up again, the protesters began again too and they were shouted down again.
But the real fireworks came during New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s speech. (In an apparent admission that Romney does not inspire voters, the campaign inverted the usual format where an endorser introduces the candidate and had Romney speak first.) “Christie kills jobs!” shouted a few women in the crowd. Christie—who has become a conservative hero by belittling citizens who disagree with him—stopped speaking, and said “Is that right?” He took a few steps forward towards the crowd. After twice twisting his head in an exaggerated display of barely controlled anger, the gargantuan governor said, “Something might go down tonight, sweetheart, but it won’t be jobs.” The crowd roared in approval at Christie’s sexist, nonsensical rejoinder and physically menacing behavior. Christie then went on to claim credit for “creating” private sector jobs since he took office. The crowd cheered so loudly that you couldn’t hear Christie finish his sentence. The facts that Republicans are supposed to believe that businesses, not government, create private sector jobs, and that New Jersey’s job growth since Christie took office in 2010 is merely a microcosm of the national rebound from the Bush recession appeared not to concern anyone, least of all Christie himself.
Make no mistake, this sort of simple-mindedness and bullying is very popular with the Republican electorate. Christie drew considerably more applause than Romney. Afterwards, a high school student from Phillips Exeter Academy pointed to Christie and said, “VP?” Christie replied, “We’ll see.”
Leaving the Romney rally there was a sizable crowd of Occupy protesters playing music, handing out literature and bearing signs. The messages on their signs vary, from reducing the influence of money in politics to opposing the recently signed National Defense Authorization Act. It is undoubtedly true, though, that they are providing a counter-message to the relentless conservatism voters and reporters are repeatedly exposed to on the campaign trail.
Concord, NH—Gearing up for their January 21 primary in the notoriously anti-union state of South Carolina, Republican presidential candidates have recently begun demonizing organized labor. On the campaign trail in more liberal New Hampshire, which votes Tuesday, these same candidates often avoid any mention mention of the subject.
Last week when President Obama made some long overdue appointments to the National Labor Relations Board, the GOP outrage machine went into overdrive. Newt Gingrich immediately blasted out a statement saying, “The answer to an imperial president is a Congress which stands on its own rights. And the correct response to what the president just did would be for the Congress to zero out and refuse to fund the National Labor Relations Board.” The same day Mitt Romney released a commercial picturing him talking to a gaggle of white guys on a factory floor. “The National Labor Relations Board, now stacked with union stooges appointed by the president, says to a free enterprise like Boeing ‘you can’t build a factory in South Carolina because South Carolina is a ‘right to work’ state. That is simply un-American. It’s political payback of the worst kind.” This is a false representation of the NLRB’s decision in the Boeing case. The NLRB never said that Boeing can’t build factories in states with the anti-union laws called ‘right to work’ on their books. What it said was that Boeing cannot retaliate against unionized workers in another state exercising their right to bargain collectively by closing their plant and moving to one where the law favors management over unions.
Obama’s appointments are also being misrepresented. The Republican Senate minority was blocking Obama’s appointments to the NLRB, not because they were unqualified but simply to deny the NLRB a quorum. Without enough members, it could not do its job. This kind of obstructionist behavior is being replicated by Senate Republicans across hundreds of appointments, most notably for the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. In order to block recess appointments, which the president uses to keep the government running when necessary, Republicans have been pretending never to go on recess, when in fact they have been on vacation for weeks. So Obama finally appointed Richard Cordray to run the CFPB along with the NLRB positions because he had no other choice.
Meanwhile, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum’s opponents and fiscally conservative critics are attacking him for an obscure vote fifteen years ago. Santorum, who very occasionally deviated from Republican orthodoxy to support workers in the manufacturing sector, voted against the National Right to Work Act of 1995. That bill would have outlawed closed-shop union workplaces, as state-level right to work laws do. Ron Paul has been relentlessly attacking Santorum for that vote, and the Club for Growth is siding with Paul. (For a complete guide to the Republican attack on labor in its full context, read this excellent piece by my colleague John Nichols.)
