The 2012 election, Republican politics and conservative media.
Rick Perry is a fairly parochial man: everything revolves around Texas. Nearly every issue that he is asked about on the campaign trail is answered with reference to the success he has demonstrated or lessons he has learned in Texas, from immigration to the economy. Even sympathetic conservative blogger Erick Erickson of Red State has sighed that Perry “needs to talk about America more than Texas.”
Instead, Perry has squared that circle by simply talking about America as if it were Texas. Take the economy: Perry seems to be, rather bizarrely, applying the approach he has used in his natural resource–rich state. His entire economic recovery plan seems to consist largely of increasing domestic energy production. Indeed, pillaging the environment is Perry’s answer to virtually anything. When asked at the October 11 debate on the economy in New Hampshire whether he could govern in a bipartisan manner, Perry offered this non sequitur: “One of the things that I laid out today I think is a pretty bold plan to put 1.2 million Americans working in the energy industry.… you need a president with…the intent to open up this treasure trove that America’s sitting on and getting America independent on the domestic energy side.”
Next Perry was asked what his economic plan would be. He replied, as if there no other major industries in the United States, “Well, clearly, opening up a lot of the areas of our domestic energy area; that’s the real key. You’ve got an administration that, by and large, has either by intimidation or over-regulation, put our energy industry and the rest of the economy in jeopardy.”
So on Tuesday night when Perry released his first television commercial, which debuts Wednesday in Iowa, can you guess what it was about? Perry pledges to create 2.5 million jobs, and his only plan as to how is to deregulate the energy industry. “I’ll start by opening American oil and gas fields. I’ll eliminate President Obama’s regulations that hurt other sources of domestic energy like coal and natural gas.” According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the oil and gas industries combined account for 179,900 jobs as of September, 2011. So Perry appears to be promising to increase by roughly 1,500 percent.
Why is Perry so obsessed with energy exploration as the solution to all the country’s problems? Perhaps it has something to do with his donor base. In the third quarter Perry raised the most money of any Republican candidate, an impressive $16.3 million in just forty-nine days. As he always has, Perry depended heavily on donations from executives in environmentally destructive industries such as oil, gas, chemicals and waste disposal. Perry’s top eight donor corporations include three energy companies: Murray Energy ($66,803) Clayton Williams Energy ($43,300) and Occidental Petroleum ($36,000). The corporate social responsibility group Action For Our Planet named named Occidental Petroleum the sixth-most-unethical company in the world in 2010. “The oil and gas corporation has been constantly involved in territory disputes with indigenous and local populations who accuse the company of infringing upon their land,” they wrote. “The company has in the past created uproar for drilling on claimed Indian territory in Northern Colombia and causing environmental destruction in Ecuador. In the latter case, the Ecuadorian government threw Occidental Petroleum out of the country.”
By contrast none of President Obama or Mitt Romney’s top eight donors are from the energy industry. By industry, oil and gas ranks as Perry’s third biggest contributor, below “miscellaneous business” and retired, while they appear nowhere in Obama or Romney’s top ten. Perry’s eleventh-biggest donor? Global Mine Service Inc.
Meanwhile Perry’s allied Super Pac, received $100,000, more than half their total receipts, from Harold Simmons, a Texas investor. Simmons has donated generously to Perry in the past—he is Perry’s all-time second-largest donor—in exchange for Perry’s support for Simmons’s business interests. Simmons made his mega-contribution to Perry’s Super Pac on June 27, ten days after Perry signed the legislation giving Simmons permission to import nuclear waste from thirty-eight states to a dump in Texas.
It comes as no surprise that Perry would employ the same strategy to raising money in a national campaign that he has in Texas. And it’s safe to assume that if elected Perry would continue to favor his polluting cronies over the public interest. What’s more remarkable is that Perry actually thinks this is a selling point for voters.
Update: After this item was posted the Perry campaign responded to an inquiry as to how Perry would create 2.5 million jobs from the energy industry. They clarified that although the ad itself does not discuss the other elements of Perry's economic agenda, they only project 1.2 million jobs to come from their energy policy. The remainder would come from other elements of Perry's proposed changes to the tax code.
The presidential campaign of Representative Michele Bachmann (R-MN) is struggling. She burst into the race with a strong performance in the June 13 debate, where she announced her candidacy. She quickly surged in polls, rising to second to Mitt Romney nationally and in a virtual tie with Romney in Iowa. But since Texas Governor Rick Perry joined the race in August, Bachmann has been on the wane. As Perry’s bubble has deflated, conservatives have flocked on Herman Cain instead of back to her. In more recent polls she has sunk to sixth, behind not only Romney, Perry and Cain, but even Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich. At the Values Voter Summit straw poll, a gathering of social conservatives who she will need to form her base in any winning coalition, she finished in a tie for fourth place with Perry, garnering only 8 percent.
Bachmann has been fighting to get attention, having gotten less airtime and applause in the last two debates and dealing with the perception that the Republican primary is a two person race between Perry and Mitt Romney. If it’s attention Bachmann wants, there are certainly plenty of questions worth asking her. And while she is unlikely to overtake Perry and Romney, it is hardly impossible. She also could be on the short list for vice-presidential nominees, especially if Romney wins the primaries and wants to enthuse the conservative base. So here are eight questions for Bachmann that debate moderators Tuesday night and other journalists with the opportunity to interview her should ask.
§ You’ve promised to lower the price of gasoline to $2 per gallon. How exactly will do you that? The United States has only 1.5 percent of the world’s proven oil reserves, but it consumes 22 percent of the world’s oil annually. It takes a new oil well several years to bring gasoline to the market. So how would increased drilling achieve your price target during your first term? Are you proposing to nationalize our gas resources and oil companies? If not, how do you force gas companies to give their gasoline to Americans at a lower price than the global equilibrium price between supply and demand?
§ You’ve proposed to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency. What about the laws it enforces? Are you proposing to repeal the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act? If not, how would you enforce them?
