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Ben Adler

Ben Adler

 The 2012 election, Republican politics and conservative media.

Michele Bachmann’s Pre–New Deal Jurisprudence

In a fundraising e-mail to her supporters on Tuesday, Representative Michele Bachmann (R-MN) made a startling claim. Making an obvious job at Mitt Romney for signing statewide healthcare reform in Massachusetts, she wrote, “Government health mandates of any kind at the state or federal level are unconstitutional.”

Many conservatives believe that a federal individual mandate to buy health insurance is unconstitutional, despite the fact that the Heritage Foundation invented the individual mandate and many Republicans endorsed it in the past. The argument is essentially that the federal government’s power to regulate interstate commerce does not extend that far.

It’s an argument that is wildly at odds with the last seven decades of constitutional jurisprudence. The Supreme Court has held that growing crops—from wheat to marijuana—purely for personal consumption is subject to federal regulation because whatever you grow you don’t buy. It would blatantly contradict those precedents for the Supreme Court to over-rule the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act.

But Bachmann’s position goes a good deal further. If states cannot mandate that you buy health insurance, will she also argue that they cannot require drivers to buy auto insurance? It’s absurd to argue that driving is an activity and buying health insurance isn’t. No one who gets sick chooses to die instead of going to the hospital because they didn’t buy insurance and must accept the consequences, Ron Paul’s hopes to the contrary notwithstanding. When they go to the emergency room they are treated and the costs are passed on to the rest of us. So not buying health insurance is clearly an active decision as much as buying it is.

Bachmann’s campaign did not respond to a request for clarification. But Simon Lazarus, public policy counsel to the National Senior Citizens Law Center, helped me understand Bachmann’s constitutional philosophy.

“The Massachusetts mandate, or a state mandate, would not be unconstitutional under the theories that the people challenging the law are claiming to rely on,” says Lazarus. “In fact they are strenuously insisting that the states would be free to do what they want.

“But the logic is that the mandate interferes with individual liberty to such a drastic extent. If it’s unconstitutional because it interferes with liberty, it violates the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. That’s the reasoning the Court used in the Lochner era, the first third of the twentieth century: that laws interfering with child labor, for example, interfered with substantive due process rights.”

The “Lochner era” refers to the period when the Supreme Court followed the precedent of the infamous 1905 case Lochner v. New York, in which the Court held that a state law limiting the number of hours a baker may work to sixty per week violated the right of contract implicit in the Fourteenth Amendment. Under that precedent, much of the New Deal was unconstitutional. “That kind of reasoning was repudiated in 1937 and has been on the shelf ever since then,” says Lazarus.

Bachmann wants to revive the long-discredited school of legal thought known as Lochnerism.  “If that were to happen, not only would that mean the mandate at the state level is unconstitutional; it could mean that Medicare taxes are unconstitutional,” warns Lazarus. Of course, Bachmann’s rival for the right-wing vote, Rick Perry, thinks Social Security is unconstitutional, so she has to come up with kooky constitutional theories of her own to compete. 

Michele Bachmann’s Pre-New Deal Jurisprudence

In a fundraising email to her supporters on Tuesday, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) made a startling claim. Making an obvious job at Mitt Romney for signing statewide health care reform in Massachusetts, she wrote, “government health mandates of any kind at the state or federal level are unconstitutional.”

Many conservatives believe that a federal individual mandate to buy health insurance is unconstitutional, despite the fact that the Heritage Foundation invented the individual mandate and many Republicans endorsed it in the past  The argument is essentially that the federal government’s power to regulate Interstate Commerce does not extend that far. 

It’s an argument that is wildly at odds with the last seven decades of constitutional jurisprudence. The Supreme Court has held that growing crops -- from wheat to marijuana -- purely for personal consumption is subject to federal regulation because whatever you grow you don’t buy. It would blatantly contradict those precedents for the Supreme Court to over-rule the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act.

But Bachmann’s position goes a good deal further. If states cannot mandate that you buy health insurance will she also argue that they cannot require drivers to by auto insurance? It's absurd to argume that driving is an activity and not buying health insurance isn’t. No one who gets sick chooses to die instead of going to the hospital because they didn’t buy insurance and must accept the consequences, Ron Paul’s hopes to the contrary notwithstanding. When they go to the emergency room they are treated and the costs are passed on to the rest of us. So not buying health insurance is clearly an active decision as much as buying one.

Bachmann’s campaign did not respond to a request for clarification. But Simon Lazarus, Public Policy Counsel to the National Senior Citizens Law Center, helped me understand Bachmann’s constitutional philosophy.