Ironically, the best argument for unionism is now being made by a Republican candidate and his affiliated Super PAC, albeit unintentionally. Gingrich has been criticizing Romney for having laid off workers at the companies purchased by Bain Capital, Romney’s former private equity firm. Now Winning Our Future, a Super PAC that supports Gingrich produced a “documentary” that shows how Romney, a vastly wealthy man, caused suffering to further enrich himself. That, of course, is one the many things unions are set up to combat. The trailer for “When Mitt Romney Came to Town,” which you can view here, dubs him “more ruthless than Wall Street.” If Romney is the Republican nominee you’ll see a lot more videos like this one, but they’ll be coming from labor and pro-labor Democrats, not Republicans who want to zero out funding for enforcement of labor laws.
Nashua, NH—During the Republican presidential primary debates it has been evident that no two candidates despise each other more than Rick Santorum and Ron Paul. Frequently when Paul spoke you could see Santorum shaking his head and rolling his eyes with an expression that seemed simultaneously aggravated and bemused.
It makes sense that they wouldn’t like each other. Their platforms are diametrically opposed.
Paul is a small-government conservative in the tradition of Barry Goldwater. He despises federal power and foreign policy adventurism.
Santorum is not so much a conservative as an interventionist. He would have the government intervene between a woman and her doctor. He advocates military interventions abroad. And while he wants to cut taxes for the rich and social spending for the poor, he has readily tossed aside his fiscal conservatism in favor of partisan or interest group politics.
Now the Paul campaign is going after Santorum. Paul’s hard-hitting commercials about Newt Gingrich’s apostasies helped play a role in Gingrich’s demise. It probably irks Paul to see Gingrich being replaced by Santorum, who is only marginally better from a limited government perspective. So Paul has released a blistering one-minute ad on television in South Carolina. The spot explicitly describes Santorum as another Gingrich, hitting Santorum for voting for earmarks, raising the debt ceiling and fundraising from lobbyists.
On the campaign trail Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), Ron’s son who is speaking as his surrogate, goes after Santorum by implication. At the Hillsborough County Republican Committee Lincoln-Reagan dinner in Nashua, New Hampshire, on Friday, Santorum spoke shortly before Rand Paul. Santorum harkened back to 1980 when George H.W. Bush won the caucus in Iowa while Ronald Reagan won the New Hampshire primary.
“I’m told repeatedly by the press that New Hampshire is much more moderate [than Iowa], much more libertarian, much more concerned with fiscal issues,” said Santorum. “But they chose the broad contrast.” The implication is obvious: choose Santorum, the right-winger, to contrast more starkly with President Obama, rather than a more mainstream Republican such as Mitt Romney who currently leads the polls in New Hampshire. “Lead and be bold,” Santorum implored. (Although Santorum implied in those remarks that New Hampshire voters are more than just fiscal conservatives, the rest of his speech played to exactly that stereotype: he talked solely about fiscal issues, with no mention of social issues or foreign policy.)
Rand Paul echoed Santorum’s line about the desirability of the strongest possible contrast, but gave a very different definition of what that would mean. “That would be someone has never flip-flopped, never supported any part of Obamacare,” said Paul, in a clear dig at Romney and Gingrich, who in the past both advocated an individual mandate to buy health insurance and action to address climate change. But then Paul pivoted to a section that could only be aimed at Santorum. “The debt doubled our watch,” Paul noted, referring to the profligacy of George W. Bush and the Republicans in Congress. The only candidate who served in Congress during that era (other than Ron Paul) is Santorum. “Republicans passed Medicare Part D and No Child Left Behind, which doubled the size of the Department of Education,” Paul added. Santorum voted for both bills.
Then Paul proceeded to out-Reagan Santorum, remembering that his father was one of only four congressman to back Reagan in his 1976 primary bid to unseat President Gerald Ford. At the time Republicans such as Reagan wanted to abolish the Department of Education. Reagan abandoned that position when he was in the White House, but Ron Paul still supports it.
For as long as Santorum is in the race, the Paul campaign is likely to keep criticizing him. Ron Paul isn’t running to win the presidency, just as he isn’t in Congress to pass legislation. He seeks to reclaim the soul of American conservatism, and to him Santorum embodies its corruption.