§ At the Fox News debate in September you promised to pass “the mother of all repeal laws” on federal education policy and to abolish the Department of Education. Is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act one of the federal education laws you would repeal? If so, would you do anything to ensure that children with disabilities are educated in public schools? If not, who would enforce the law?
§ At the Values Voter Summit you said, “There’s a few other [cabinet departments] that are also going to get their lights off.” Which departments are you talking about, and why would you close them? Don’t you think that if you ask people to vote for you for president, they should know precisely which cabinet agencies you would eliminate and who would perform their functions?
§ In the June 13 debate you said that states have the right to set their own gay marriage laws and that you wouldn’t intervene to prevent a state that wants to legalize gay marriage. But then you added that you support a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. Don’t these two positions blatantly contradict each other? How can you claim to support states’ rights while also proposing to prevent states from setting their own marriage policies?
§ You said in September, “I firmly believe the President of the United States has weakened us militarily and put us more at risk than any time.” How can you claim that, when President Obama has been far more successful at executing terrorists than President Bush was? How exactly do you propose to balance the budget without cutting defense spending or raising taxes? How can you claim to be a fiscal conservative when you think we should spend more than $700 billion per year on defense?
§ You recently wrote in an e-mail to your supporters “Government health mandates of any kind at the state or federal level are unconstitutional.” Where exactly in the Constitution do you find a prohibition on states’ mandating that individuals purchase health insurance? Do you think state requirements that you own car insurance are also unconstitutional? How exactly does this comport with your professed affinity for states’ rights and the Tenth Amendment? Clearly, you think the Massachusetts healthcare reform is unconstitutional. What other current state or federal laws do you find unconstitutional under the same reasoning? Do you agree with Rick Perry that Social Security is unconstitutional?
-You’ve said, “The Lord says be submissive. Wives, you are to be submissive to your husbands.” You said that you went into tax law because your husband told you to. So as president will you submit to your husband and follow his instructions in your career? What if he told you to invade Syria or Iran? Please note that saying “submission means respect” as you did at a debate is not an answer. Everyone should respect their spouse; the question is whether you still follow your husband’s instructions in making professional decisions, as you apparently did when you became an attorney for the IRS.
When the troubling news broke Thursday that the New York Police Department was planning to evict the Occupy Wall Street protest in Zuccotti Park, conservative pundits celebrated, just as they surely would if it were, say, a Tea Party protest being stopped on unclear legal grounds. Naturally, they tossed around assertions in total ignorance of the relevant facts. Take, for instance, Allahpundit of the widely read blog Hot Air. He writes, “Part of their problem is that they are, in fact, squatting on private property, and not even the mainstream left wants to set a new rule in which it’s okay for people to do that. (If they do, it’ll be used against them later, rest assured.) They’d be on firmer ground legally if they decamped to a public park.”
Actually, this is literally the opposite of the truth. As I explained for Good magazine yesterday, it is precisely because they were on a privately owned public space that Occupy Wall Street has been able to stay as long as they have. New York has an established body of law governing protest in public parks which requires permits and prevents long-term encampments. Violate the rules or fail to obtain the permits, and you could get arrested. I know conservatives idolize private property rights, so this might be hard for them to understand, but Zuccotti Park is not private property. It is privately owned public property, thanks to the 1968 agreement between US Steel, which got zoning variances in constructing its headquarters, now known as 1 Liberty Plaza and owned by Brookfield Office Properties. It is only because Zuccotti Park falls into a nebulous area that the NYPD maintained until Thursday that it did not have the authority to eject the protesters. On Friday morning Mayor Bloomberg granted Occupy Wall Street a reprieve, saying the decision to let them be came from Brookfield under political pressure.
It should come as no surprise that conservatives are misrepresenting Occupy Wall Street’s position on their right to be there, considering that conservatives have spent the last two weeks misrepresenting the substance of their views. National Review was quick on the draw, tossing up innumerable items on the subject last week. In more than one way they misrepresented the core contention of the protesters, as did other conservative writers. Instead of contending with the argument that financial deregulation, the influence of corporate money in politics and the flattening of our tax code have increased inequality, they change the subject. They point out, correctly but irrelevantly, that not all 99 percent of Americans whom the protesters reference share the protesters’ sartorial tastes. And they divert attention to the fact that the federal income tax code is somewhat progressive, while ignoring all the other taxes we do, and don’t, pay.
“They flatter themselves that, in contrast to the wealthiest 1 percent, they represent ‘the 99 percent.’ ” wrote Rich Lowry. “It might be true if the entire country consisted of stereotypically aging hippies and young kids who could have just left a Phish concert.” Jonah Goldberg concurred, “Their claims of representing the 99 percent are so preposterous, it’s sad and funny at the same time.”
This is deliberate obtuseness. Of course it’s true that the dreadlocked campers at Zuccotti Park do not represent the cultural values of 99 percent of Americans. But they do not clam to. They say they represent the economic interests of the 99 percent of Americans who have been left behind by growing inequality and plutocratic policies.
Erick Erickson of the Red State blog has launched a tumblr for the competing “53 percent” of Americans who pay federal income taxes. Erickson considers them to be the 53 percent who support the 47 percent who are freeloaders. “I am the 53 percent subsidizing you so you can hang out on Wall Street and complain,” declared Erickson in the opening post. Matt Labash, in The Weekly Standard’s derisory cover story, uses this same fact even more disingenuously. “You’re either part of ‘us,’ the ‘99 percent’ (as all the surrounding signage identifies us), or you’re part of ‘them’—the rapacious 1 percent, who are purportedly strangling our nation by holding roughly one-third of its wealth, even if they also pay 38 percent of all federal income taxes while the bottom 47 percent of the population pay nothing (a Revolution is no place for facts and figures).”