“The Massachusetts mandate, or a state mandate, would not be unconstitutional under the theories that the people challenging the law are claiming to rely on,” says Lazarus. “In fact they are strenuously insisting that the states would be free to do what they want.

“But the logic is that the mandate interferes with individual liberty to such a drastic extent. If it’s unconstitutional because it interferes with liberty, it violates the Fifth and Fourteenth amendments. That’s the reasoning the Court used in the Lochner era, the first third of the 20th century: that laws interfering with child labor, for example, interfered with substantive due process rights.”

The “Lochner Era” refers to the era when the Supreme Court followed the precedent of the infamous 1905 case “Lochner v New York,” in which the Court held that a state law limiting the number of hours a baker may work to 60 per week violated the right of contract implicit in the Fourteenth Amendment. Under that precedent much of the New Deal was unconstitutional. “That kind of reasoning was repudiated in 1937 and has been on the shelf ever since then,” says Lazarus.

Bachmann wants to revive the long discredited school of legal thought known as Lochnerism.  “If that were to happen, not only would that mean the mandate at the state level is unconstitutional it could mean that Medicare taxes are unconstitutional,” warns Lazarus. Of course, Bachmann’s rival for the right wing vote, Rick Perry, thinks Social Security is unconstitutional, so she has to come up with kooky constitutional theories of her own to compete. 

How Would the Supreme Court Ruling on Health Care Reform Affect the Election?

 Timothy Noah, writing in The New Republic, suggests that getting a Supreme Court ruling before the 2012 election could help President Obama’s re-election prospects, regardless of which way the Court rules.

Surely from a political standpoint, President Obama is smart to press the Supreme Court for a health care decision this coming June, no? If the Court upholds Obamacare then we will all be reminded that this sole accomplishment makes Obama the most consequential Democrat since Lyndon Johnson to occupy the Oval Office.... But slapping down a sitting president in a transparently partisan manner with a decision that did violence to eight decades of jurisprudence and that would literally cost American lives--yes, I think a “no” vote would be a pretty bad way for the Court to go--would be a fantastically effective way to "energize the base," as we say in Washington, and maybe rope in some independents, too.

But Noah is only looking at the liberal side of the ledger. The people who give the most thought to the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act are conservatives. And they are adamantly opposed to it. A ruling upholding health care reform would surely rile up the Republican base.

A ruling against the law would presumably only overturn the individual mandate, and would only win with a 5-4 margin. That gives Republicans have three powerful arguments to make to their base about the importance of the election: Obama does not respect the Constitution, it is very important to control future Supreme Court appointments, and it is important to control Congress and the White House to determine the fate of the rest of the law.

On policy grounds I think it was wise for Obama to ask for a ruling from the Court as soon as possible. Politically, I think it’s a toss-up.

Mitt Romney's Biggest Asset: Shamelessness

Ever since Mitt Romney and Rick Perry’s testy exchange in the last Republican debate, accusations and counter-accusations have flown back and forth in their competing press releases. Romney accuses Perry of having the same stance as Obama on illegal immigration. Having any similarity to Obama is an insult of the highest order among Republicans, notwithstanding the fact that Obama has actually stepped up border control and deportation of illegal immigrants. Romney—an inveterate liar and flip-flopper who is bound by no limitations of shame or integrity—also mocks Perry’s “Pinocchio problem.”

Every politician panders, but Mitt Romney is a special case. It is not just that Romney panders more frequently and absurdly, although he does. It’s the total lack of human emotion that allows him to do so. When you watch a human being lie on the campaign trail—Barack Obama claiming he opposes gay marriage, for example—you can sense him wincing. Most people become visibly uncomfortable when lying. To increase their comfort, and limit their vulnerability to charges of flip-flopping, most politicians struggle to explain how a new position adopted out of political expediency is actually consistent with an older one. That’s how you make gaffes like John Kerry’s infamous claim that he “was for the $87 billion [in supplemental Iraq War funds] before I was against it.”

Not Romney. Romney evinces no problem taking the most left-wing position on a topic one day and the most right-wing position the next. Romney, like a robot programmed to tell everyone what they want to hear, just acts as if nothing he said or did in the past ever happened. With his square features, perfectly coiffed hair, boxy suits, focus-grouped zingers and poll-tested positions, Romney comes across not so much as a person running for president as he does a machine fabricated to imitate one. Supposedly voters adore folksy politicians like George W. Bush and recoil from stiff automatons like Al Gore. But it is actually the brazenness and inhumanity of Romney’s pandering that has kept him in contention.