It’s been a popular conceit on the left that Ron Paul is the GOP’s “peace candidate,” with a superior foreign policy to not only his GOP opponents but President Obama. But there’s actually a Republican presidential candidate with a more sensible foreign policy than Paul’s: former Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman.
Paul’s foreign policy has enormous flaws: namely a completely illiberal lack of interest in promoting democracy or human rights, opposition to all foreign aid and crazy conspiracy theories about the United Nations. Huntsman doesn’t harbor such batty ideas.
Huntsman, like Paul, does have intelligently restrained views about the proper role of the US military. Huntsman calls for withdrawal from Afghanistan, arguing that our role there should have been limited to defeating Al Qaeda, not “nation-building.” Huntsman proposes to reduce our excessive military spending. Perhaps even more importantly, he calls for reducing our imperial military footprint. Huntsman asks the right questions about the US military policy, such as why we need 50,000 troops in Germany to defend Western Europe from the Soviet Union. Huntsman offers a middle path between what he describes as the GOP split between “the isolationist wing of Ron Paul, the Cold War mentality of a Mitt Romney.”
This is part of the reason that the Boston Globe endorsed Huntsman on Friday, writing:
Serving as ambassador to China, the largest economic and military competitor to the United States, is a deeply meaningful credential. Notably, Huntsman’s nuanced foreign-policy vision of economic and strategic alliances stems from his time in Beijing. While other candidates point toward Cold War-style rejection and isolation of China, Huntsman promises deeper engagement. But he had the courage as ambassador to walk among protesters, drawing the ire of repressive Chinese authorities.
His wisdom on immigration also stands out. Though he reluctantly came to support a fence along the Mexican border, he avoids the demonization of illegal immigrants employed by Romney and some other candidates. And he smartly recognizes that border crackdowns aren’t the only immigration issues. He wants to expand visas for highly skilled, job-creating immigrants, a crucial step in preserving American technological dominance.
This hardly means that Huntsman is perfect from a liberal perspective. He fear-mongers about Iran, although not nearly as much as his main rivals. He endorses the foolish, expensive idea of a border fence with Mexico. When speaking on the campaign trail Huntsman says he wants to “make the economy our number one priority in foreign policy,” with counterterrorism coming in second. He has those priorities backwards. Human rights and humanitarian aid should also merit a mention. But his foreign policy platform shows responsible maturity. That’s more than can be said for any of his Republican opponents, including Paul.
On balance, Huntsman is not better on foreign policy than President Obama. That’s especially true now that Obama has just put forth a sensible plan to scale down the size of America’s military and reorient it around modern threats.
But if liberals—or even left-wing non-intervenionists—are looking to send the message to Obama that we should withdraw from Afghanistan and reduce military spending, there’s a better candidate articulating those views than Paul.
My colleague John Nichols is right to frame Rick Santorum’s appeal to working-class voters as primarily a question of electoral strategy rather than substance. And he’s also right to acknowledge that Santorum’s economics policies are mostly generic right-wing conservatism.
But Nichols still gives Santorum too much credit. Nichols writes, “Eschewing predictable ‘let-the-market-decide’ rhetoric about free markets and free trade, Santorum has made proposals for the renewal of American manufacturing an important part of his Iowa agenda.” The problem is a category error. Nichols praises Santorum for departing from GOP orthodoxy a handful of times to vote against free trade agreements. But that is of a piece with Santorum’s false premise about the struggles of working-class Americans, whicih Nichols fails to confront. Santorum’s votes against free trade agreements, like his current proposal to remove corporate income taxes on companies that bring manufacturing jobs back to the United States, rests on the conservative assumption that the only thing government should do for regular Americans is try to boost their employment prospects.