This particular fact has become a strange fixation on the right. I thought they hated taxes, but apparently they only hate taxes for rich people. In any case, their selectively chosen datum ignores a far more revealing fact, which is that that lower-income Americans still pay payroll taxes, state and local income, property and sales taxes. Many of those, such as sales and payroll taxes, are regressive. Capital gains, which are disproportionately reaped by the wealthy, are taxed at a lower rate than income. The various deductions that riddle our tax code and rob our Treasury, such as the home mortgage interest deduction, also benefit the wealthy more than the poor. As Jonathan Chait points out, if you look at total taxation you find that the richest 1 percent of the country pulls down 20 percent of the country’s income and pays 21 percent of its taxes. And as Brian Beutler notes in TPM the percentage of non-payers of income taxes was inflated in 2009 by the recession and is usually more like 37 percent.
The other main tack conservatives have taken is to mock and dismiss the protesters as ignoramuses and extremists. Glenn Beck’s program sent a comedic videographer named Ami Horowitz down to bait them into saying silly things or exposing their ignorance of how the stock market or federal tax code works. Horowitz claims that several of his interview subjects are incorrect when they claim that Wall Streeters pay less in taxes than everyone else because the income tax rate goes up as you earn more. Horowitz ignores the fact that financiers, in particular grossly overpaid hedge fund managers, are paid in the form of interest that is taxed at the lower capital gains rate.
Josh Barro writes in National Review that the protest leader who appeared on Canadian television lacked a concrete policy agenda. And he wasn’t very knowledgeable, referring as he did to the “Glass-Steingold tax, whatever that is.” He means, presumably Glass-Steagall, which is a regulatory measure, not a tax.
Barro is right to be unimpressed, but most of these conservatives are cherry-picking. When I went down to Zuccotti Park on Tuesday, the first person who caught my eye was a neatly dressed young man standing at the perimeter holding a sign calling for reinstatement of Glass-Steagall. Dan Miller, a neatly dressed college student from New Jersey, told me he has come to Zuccotti Park several times. He supports reinstating Glass-Steagall because, he said, “we need more careful regulation of the financial markets. We took away needed regulations.” I asked him what exactly Glass-Steagall would achieve in that vein. “It separated investment banks from savings banks and was supposed to prevent wild speculation and conflicts of interest,” he cogently explained. If conservatives want to offer a real counter-argument to that, they should come up with one. But asserting that the protesters are squatters, dirty hippies or ignoramuses is lazy and inaccurate.
When it comes to how to react to Occupy Wall Street national Republicans are mostly working from the same, slightly strange, playbook: attack the protesters in tones that are either haughtily dismissive or alarmist fear-mongering, and then retreat from it, attempting to co-opt their anger. It started with House majority leader Representative Eric Cantor (R-VA), who referred to the protesters in a speech last Friday to the Values Voter Summit as ““growing mobs” that are “pitting...Americans against Americans.” When asked on Tuesday about his statement, he declined to repeat it, saying: “People are upset, and they’re justifiably frustrated. They’re out of work.” He then tried, preposterously, to claim he was talking about Democrats in Washington when he had been clearly talking about activists in New York. “What I was attempting to say is that the actions and statements that elected leaders in this town condoning the pitting of Americans against Americans is not very helpful,” Cantor said.
The candidates have followed suit. As Think Progress reports, Rick Santorum called the protesters a “fringe group” on CNBC, but later said, “I understand the motivation behind the protests.” Mitt Romney, meanwhile, said last week that the protests are “dangerous,” but on Monday, he changed his tune, saying, “I worry about the 99 percent. I understand how those people feel.” (At least Romney, a retired multi-millionaire, admits he’s in the 1 percent, although he is almost certainly lying when he claims to know how the unemployed feel, notwithstanding jokes about how he too is unemployed.)
Romney went on to say at the Republican economic debate in Hanover, New Hampshire on Tuesday that the protests for economic justice actually demonstrate the need for tax cuts and justify his plutocratic economic agenda. “The reason for giving a tax break to middle income Americans is that middle income Americans have been the people who have been most hurt by the Obama economy,” explained Romney. “The reason that you're seeing protests, as you indicated, on Wall Street and across the country is, middle income Americans are having a hard time making ends meet.” Further tax cuts is the opposite of what the protesters are demanding.
Newt Gingrich said the protests are "the natural product of Obama's class warfare." But when asked about that at the debate he tried to characterize the protesters as justifiably angry middle-class Americans, just like the Tea Party. “Virtually every American has a reason to be angry,” said Gingrich. “I think the people who are protesting on Wall Street break into two groups. One is left-wing agitators who would be happy to show up next week on any other topic, and the other is sincere middle-class people who, frankly, are very close to the Tea Party people and actually care. And you can tell which group is which. The people who are decent, responsible citizens pick up after themselves. The people who are just out there as activists trash the place and walk off and are proud of having trashed it.”
Gingrich clearly has never been to the protests. I have, and I saw that the long-haired, tattooed and bearded protesters that Gingrich would put in his maligned second group had set up a recycling program. Of course it makes sense that environmentalists would clean up after themselves. But being accurate or making sense are not requirements to which Gingrich submits himself.
The one Republican candidate who seems to have the courage of his convictions and no desire to co-opt the protests is Herman Cain. Last week he called the protesters “un-American” on the campaign trail, after arrogantly chiding them, “if you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself.” At the debate on Tuesday Bloomberg’s Julianna Glover asked Cain whether that meant he was telling the 14 million unemployed Americans to blame themselves. Cain’s response was dishonest and nonsensical, but at least it didn’t try to harness false populism for his regressive tax proposals. “That response was directed at the people that are protesting on Wall Street, not that 14 million people who are out of work for no reason of their own other than this economy is not growing,” said Cain. Of course, going to a protest does not actually make you any more or less responsible for your employment situation. If the protesters are responsible for their unemployment, so are the unemployed people at home. Cain, like the other candidates, would like to have it both ways: convincing Americans that he understands their pain while opposing any effort to rectify it.
After the Washington Post revealed that Rick Perry’s family hunting property had a racist name, you would think the Perry campaign would be on its best behavior where racial politics are concerned. You’d be wrong.