When Romney entered national politics in 2007, his need to distance himself from his past was seen as a liability. Coming on the heels of Bush’s effective smear campaign against John Kerry as an inconstant flip-flopping pansy, being an inauthentic patrician from Massachusetts was assumed to be an almost insurmountable challenge for Romney. His history as a moderate and the dramatic policy reversals he made to run for president as a Republican were seen as nearly disqualifying.

But, strangely, Romney has survived it all, even as his party has moved dramatically to the right. It turns out that Romney’s complete lack of honesty or scruples is an asset on the campaign trail. A mere mortal like Kerry might tie himself into knots trying to square his current positions with his past ones. Romney feels no such obligation. In 2008 he was for fiscal stimulus in the form of tax breaks and infrastructure spending. Now he says the law that did just that was “a failure” and that “government cannot create jobs.” He claimed in 1994 that he was more liberal on gay rights than Ted Kennedy and in 2002 that he was as prochoice as his Democratic gubernatorial opponent Shannon O’Brien. Now he opposes abortion rights, wants to reinstate “don’t ask, don’t tell” and supports a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. But Romney makes no effort to claim that these views are somehow consistent with his past. He has made no mea culpa as to why he made the wrong choice in his first political incarnation the way that Democrats who supported the Iraq War like John Edwards and Hillary Clinton did. He simply acts as if he has always been a staunch social conservative, and he even has the audacity to question the conservative bona fides of his opponents.

In the last election Rudy Giuliani started out trying to reposition himself as anti-abortion. When it was revealed that he had donated to Planned Parenthood over a decade earlier, Giuliani concluded that he couldn’t plausibly sell the claim that he opposes abortion and just campaigned as an abortion rights supporter who would appoint “strict constructionist” judges. (“Strict constructionist” being Republican code for willing to overturn Roe v. Wade.) In retrospect, Giulliani should have just brazenly flip-flopped. After all, it has worked for Romney.

Rather than trying to come up with some tortured rationale for how his current positions and his past ones fit together, Romney adopts totally contrary positions without a trace of nuance. He claimed in Massachusetts that he wasn’t just a moderate Republican on social issues but as liberal as any Democrat. Now he claims not to be center-right but a doctrinaire social conservative. Both are equally false, but it would be just as dishonest if Romney said he was a moderate. Romney is nothing and everything at once. But because moderate Republicans are more sophisticated than conservative Republicans, they give him a winking pass on his extremist statements, confident he is really one of them. Meanwhile, social conservatives have a healthy skepticism towards Romney, but can be wooed by his perverse attacks on Rick Perry. In the last debate Romney successfully went after Perry for not being vociferous enough in his desire to punish the children of undocumented immigrants for their parents’ sins. It seems unlikely that Romney really hates illegal immigrants and that he really feels strongly that their children should pay out-of-state tuition at public universities. Romney has been known to hire undocumented workers as gardeners. But it doesn’t matter. Romney sees demagoguery against illegal immigrants as being in his interest, so he goes after them full-throttle. If his interests change, his stance will too. And the conservatives who voted for him will feel just as misled as the Massachusetts Democrats who helped Romney get to where he is.

What Rick Perry Would Do to Medicaid

Texas Governor Rick Perry has made a fetish of his fondness for cutting Medicaid. As governor he requested a waiver from the federal government to create enrollment caps in Medicaid and additional federal dollars to establish a Texas pool to help low-income people buy private insurance. The request was denied by the Bush administration, which stated that Perry’s proposal to limit lifetime Medicaid benefits to $25,000 was too restrictive for people who need long-term care. 

More recently Perry signed a law that asks the federal government for permission to turn Medicaid into a block grant program and could privatize Medicare. In debates and on the presidential campaign trail he has expressed a desire to turn Medicaid into a block grant program so as to give states more flexibility in allocating funds. If Perry becomes president, it is a safe assumption he will propose some sort of block-granting scheme for Medicaid. Certainly, he would be amenable to the block grant proposal in Paul Ryan’s “Road Map” to inequality.