The truth is that overall employment, as well as employment in any given sector, will be determined largely by global macroeconomic forces that are largely beyond the control of the federal government. Automation, for example, means that over the past decade US manufacturing output has remained constant while manufacturing employment has declined by one-third. There’s no government policy that can reverse that trend, nor should there be. Passing or rejecting a specific free trade bill or tax break can only affect manufacturing sector employment at the margins. Nichols praises Santorum for voting for tariffs on foreign steel. Santorum represented the steel-state of Pennsylvania. This is just like Santorum’s penchant for earmarks: politicking to win re-election, and an unprincipled diversion from his general conservatism. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2008 “iron and steel mills and ferroalloy production employed 98,900 workers.” Tweaking those numbers through selectively imposing tariffs does not equal a working-class agenda. And steel is not immune to factors other than foreign competition that will reduce its employment. The same BLS report from 2009 noted, “Employment is expected to continue to decline due to consolidation and further automation of the steelmaking process.”
If you look at a graph of US manufacturing employment over time, you see that it never went much above 19 million jobs. That’s far from a majority of American workers. Right now we’re down around 12 million. Santorum’s efforts to tweak manufacturing employment might be praiseworthy, but they won’t affect the vast majority of Americans in need.
There is much more that the federal government can and should do to aid all Americans in areas where the free market fails them: providing health insurance, good free education, high-quality public transportation, civil rights protection and a clean environment. In the past Santorum showed some interest in a few of these issues: he voted for No Child Left Behind and advocated bringing low-income city residents to jobs in the suburbs. In his campaign’s current incarnation he has tossed all of that aside to appeal to the post–Tea Party Republican electorate. Santorum says NCLB was a mistake, and on issues like transportation he simply says nothing. On other important programs for the poor, working class and middle class—from Social Security to Medicare and Medicaid to food stamps—he proposes the same terrible ideas as Mitt Romney: slash spending, block grant to the states and privatize. Santorum’s working-class posture is a gimmick, and liberals shouldn’t fall for it.
Political reporters and pundits—especially conservatives—often fail to appreciate the distinction between political strategy and substantive policy. That’s why so many conservative media outlets falsely asserted that President Obama was planning to “abandon the working class” when they got wind of a Center for American Progress report laying out how Obama could win re-election without winning the white working class vote.
Now Rick Santorum is talking about economic opportunity and the importance of manufacturing jobs, so mainstream reporters and conservative commentators have dubbed him a candidate for the working class. Here’s the Washington Post:
In a speech capping off his near-win in the Iowa caucuses Tuesday night, he made plain he wants to introduce another side to New Hampshire voters: Rick Santorum, economic populist.
He insisted that conservatives must make clear they care about the problems of the working-class and not just cut taxes….
He can do it, he said, with a tax plan that eliminates the corporate income tax for manufacturers, in an effort to lure factories back from overseas.
The article describes Santorum’s political strategy to win over working class voters without raising the key question: does Santorum actually propose to do anything that would benefit the working class? No, of course he doesn’t. Santorum’s agenda is an extremely right wing collection of conservative hobbyhorses. Look at Matthew Yglesias’ breakdown Santorum’s 12-point tax plan: They’re a bunch of typical Republican proposals that have no particular relevance for the working poor. His proposals include the usual Republican tax cuts for the rich to incentivize investment and for families to incentivize procreation. There’s no mention of even using tax cuts—such as the Earned Income Tax Credit—to lift working people out of poverty.
The Post treats a plan to eliminate corporate taxes as a credible plan to heal the economic wounds of working class people without even bothering to ask, much less assess, he would actually impact the average working American. For the vast majority of Americans who no longer work in manufacturing, his plan is quite a bank shot. Santorum’s idea springs from a fundamentally outdated notion of the American economy: that men can work in heavy industry while their wives stay home and raise the kids. That socially traditionalist image is appealing to Santorum, but it’s no longer the world we live in. And it fails to take account of technological changes that have made manufacturing less labor intensive. We are losing manufacturing jobs to more than other countries: automation means that we can produce more goods with fewer workers. By taking Santorum’s strange proposal at face value the Post treats a rather implausible claim as presumptively credible.
Meanwhile, the New York Times‘s duo conservative op-ed columnists Ross Douthat and David Brooks heap praise on Santorum’s supposed concern for the working class. “The former Pennsylvania senator’s emphasis on social mobility, family breakdown and blue-collar struggles spoke more directly to the challenges facing working Americans than any 9-9-9 fantasy or flat-tax gambit,” writes Douthat, who apparently hasn’t actually bothered to look at Santorum’s tax plan.