On Friday Rick Perry’s wife, Anita, will visit Bob Jones University, the Christian college in Greenville, South Carolina, to have lunch with students and faculty. BJU has an unpleasant recent history regarding race. It did not admit any black students until 1971, and it did not admit unmarried black students until 1975. Fearing that it would lose its tax-exempt status due its racist policies, in 1975 BJU admitted unmarried black students. But it simultaneously adopted rules banning interracial dating.
The IRS revoked its tax-exempt status in 1976. The university filed suit, objecting that its racial policies were grounded in real religious conviction. Bob Jones won in federal district court, but lost on appeal. In 1982 the Reagan administration, shamefully pandering to racism, authorized the Treasury and Justice Departments to drop the case, but reversed itself under political pressure. The Supreme Court upheld the IRS’s ruling in an 8-1 decision. (Justice William Rehnquist, naturally, was the only dissenter.) The school chose to pay millions of dollars in taxes rather than change its rule.
Given BJU’s location in an early primary state, and its reputation as a bastion of conservatism, it has been a site for previous Republican presidential campaign pilgrimages. In 2000 George W. Bush spoke there. He did not mention the school’s racist policy, nor the fact that the first three school presidents had publicly expressed aggressive anti-Catholicism. In response to the negative media attention surrounding Bush’s speech, Bob Jones dropped the ban on interracial dating. John McCain tried to capitalize on Bush’s speech to drive a wedge between Bush and Catholic voters. BJU returned the favor when one of their professors, Richard Hand, started the infamous e-mail rumor that McCain had fathered illegitimate children.
Speaking at Bob Jones could also be considered an endorsement of anti-Mormonism. In 2000, then-president Bob Jones III referred, on the university’s webpage, to Mormons and Catholics as “cults which call themselves Christian.”
Of course, courting racial controversy can be a deliberate strategy for conservative Republicans. When Perry ran for Texas agriculture commissioner against Democrat Jim Hightower in 1990, he exploited Hightower’s endorsement of the Rev. Jesse Jackson in the 1988 presidential primary. Perry’s campaign, run by Karl Rove, made television commercials showing Hightower with Jackson. Lee Atwater, Rove’s friend and mentor from their days in the College Republicans, came from South Carolina. Atwater used divisive tactics in South Carolina such as commissioning push polls to remind voters that Democratic Congressional candidate, Max Heller, a Holocaust survivor, was “a Jew who did not believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.”
He also made the infamous Willie Horton ad, linking 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis to an African-American rapist who committed a crime while on a furlough from prison. More recently Perry has upset African-Americans in Texas by adopting the Civil War rhetoric of states rights and secession.
Anti-Mormonism is also a potentially promising avenue for Perry to pick up conservative votes. At the Values Voter Summit in Washington on Friday, prominent Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress gave Perry an introductory endorsement. Christians, according to Jeffress, should choose ““a genuine follower of Jesus Christ,” rather than a Mormon such as Mitt Romney. Jeffress later told reporters that he considers Mormonism “a cult.” Perry said he disagrees with that assessment, but many socially conservative Republicans agree with Jeffress. So perhaps Perry is winking at segregationists and anti-Mormon Christians by sending his wife to Bob Jones University.
The Perry campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
The Values Voter Summit is an annual confab of several thousand religious right activists in Washington, DC, sponsored by the Family Research Council. This year’s conference was the biggest in its history. Every major Republican candidate for president was invited to speak, and they all did, except for Jon Huntsman. Here are the three things I learned from attending.
Ron Paul ruins straw polls. When I walked into the Values Voter Summit on Saturday morning, the second day of the two-day conference, I encountered a long line of new arrivals registering, and another line for voting in the straw poll. “Great,” I thought, “I’ll interview them about who they’re voting for and why.” I immediately ascertained, though, that the line was composed almost entirely of Ron Paul supporters who had come merely to vote for him. They were decked out in Paul buttons, gladly paying $75 for the privilege of helping Paul win a meaningless poll. “If someone’s going to beat Obama,” I overheard one say to another, “it’s not going to be a social conservative.”
Since the straw poll balloting is secret, the FRC could not say with certainty how badly Paul’s machinations skewed the results. But they said over 600 people arrived Saturday, and some left right after Paul spoke. The official results are that Paul won 732 votes out of the 1,983. That gives him 37 percent. Herman Cain came in second with 23 percent, followed by 16 percent for Rick Santorum, 8 percent each for Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry and 4 percent for Mitt Romney. The fact that Bachmann, Perry and Romney all got fewer votes than Santorum and Cain might indicate some surprising trends among socially conservative activists. The fact that Paul made a mockery of the purpose of the straw poll does not. “[The results] show that Paul has a very good organization, but it’s not predictive,” says Ed Morrissey, an editor for the popular conservative website Hot Air.
Nonetheless, much of the media is reporting the results in a math-illiterate manner. NPR, for instance, while acknowledging the limits of any straw poll and pointing out that social conservatives skew especially against Romney, said that Romney and Perry’s low percentages indicate conservative dissatisfaction with the leading Republican contenders. The fact that Cain outperformed Perry and Romney does reflect that phenomenon. And as I pointed out on Friday, they may also turn to Santorum.
But no one should read too much into Perry and Romney’s percentages. If up to one-third of the voters were not typical attendees but Paul supporters who came just to affect the straw poll, that doesn’t only drive Paul’s percentage up, it drives everyone else’s down. If you subtract 600 of Paul’s votes from the overall number, you get 1,383 votes. Using that as your denominator, Cain would win with 32 percent of the vote, followed by Santorum with 23 percent, Perry with 12 percent, Bachmann with 11 percent (Perry got ten more votes than Bachmann) and Romney with 6 percent. Obviously, that shows weakness among social conservatives for Romney and surprising strength for Cain and Santorum, but it’s not as bad for Perry as most reports are making it out to be.
Herman Cain’s momentum is real. When Cain won the Florida Republican straw poll in a landslide I doubted that it meant anything. But, as polls attest, conservatives have been abandoning Rick Perry and Cain is enjoying his moment as the vessel for their hopes.