Brooks devoted an entire column on Tuesday to praising Santorum for speaking for the interests of the Republicans’ largest constituency, the white working class. “The Republicans harvest their votes but have done a poor job responding to their needs…. Enter Rick Santorum…. His economic arguments are couched as values arguments: If you want to enhance long-term competitiveness, you need to strengthen families. If companies want productive workers, they need to be embedded in wholesome communities.” That’s all very sweet, but it’s just empty rhetoric. Brooks fails to identify a single concrete proposal Santorum makes that would do anything tangible for the working class. That’s because Santorum doesn’t have any. So Brooks starts by acknowledging that Republicans cater to that demographic rhetorically but not substantively, and then swoons over Santorum for doing exactly that.
Conservative columnists and reporters like to listen to rhetoric and talk in generalities because it’s easier than actually examining proposals. But it doesn’t take a master’s degree in public policy to see that Santorum’s tax plans are regressive.
For most of the economic challenges facing working Americans, Santorum’s policies are simply generic Republican corporatism. Take health insurance: Santorum would repeal “Obamacare” and do virtually nothing to insure the uninsured or contain costs. He merely offers the same proposals Republicans trot out every four years to please corporate contributors and sound like they have a plan. His scheme—tort reform to reduce the cost of malpractice insurance, allowing insurance across state lines and health savings accounts—would do little to address the problem for people with prior conditions or high health care costs.
When it comes to the other challenges to upward mobility, or even just getting by, that blue collar workers face, Santorum offers nothing, or worse. Say you’re worried about the cost of sending your kids to college: Santorum has literally no policy prescription to address that problem. But his overall promise to cut domestic social spending would presumably mean even less federal help for college tuition. It would also mean less federal help with basic necessities for people who lose their jobs, such as Medicaid and food stamps.
The totality of Santorum’s domestic policy agenda is to cut spending. This shouldn’t even pass for conservative economic populism. I’m willing to concede that one can demonstrate concern for the poor not just by spending more but by proposing to reorient programs to make them more effective or to make their goals empowerment rather than dependency. But Santorum doesn’t have any such ideas; he just wants to steal from the poor to give to the rich. Specifically, he proposes to, “Freeze spending levels for social programs for 5 years such as Medicaid, Housing, Education, Job Training, and Food Stamps, time limit restrictions, and block grant to the States like in Welfare Reform.” Santorum also proposes to cut funding for the National Labor Relations Board as a punitive measure for making a decision he dislikes.
The especially sad irony is that these sorts of spending cuts will save a small amount of money compared to, say, the amount we’ve blown on the Iraq invasion that Santorum supported. The real savings will come from his plan to cut Social Security benefits, raise the retirement age and means-test it, as well as adopting Paul Ryan’s plan to privatize Medicare.
How can Douthat and Santorum claim with a straight face that this constitutes some sort of plan to help the working class? How can news reporters write that Santorum seeks to be the working class candidate without noting that his policies would snatch the social safety net out from under them?
Rick Santorum has nothing to offer the working class except his ideological contention that tax cuts will magically create jobs that pay you enough to meet your needs. If that’s what passes for a working-class candidate in today’s GOP, I’d like to see their idea of an economic royalist.
Conventional wisdom holds that former Senator Rick Santorum, co-winner of the Iowa caucus, is indisputably conservative enough for the Republican base. “Santorum fits the mold of a tried-and-true conservative who has rarely compromised,” writes Aaron Blake of the Washington Post.
In fact, Santorum is a throwback to the Bush era: a big-spending, big-government conservative. He has had the good fortune to have lost re-election in 2006 and not been around to vote in favor of TARP, but time and again he voted for costly schemes that expanded the national debt. Many of the attacks that damaged Newt Gingrich could have been made against Santorum if he had been polling well enough to invite them.
Santorum voted for Medicare Part D, No Child Left Behind and the Iraq War. This is no way to shrink the government or balance the budget, especially when you simultaneously propose to cut taxes and increase defense spending.