Cain’s address at the Values Voter Summit helps explain why. There was a palpable excitement in the crowd surrounding Cain’s entrance and his speech amplified it. While other candidates boast about their political achievements from years ago and list policy promises, Cain emphasizes big themes. Like the difference between Barack Obama, who inspired crowds, and Hillary Clinton, who bored them, in the 2008 Democratic Party, Cain is simply more exciting to on the stump than his opponents.
Cain is a radio host, and he knows how to entertain a crowd. He also hits a conservative sweet spot, much like Representative Allen West (R-FL): for a conservative black man, supporting him feels like an affirmation that one’s opposition to the interests of African-Americans isn’t racist. The thrust of Cain’s speech was that America is awesome, and his own rise from humble roots to fame and fortune illustrates this perfectly. “What’s interesting about Cain is that he has very little organization,” observers Morrissey. “He’s a very good orator and people respond to him.”
Michele Bachmann is getting desperate. Bachmann has become so associated with the Tea Party’s rhetoric of small government and fiscal conservatism that one can forget she arose to prominence as a strident religious social conservative. Bachmann, who briefly challenged Romney for front-runner status, has been sinking in the polls ever since Perry got in the race. Since Perry attacked right-wingers who think he is too soft on the children of illegal immigrants because he wants to let them attend college for the same tuition as their neighbors by saying they “don’t have a heart,” he has been losing support on his right flank. But those voters are flocking to Cain, not back to Bachmann.
So Bachmann needs to reach the sort of leaders in conservative communities who attend the Values Voter Summit. Her speech contained not only her usual bromides about the perfidy of “Obamacare,” financial reform, the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Education, but a larger than usual emphasis on her personal faith. “When I was 16 years of age, I chose to select a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and I stand with him,” said Bachmann. Her chief policy adviser, she claims, is God, saying, “I consult the Lord through prayer on almost every decision that I make.” Bachmann also went into greater depth on social issues, detailing her career of commitment to “life” and “traditional marriage.”
But what was really notable about Bachmann’s speech was her repeated insistence that Republicans will win no matter who they nominate for president, so they need not compromise their principles when picking a candidate. It’s an obvious swipe at Romney, who used to be moderate on a host of issues, and Perry who is a corporatist career politician. And she adds that she will work tirelessly to elect a Republican Senate so that their full agenda can be enacted.
Give Bachmann credit for reminding Republicans, which her opponents seldom do, that the president cannot govern by fiat. They all pledge to repeal Obama’s signature achievements, but they won’t be able to keep those promises if Republicans don’t win a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.
But a practical-minded Republican activist might think that even if Bachmann could eek out a victory against Obama, they will pick up more Senate and Congressional seats if they nominate a less polarizing candidate for president.
“Conservatives, we can have it all this year, because Barack Obama will be a one-term president,” said Bachmann. “Don’t listen to these people who every four years tell you we have to select a moderate from our party and we have to settle for the sake of winning. I am here to tell you, we are going to win, not—this year we don’t settle. We’re going to win the White House. So let’s finally have one of us in the White House.”
She then went on to take direct jabs at the front runners she was implying are not true conservatives. First Romney:“You won’t find YouTube clips of me speaking in support of Roe versus Wade. You won’t find me equivocating or hemming or hawing when I’m asked to define marriage as between one man and one woman.” And, aiming at Perry, she added, “And you won’t find me tagged as a crony capitalist, paying off big political donors with big political favors.”
As Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association pointed out to me, Cain has the advantage over Perry and Romney of not having held an executive elected office. Everyone makes compromises and mistakes in that position. That means Cain can run on ideology and criticize the other frontrunners’ records with impunity. Bachmann, as legislator with a short Congressional career in which she has emphasized purity over accomplishment, has the same advantage as Cain vis-à-vis Romney and Perry. She’s trying to use it. But if present trends continue, she’ll need to find a line of attack against Cain as well.
Mitt Romney came to the Values Voter Summit in Washington, DC, on Saturday morning hoping to mollify his critics on the religious right. He tried his best, offering more specifics on the ways he would attack abortion rights and gay rights than his opponents had. And yet the conference organizers seemed to have it in for him. They scheduled Bryan Fischer, the extremist firebrand radio host and spokesman for the American Family Association, to speak immediately after Romney.
Fischer delivered the first real fire and brimstone of the weekend and his speech was essentially a plea for the 3,000 social conservative activists in attendance to vote against Romney. The theme of his address was what a president needs to be, and the answer was, in essence, an ardent Christian fundamentalist, not a Mormon or a moderate.
I profiled Fischer for Newsweek back in January, and he had harsh words for Romney when I bumped into him on Friday. Fischer told me he doesn’t trust Romney on social issues. “Romney was pro-abortion as recently as 2005,” Fischer noted. “It seems like he switched to being prolife for political convenience.”
Fischer also blames Romney for the fact that Massachusetts became the first state to recognize gay marriages because it happened on Romney’s watch. It was required by a state Supreme Court ruling, but Fischer thinks Romney could have waited for the state legislature to act instead of ordering state officials to grant marriage licenses to gay couples in contravention of what remained state law on the books.
“We have gay marriage in the United States because of Mitt Romney,” Fischer said. “It was executive activism.”
So I asked Fischer what would happen if Romney, who currently leads in the polls and fundraising, wins the nomination. “Romney would be John McCain,” Fischer replied. “Social conservatives would be unenthusiastic and that would affect turnout and make it harder to defeat Obama.”
If that’s true, Romney had a quite a challenge in front of him today. (Fischer also told me that last year he saw Romney address this gathering and “he didn’t move the crowd an inch.”) The conference, hosted by the Family Research Council, has featured speeches from every major Republican presidential candidate. Many focused on economic and foreign policy, dealing with social issues only in passing.
That’s normally Romney’s approach as well. He has complained in interviews that he was forced to spend too much time discussing culture-war issues in the last election. At one debate this summer, when asked about “don’t ask, don’t tell” reinstatement, he responded with the cowardly diversion, “We should be talking about the economy.” Romney admitted that he does, in fact, oppose letting gays serve openly in the armed forces. But with his eye on New Hampshire’s social moderates and the general election, he generally focuses his pitch heavily on economics.