Santorum’s own nephew put it best in his endorsement of Ron Paul. “If you want another big-government politician who supports the status quo to run our country, you should vote for my uncle, Rick Santorum.... My uncle’s interventionist policies, both domestic and foreign, stem from his irrational fear of freedom not working,” wrote John Garver, a college student. “When Republicans were spending so much money under President Bush, my uncle was right there along with them as a senator. The reason we have so much debt is not only because of Democrats, but also because of big-spending Republicans like my Uncle Rick.”
So if conservatives and Republicans were really moved to protest big government during the Bush years, then Santorum might have a problem. Luckily for Santorum, most conservatives only oppose deficit spending when it’s done by Democrats. As David Weigel reports for Slate from Iowa, “Tea Partiers did not demand much economic libertarianism from their GOP. Sixty-four percent of caucus-goers called themselves ‘Tea Party supporters,’ and 30 percent of them backed Rick Santorum—a social conservative who proudly defended his earmarks.”
Indeed, when Santorum started to rise in the polls last week Rick Perry hit him with an ad attacking his penchant for pork-barrel spending. It didn’t pierce Santorum’s bubble. Nor did Rand Paul’s dubbing Santorum a big government conservative on the campaign trail in Iowa.
Actual Tea Party activists and conservative opinion writers are aware of these contradictions. Jane Aitken, the founder of the New Hampshire Tea Party, endorsed Ron Paul on Tuesday. Aitken tells The Nation that Santorum’s big spending tendencies and his belligerent foreign policy concern her. “I don't like Santorum's record that much.... He's way too hawkish. We need to be vigilant over countries like Iran, but we must not appear to be the aggressors ever.”
James Poulos of the conservative Daily Caller writes, “The Bush years proved beyond question how difficult it is to cabin off ‘good’ interventions in the minute details of our moral lives from ‘bad’ interventions in our finances, our health care, our education, and other similarly sweeping areas.” David Boaz of the libertarian Cato Institute complains that in 2006 Santorum campaigned on earmarks he delivered for Pennsylvania and articulated a big government ideology. “[Santorum] declared himself against individualism, against libertarianism, against ‘this whole idea of personal autonomy…this idea that people should be left alone.’ ”
But will critiques of Santorum from the well-informed activists and opinion-makers infiltrate the mass of Republican voters? Their reassessment of Jon Huntsman never caught on with rank-and-file conservatives. When it comes to average voters, the GOP may still be the unprincipled party of George W. Bush.
Mitt Romney won the Iowa caucuses Tuesday night. Technically, he tied for victory with Rick Santorum. But Romney is the one who comes out of Iowa in the lead for the nomination. He entered with a massive lead over Santorum in fundraising, organization and polling numbers in New Hampshire, which votes next. The most recent poll in New Hampshire, released Monday, shows Romney in first with 41 percent and Santorum in fifth with 3 percent. While Santorum held over 300 town hall meetings in Iowa, Romney largely avoided the state, skipping out as recently as Friday to campaign in New Hampshire. Romney roughly equaled his last performance in Iowa without investing nearly as much campaign resources into it.
By devoting far more time to New Hampshire than Iowa, Romney managed the expectations game perfectly. It was also assumed in this cycle that Iowa would go to a socially conservative anti-Romney. After going through every other option, Iowans settled on Santorum. The real test will come in South Carolina, which much more reliably picks the Republican nominee than Iowa. If Romney can build his momentum to win there after picking up New Hampshire, he is poised to turn the nomination battle into a swift coronation.
But before Romney takes the GOP mantle, here are ten questions he should answer about his often nonsensical and contradictory policy proposals.
• In a Friday op-ed in The State, you declared your intention to “rebuild our military with more ships, a modern air force, more troops and better care for our veterans.” Why exactly do you think we need more naval ships? What attack has there been on US soil or the US military that would have been prevented by more naval ships? Given that more ships and more troops will cost more money, and we already wildly outspend every other country’s military, and you say you want to balance the budget, why do you want to spend even more on the Department of Defense? Why did you suggest privatizing the health insurance for veterans, who currently enjoy the best care of any population in the US, and then reverse yourself?