Romney was introduced by conservative legal activist Jay Sekulow, who is supporting him. While Sekulow hit the standard notes about supporting Israel and balancing the budget, he emphasized the fact that the next president could appoint Supreme Court justices who prove decisive in cases on divisive social issues. He mentioned partial birth abortion, but gave even more attention to the mention of God in the Pledge of Allegiance, a comically stupid obsession that has come up repeatedly at this conference.
As usual, Romney opened today with his typical talking points. Unemployment is too high, Obama squandered our triple-A bond rating, the stimulus cost too much money and a businessman like Romney is the one to turn the economy and budget deficit around. “I think to create jobs it helps to have had a job,” Romney quipped, to gales of audience laughter. Apparently conservatives think Obama’s experience teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago was not a job, despite their professed commitment to the Constitution and their adoration for Chicago professors like Milton Friedman.
Romney offered his most irritating trademark line that “I will never, ever, apologize for America.” The myth that President Obama “apologized for America” has become such a widespread notion on the right that Romney need not even bother asserting that Obama did so. He added, for good measure, “If you do not want America to be the strongest nation on Earth, I’m not your president. You have that president today.” That was Romney’s third laugh line, which makes him the second-funniest speaker of the weekend, after Herman Cain. You might say that’s damning him with faint praise, but the “values voters” aren’t known for their cutting-edge sense of humor.
Romney pivoted to social issues and gave them more attention than he normally does, or than some of his opponents did on the same stage yesterday. He segued by bragging—as almost every candidate speaking here has—about his marriage and fecundity (sixteen grandchildren!). “Marriage is more than a personally rewarding social custom,” said Romney. “It is also critical for the well-being of a civilization. That is why it’s so important to preserve traditional marriage—the joining together of one man and one woman. And that’s why I will appoint an attorney general who will defend the bipartisan law passed by Congress and signed by Bill Clinton—the Defense of Marriage Act.”
Romney went into detail on the ways that he would combat abortion: “I support the Hyde Amendment, which broadly bars the use of federal funds for abortions. As president, I will end federal funding for abortion advocates like Planned Parenthood. I will protect a healthcare worker’s right to follow their conscience in their work. And I will nominate judges who know the difference between personal opinion and the law. It is long past time for the Supreme Court to return the issue of abortion back to the states, by overturning Roe v. Wade.” Romney then riffed on the evils of China’s policies regarding reproduction and took a swipe at Vice President Joe Biden’s offhand remark that he understands their one-child policy. (This has become a fixation on the right.)
The audience cheered enthusiastically, including several standing ovations. But seeing the rebuke that would come from Fischer immediately after, Romney struck the first blow. “We should remember that decency and civility are values too,” said Romney. “One of the speakers to follow me today has crossed that line, I think. Poisonous language doesn’t advance our cause, it’s never softened a single heart or changed a single mind.” Fischer has previously uncivilly suggested that the First Amendment only applies to Christians, and that Mormons are non-Christians so its protections do not apply to them.
Fischer opened by noting that the president “needs to be a main of sincere, authentic, genuine Christian faith.” He then listed the beliefs a president must hold. Fischer has some high expectations. “We need a president who thinks Roe versus Wade was not just unconstitutional but profoundly immoral,” said Fischer. Adding, “We need a president who understands we must choose between homosexuality and liberty and will choose liberty every time.” Fischer said a president must “reject the morally and scientifically bankrupt theory of evolution.”
Finally, Fischer transitioned into an ugly anti-Muslim section by saying, “I believe it’s important that we have a president who understands that Islam is not a religion of peace but a religion of war and violence and death.”
Fischer was not the first speaker to imply that Romney is unacceptable. Michele Bachmann, speaking Friday night, assured the audience that “You won’t find YouTube clips of me speaking in support of Roe versus Wade. You won’t find me equivocating or hemming or hawing when I’m asked to define marriage as between one man and one woman.” Bachmann also repeatedly pleaded with the audience not “compromise” or “settle” for a “moderate.” While Bachmann stuck to Romney’s policy weaknesses, Baptist pastor Robert Jefress, who introduced Rick Perry yesterday, asked “Do we want a candidate who is a conservative out of convenience or one who is a conservative out of deep conviction? Do we want a candidate who is a good, moral person—or one who is a born-again follower of the lord Jesus Christ?” He later told reporters that Mormonism is a “cult.” The fundamentalism on display here may not be a cult, but it is every bit as pernicious and un-Christian.
Update: I asked Tony Perkins, the President of FRC, in a press conference Saturday afternoon why Fischer was scheduled to speak after Romney. He said it was a coincidence necessitated by the various speakers' schedules and there was no reason or ulterior motive.
It’s interesting that Rick Santorum has been such a failure as a Republican presidential candidate to date. Unlike all the candidates who outrank him in the polls and fundraising race, Santorum, a former member of the Senate leadership, has the experience and ironclad conservative credentials to make him both plausible to the party elite and credible with the rabid base.
His having lost his re-election bid in the major swing state of Pennsylvania by eighteen points might cause one to question his electability. On other hand, his winning percentage is better than Mitt Romney’s. Anyway, any party that just a few weeks ago was putting Michele Bachmann in the lead is obviously unconcerned with electability.
Santorum’s campaign may be lackluster, but the television networks’ inexhaustible enthusiasm for debates has been his salvation. While Bachmann demonstrates her inability to answer a question with anything other than (often irrelevant) talking points, and Perry and Romney trade barbs over each other’s past heresies, Santorum comes across as the sharpest person in the room. His aggressive defense of the discredited foreign policy views of the Dick Cheney wing of the GOP has won him a few fans like the Washington Post’s neoconservative blogger Jennifer Rubin.
But neoconservatism has always had more truly devoted adherents in Washington think tanks than among actual Republican primary voters. The biggest disadvantage Santorum faces is that his signature issues—bigotry towards gays and lesbians and opposition to abortion and its sinful cousins such as stem cell research—are on the wane. All anyone wants to talk about is the economy. And while Santorum is every bit as capable of reciting the same bromides about low taxes and spending as his opponents, he doesn’t have any special story to tell about his economic experience, like Rick Perry’s “Texas miracle” or Romney’s years in the private sector.
To break through Santorum would need a resurgence of energy around socially conservative concerns. So the Value Voters Summit—a conference hosted by the Family Research Council—was a good chance for Santorum speak to what he hopes will be his base. Every major Republican candidate will address the assembled socially conservative activists on Friday or Saturday. But this opportunity is more important for Santorum that it is for, say, Ron Paul.
Santorum seems to realize this. Arriving at the Omni Shoreham this morning two hours before Santorum’s address, the lobby was peopled with a handful of young Santorum campaign staffers and volunteers handing out literature. He was the only candidate so represented.
Unlike the morning’s speakers, who focused heavily on foreign policy, Santorum gave the crowd religious red meat. “I have never put social issues and values issues on the back burner,” Santorum declared, truthfully and to great applause. “I’ve been leading the charge.” He emphasized the reference to “their Creator” in the Declaration of Independence. “The founders understood that true happiness can only be found by dong God's will,” Santorum asserted.
Santorum started by bragging that he has fathered seven children, as if his virility were an essential qualification for the presidency. “Karen and I home school our children,” he later noted, to whoops and applause. In mid-speech he brought out his wife and several of his children.
“The president won’t defend [the Defense of Marriage Act], an abomination,” Santorum complains. He went on to falsely assert, as other speakers have today, that President Obama “instructed” military chaplains to perform same sex wedding ceremonies. (Obama has merely given them the option of doing so.) “He has instructed people in the military to break the law,” Santorum claimed. That’s a serious lie to tell about the president.
Santorum implicitly went after his opponents’ weaknesses. “We’ve seen with this president that experience matters,” he said. Later he asked, in what sounded like a jab at Romney, “Don’t you want a president who is comfortable in their shoes?”
But Santorum also unwisely reminded the audience that his best political days are behind him. He kept suggesting that we “go back to the late 1990s,” when he helped to pass the partial birth abortion ban.
He only discussed the topic that everyone says will decide the election—the economy—in passing. “Herman Cain has his nine-nine-nine plan,” said Santorum, referring to Cain’s regressive tax proposal. “I have a better plan, zero-zero-zero.” The audience laughed. But did they wonder how we would fund the government’s functions?
Santorum tried to link his obsessive focus on opposition to gay marriage with economic struggles by noting that single-parent households are much more likely to live in poverty than two-parent households. He gets the causality backwards, of course: poor people are more likely to have children out of wedlock in the first place. And he argues that combating the epidemic of single parenthood requires “defending traditional marriage,” which would mean fewer, not more married couples.
“We must fight in every state to make sure marriage remains between one man and one woman, and as president I will do that,” Satorum promised, to a standing ovation. “You’ve seen it in the debates, I get all the cultural questions.… you know what? Bring it on.”
Clearly the crowd was sympathetic to Santorum’s views. But one didn’t get the sense that they left the room for lunch having been converted into Santorum voters. Earlier, in the exhibition space exhibitors from the usual anti-gay and anti-Muslim groups, when asked who embraces their issues, mentioned Hermain Cain and Michele Bachmann before Santorum. Maybe at least he’s changed that, but it’s unlikely to be enough.
You might expect the Value Voters Summit, a convention of socially conservative activists hosted by the Family Research Council, to lead with talk of God, Jesus, family values or other code words like life and the unborn.
But you would be wrong. Everyone knows that economic and fiscal concerns have trumped social issues among Republicans in the current election cycle. But what was notable about the morning program at the event in Washington, DC, on Friday was the programming emphasis and crowd enthusiasm for aggressive militarism.
House majority leader Eric Cantor ran through all the Republican buzzwords of the moment: “Obamacare” and taxes are bad, small business and a “culture of entrepreneurialism and competition” are good. The audience barely stirred.
There was scattered hissing for the invocation of the perfidious possibility of “taxpayer money for abortion” and Planned Parenthood.
But what brought the crowd to its feet was foreign policy. Cantor received thundering applause for saying, “We always have and should stand behind Israel.”
Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Cantor warned, “threatens not only Israel but the United States as well.” So, Cantor went on, “This time we must lead from the front.” Big applause ensued, although what exactly Cantor proposes to do to Iran and how exactly it would be more effective than the Obama administration’s Iran policy was completely unstated.
Cantor went on to invoke Christians whose rights are threatened in the Middle East and concluded to thunderous applause that we must “stand up to militant Islam.” Defending the rights of Christian minorities and standing up to a fascist ideology are good things. But Cantor offered no explanation of how his policies would do so differently or more successfully than President Obama’s. (If what Cantor wants is to kill Al Qaeda’s leaders, then Obama has been doing it, although Cantor churlishly neglected to give Obama his due for that.)
But successfully fighting our enemies isn’t actually what the Republican or conservative foreign policy is about. Rather than, it consists of shoveling more taxpayer money to the Defense Department and military contractors.
Immediately following Cantor’s speech, FRC Action’s president, Tony Perkins, moderated a panel with Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL), the ranking Republican on the Budget Committee, and Lt. Gen. Benjamin Mixon. All inveighed against the gays serving openly in the military and the specter of military chaplains voluntarily performing civil union or same-sex marriage ceremonies. But they devoted just as much time to asserting that our national defense is threatened by potential budget cuts.
Sessions admitted that the Department of Defense baseline funding has risen by 3 percent annually since 2008. That, it should be noted, does not include the cost of Obama’s escalation in Afghanistan, nor national security operations carried out by other departments. But, he complained, spending on food stamps and public schools has gone up more. The facts that more people qualify for food stamps during a recession, and that state and local governments require more federal funding for schools when their tax receipts dip just to avoid painful cuts to education spending, is apparently lost on this budget expert.