• In the same op-ed, you wrote, “President Obama wants to change America from an opportunity society to an entitlement society, in which government takes from some to redistribute to others. His aim to create equality of outcomes rather than equality of opportunity.” What, exactly is your evidence for this claim? Has President Obama proposed to tax the wealthy so heavily that they will end up with the same after-tax income as the poor? Are you no longer able to live comfortably due to Obama’s economic policies?
• In a speech in Merrimack, New Hampshire, on Friday you said the United States “should have active efforts to aid [dissidents] in Iran,” and that President Obama “should have spoken out” in support of protests in Iran in 2009. Given that most Iran experts agree that such actions would make it easier for the Iranian government to paint the opposition as a foreign puppet, why do you say this? Wouldn’t it be counterproductive? Are you just indulging your own moral vanity instead of actually trying to bring about change in Iran? Why did you sneer at President Obama saying he doesn’t to get involved in other countries’ internal affairs? Do you think foreign governments should encourage anti-government protests in the United States?
• At the same event on Friday you were asked about creating national voter initiatives similar to state ballot initiatives. You said, “One state with a lot of voter initiatives is California. If there’s one state that’s in a big mess, that’s California.” That’s true, and you’re right that voter ballot initiatives are a bad idea for that reason. But the ballot initiative in California that rendered it ungovernable is Proposition 13, which made it impossible to raise property taxes when necessary. You support a Balanced Budget Amendment, which would tie the federal government’s hands. Isn’t that hypocritical of you? If you see the foolishness of preventing a legislature from responding to changing circumstances at the state level, why do you support such a measure at the federal level?
• You like to complain about businesses’ lacking certainty in the regulatory environment. You also say you would “put on hold every regulation President Obama has enacted.” How does this increase, rather than reduce, certainty? How would repeal of the Affordable Care Act and financial regulation, which you’ve also promised, increase certainty for businesses?
• You say that the ACA is an unconstitutional affront to American liberty, but you defend your healthcare reform in Massachusetts, which served as a model for it. You square these two claims by saying that you think each state should decide its own healthcare policy and that what is good for Massachusetts is not necessarily good for every other state. Why do you think health insurance policy should be set at the state level? What exactly is different about the problem from one state to the next? What other approaches than the individual mandate would you endorse at the state level? Why do you think a state such as Wyoming, which has only 563,626 residents, should set up its own policy to hold down costs and cover the uninsured? Why do you think such small populations are better equipped to handle this problem than the nation as a whole? Do you not think that 50 million uninsured Americans and spiraling healthcare costs create a national problem?
• At a November debate in South Carolina you said, “If we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon. If you elect me as president, Iran will not have a nuclear weapon.” How exactly do you know that Iran will acquire a nuclear weapon if Obama is re-elected? How exactly can you guarantee that Iran won’t get one if you are elected? How would you stop them? What would you do that President Obama isn’t already doing? If you are concerned about nuclear proliferation, what do you think of the new START treaty President Obama negotiated with Russia to reduce nuclear arsenals by one-third? Why didn’t you speak up in favor of it at the time? What do you think of the Senate Republicans’ initially holding it up?
• You claim that your business experience makes you the best candidate for reducing unemployment. If that’s so, why did Massachusetts have the forty-seventh best rate of job creation during your tenure as governor? What did you do to improve job growth in Massachusetts? Why did Massachusetts perform better at job growth under Democratic predecessors such as Michael Dukakis and your successor Deval Patrick? If you believe so strongly in the primacy of the free market, why do you suggest that a governor or president has much control over the unemployment rate at all?
• You say that you created more jobs in Massachusetts than Obama has as president. But that’s based on a false depiction of Obama’s job-creation record. As Paul Krugman shows, you are holding Obama accountable for jobs lost at the beginning of his term as a continuation of the financial crisis that began under George W. Bush. Once Obama’s policies took effect, unemployment began to decline. Do you think it is honest and fair to blame Obama for unemployment data from February 2009? Do you think you should be held accountable for economic conditions in your first month in office?