According to Sessions, a self-described cheapskate, claims about our runaway defense spending are incorrect. He proves this by misleadingly citing our defense spending as a proportion of the total economy rather than comparing it to inflation or the rest of the budget, or any other country’s defense spending. We are supposed to be getting richer but not less secure. Especially since the end of the cold war, it stands to reason that the proportion of gross domestic product we spend on defense should decrease.
Perkins guessed, correctly that Sessions would agree with the assertion that the cuts to national security spending “Doesn’t go in with a scalpel, it goes in with a hatchet to military expenditures.” Perkins incorrectly labeled the spending cuts as “military” when it would not, in fact, need to all come from the Pentagon.
“We will have to reduce the capabilities of executing defense responsibilities if the cuts were to go into effect,” warned Sessions. What responsibilities are those? Sessions did not mention that we have 500,000 service members stationed in more than 150 foreign countries, since presumably it might occur to the audience that such an imperial presence is excessive. Instead he vaguely raised the specter of an Asian Communist menace. China is on the rise he noted, and “its values are not consistent with our values.” For example, China has “a secular philosophy that leads to mass abortions.”
Let’s grant that for the sake of argument. Is Sessions’s contention that we should prepare to fight a war with China? The country has nuclear weapons, 1.4 billion people, and it owns much of our foreign debt. On the other hand, we already outspend them several times over on defense.
Sessions claims, incorrectly, that “North Korea and Iran have nuclear weapons.” Iran doesn’t, and even if it did, it’s not clear what buying more tanks would do about that. But the point isn’t to keep America safe. It’s to convince devout Christians, who are understandably wary of Islamism and communism, that they need to cut spending on feeding and educating poor children to buy weapons.
On Sunday the Washington Post revealed that Texas Governor Rick Perry’s family hunting ranch was named “Niggerhead.” Perry maintains that his parents painted over the sign on the rock at the ranch’s entrance right after buying it, but some visitors to the ranch interviewed by the Post say otherwise. Perry has come under fire for the insensitivity this demonstrates from his presidential primary opponent African-American businessman Herman Cain, who has risen to a tie with Perry in the Post’s latest national poll. Perry responded with the mantra of most Republicans accused of racism: that some of his best friends are black. “Rick Perry has a long and strong record of inclusiveness and appointing African Americans to key state posts, including Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court, his former chief of staff and general counsels, university regents, parks and wildlife commissioner and other high profile posts,” said his campaign in a statement.
The race of Perry’s appointees is not nearly as important as the content of his policies. So how is Perry’s record on race and civil rights?
Perry may be better than his predecessor, George W. Bush, but that’s damning him with faint praise. “We had no access to Governor Bush and we had no rapport with him,” says Gary Bledsoe president of the Texas State Conference of the NAACP Branches. “We will disagree with Perry, but he’s got an open mind.”
Perry’s better actions on civil rights, according to Bledsoe, include signing the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act, a ban on racial profiling and a law to ensure adequate legal representation of poor defendants. Those laws were all passed in 2001. (The hate crimes law may actually prove to be a liability for Perry among conservatives.)
More recently Perry has frequently been at odds with civil rights activists. Perry has cut state education spending and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. Cutting both of those programs does disproportionate harm to African-American children.
Other changes in Texas law, though, have a more overtly discriminatory impact. Take the Towards EXcellence [sic], Access and Success (TEXAS) Grant: it is a state program help students with financial need pay for college. In addition to cutting funding for it, Texas rewrote the eligibility requirements in a manner that disadvantages students of color. “They try to give preference to low and moderate income youths who took advanced classes,” explains Bledsoe. “But many schools, especially minority schools, don’t have [those classes]. Then they’re using test scores, which are biased. Of the five areas they chose, only one of the five was fair to African-American students.”
Other recent laws signed by Perry are discriminatory in their actual intent. Most pernicious is the new requirement Perry signed into law in May that voters produce a government-issued photo identification at the voting booth. (Student ID cards from state universities are not included, but a concealed handgun license is.) “The voter ID law was designed to keep people of color from exercising their right to vote,” says Representative Garnet Coleman. A coalition of civil rights groups filed a petition with the Department of Justice requesting that it deny pre-clearance to the law. Texas, because of its history of Jim Crow laws that disenfranchised African-Americans is subject to scrutiny under the Voting Rights Act. The Justice Department is currently examining the law.
Perry has also ramped up persecution of immigrants by endorsing a law to eliminate “sanctuary cities” in Texas. The law would require invite local police to question the immigration status of anyone they arrest or detain. He also signed a redistricting scheme that will reduce the number of minority and minority-influence seats in Congress, even though Texas is gaining four seats thanks to large increases in the state's black and Latino populations.
Legislation aside, some see appeals to racism in Perry’s rhetoric. Since 2009 Perry has repeatedly invoked “states rights,” the same phrase employed by the Confederacy in the Civil War and segregationists in the twentieth-century South. Representative Coleman says this is not just Perry articulating a conservative philosophy but an appeal to older white voters with a fondness for the Jim Crow era: “Anyone over a certain age, if they hear ‘states rights’ they think segregation.”
Perry also mentioned the possibility of seceding from the Union, which might resonate with fans of the lost cause of the Confederacy. “These were not accidental words that were used,” says Coleman.
Republicans would deny that these word choices have any subtext. Of course, they would also characterize Perry’s preference for cutting billions of dollars in aid to schools over tapping the state’s rainy-day fund as a decision that is motivated by fiscal conservatism. But some African-Americans see the whole rhetoric of fiscal conservatism, going back to Ronald Reagan’s invocation of the apocryphal “welfare queen” driving a Cadillac, as being an appeal to racism.
Perry, in his capacity as chairman of the Republican Governor’s Association, was part of the message machine that took similar lines of attack against President Obama’s signature legislation: the stimulus and the Affordable Care Act. “The rhetoric of health care was same as Reagan’s,” says Coleman. “‘Black and Hispanic people are going to get your money. These folks aren’t personally responsible for their actions and then they need your help.’ If [Perry] wasn’t a racist he would say ‘this is wrong and I’m not going to be a party to it.”