• At a rally on Monday in Iowa, you said, “I’ll clamp down on China that’s been cheating. They’ve been stealing our intellectual property, our designs, our patents, our know-how, our brands; they’ve been hacking into our computers. That has got to stop. I will stop it if I’m president of the United States.” How? The only tactic you’ve proposed is branding China a currency manipulator. How do you respond to former Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman’s concern that that could trigger a trade war? What other mechanisms could you use? How would you respond to the well-founded concern that you are just engaging in empty campaign demagoguery?
Liberals like to think that Texas Governor Rick Perry dropped from front-runner to afterthought in the Republican presidential race because he repeatedly exposed his ignorance and intellectual incompetence. It would be reassuring to think that Republican voters take governing seriously enough to care whether a candidate for president can formulate complete sentences and remember the basics of his own platform. But this is the party that elected George W. Bush.
The real watershed moment for Perry was when he deviated slightly from conservative orthodoxy on immigration. And here’s how we now know that the only thing Republicans really cared about was whether Perry is right wing enough: because he has recently continued to embarrass himself in dramatic fashion, and yet his poll numbers are holding steady in Iowa. In fact, he appears to be gathering momentum. As Michele Bachmann and Newt Gingrich plummet, it seems that Rick Santorum is the main beneficiary, but Perry could be as well. He is currently polling in fifth, just behind Gingrich, in Iowa and a blogger for Red State went so far as to flat-out predict that if Perry comes in third, he will be the Republican nominee. Perry has made plenty of mistakes in the last few weeks, but the one he hasn’t made is being insufficiently extreme. Indeed, he only keeps going further.
What’s especially galling about the empty right-wing ideology Perry spouts is his hypocrisy. Perry is running attack ads against Santorum for requesting earmarks when he was in the Senate, calling Santorum a “Congressional porker.” But the Texas state government has requested and obtained massive earmarks under Perry. The Austin-American Statesman reports, “In a July 2006 strategic plan, the Texas Office of State-Federal Relations bragged that it and the Texas Department of Transportation worked closely together to secure over $669 million in highway earmarks for the state, $78 million in bus and bus facility earmarks, and $505 million in New Starts transit earmarks in the five-year surface transportation bill.’ ”
Complaining about earmarks, which account for a small fraction of federal spending and are often actually quite worthy, is just typical Republican campaign rhetoric. More disturbing is Perry’s bizarre proposal to make Congress part-time. Perry released a campaign commercial quoting him touting his plan: “Cut their pay in half, cut their staff in half, send them home, make them get a job like everyone back home has.” So Perry thinks being an elected official isn’t a job. By that standard, Perry hasn’t held a job in decades. He’s been a full-time public servant since the 1980s, and he has hardly worked in any other field. He’s become quite wealthy through his political connections, though. He also is currently collecting a pension in addition to his salary from the state of Texas, and is charging the state for his security detail’s campaign traveling expenses.
The most pathetic demonstration of Perry’s utter lack of substance, principal or preparation came last week when he was asked about Lawrence v. Texas, the 2003 Supreme Court decision that declared anti-sodomy laws unconstitutional. “I wish I could tell you I know every Supreme Court case, I don’t,” Perry said when a voter in Cedar Rapids asked him about the case. “I’m not a lawyer, but here’s what I do know: I know they’re spending too much money in DC and $15 trillion worth of debt is on the back of that young man right there. And if we don’t go in and cut the size of government, court cases aren’t going to make one tinker’s heck.” Perry proposes to institute judicial term limits to rein in a federal judiciary that he says has run amok. He “wrote” a book filled with strong views about the Constitution. He is a staunchly anti-gay social conservative. And the anti-sodomy law in Texas was overturned while he was governor. So for Perry to admit that he doesn’t even know the case in question, and to then go on to a completely irrelevant talking point about spending, demonstrates an ignorance, stupidity and total lack of seriousness that would embarrass Dan Quayle. And what did we hear from the conservative media that lambasted him for supporting college tuition assistance for law-abiding students brought here without documentation as children? Nothing. And from that we know just how serious conservatives are about governing.