That’s a chilling thought for people with disabilities, many of whom rely on Medicaid to provide essential services. “When people call for flexibility, you have to say, Flexibility to do what? To eliminate eligibility?” says Lara Schwartz, a spokesperson for the American Association of People with Disabilities. “It’s one of those ideas where you can say ‘states’ rights’ and it sounds like a fundamental value. Texas has a very high rate of uninsured people and a high rate of people in poverty. When I hear ‘I want the flexibility,’ I hear ‘to take away things people need.’ ”

Indeed, Perry does frame his views on Medicaid in the context of his larger support for states’ rights. If you look at Perry’s whole array of startlingly extremist right-wing positions such as opposing the direct election of senators, it becomes apparent that Perry’s desire to block grant entitlement programs is as much a part of that view as it is his fiscal conservatism. Liberals—and most Americans who think the right side won the Civil War—believe that all Americans are citizens of our country first and foremost. This view is best encapsulated in the first section of the Fourteenth Amendment, which reads:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

From that it follows that our society as a whole has certain obligations, such as providing health care for the disabled and impoverished. Today’s Republicans, however, think states should be free to run roughshod over their most vulnerable citizens, just as they did back in 1964. And they don’t care much for the Fourteenth Amendment. Consider, for example, that many of them want to revoke the “birthright citizenship” granted to the children of undocumented immigrants born on American soil.

To be sure, Perry’s animus for Medicaid derives from his miserliness toward the poor as well as his antiquated view of states’ rights. In the last legislative session Perry insisted on cutting $5 billion from Medicaid instead of using a flush rainy-day fund. The result? Cutbacks in eligibility and services for people with disabilities, among others. “We have people who get in-home services: in-home attendants, therapies: all of those services are being reviewed and limited,” says Bob Kafka, an organizer for ADAPT of Texas, a statewide disability rights organization. “Voucher services that people have been getting to buy needed equipment, all those have been reduced.”

That’s just a taste of how bad the service reductions would be if Medicaid were turned into a block grant program. A block grant, unlike an entitlement program, does not get additional spending for the extra applicants during an economic downturn. So right now Medicaid would be feeling a terrible pinch and states would cope by dropping recipients or the services they receive. The worst hit would be people with disabilities, who are disproportionately likely to be poor and to need the services Medicaid provides.

As Think Progress notes, Texas “has the narrowest Medicaid eligibility standards and spends the second least of any state on healthcare for the poor per capita.” That’s what the rest of us can look forward to it Perry becomes president. 

Herman Cain Wins Absurd Florida Straw Poll

So Herman Cain, the former CEO of a third-rate pizza chain named after a mafia movie, has trounced his more serious presidential rivals in the Florida Republican straw poll on Saturday. Cain received 37 percent of the votes cast, to Texas Governor Rick Perry’s 15 percent and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s 14 percent, the race’s two front runners. Former Senator Rick Santorum, who lost his last election by 18 points and who between the debates everyone forgets is running, got 11 percent. Texas Representative Ron Paul, whose strange views guarantee he won’t win the nomination, got 10 percent, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who isn’t even running a functional campaign, got 8 percent. They all towered over Representative Michele Bachmann, who got 1.5 percent. 

Political pundits are already telling us what this means, as if it means anything. On Friday the media overhyped the importance of Perry’s unimpressive performance in Thursday’s debate, suggesting that one defensive performance might toss him out of his lead in the polls. So naturally they are eager to glom onto evidence of their perspicacity. “Perry’s failure to win on the heels of a shaky performance in Thursday’s debate will underscore concerns by some of his supporters about whether he can maintain and build on his quick rise in the polls,” reads a typical entry from USA Today.

In the usual manner of these inane expectations’ games, the loss for Perry is seen as worse than for Romney because Perry attempted to win the Florida straw poll and Romney did not. Perry, unlike Romney or Bachmann, instantly blasted out a statement on the results, graciously congratulating Cain and putting the best possible spin he could on being outgunned by a novelty candidate. “Today’s Florida P5 straw poll shows the conservative message of job creation, fiscal responsibility and limited government is gaining momentum,” said Perry.

Some pundits will point to Bachmann’s numbers as evidence that her star is dimming, while others will give her a pass because she did not appear on the ballot.

No such grand conclusions should be drawn from this meaningless, non-binding contest. Straw polls, like the famous one in Iowa, are not good proxies for future primary results. They include only a small number of paying participants. The Florida straw poll took place at an event hosted by the Florida GOP that cost $175 to attend. Cain won with only 996 votes. In 2008 John McCain won the Florida Republican primary with 36 percent of the votes. That equaled 701,761 votes. If you want to get an idea of how Florida Republicans might vote, you can take a poll. The last one, from Quinnipiac, showed Rick Perry in first with 28 percent and Romney in second at 22 percent. Cain came in ninth with 7 percent. (The poll included Sarah Palin.)

Those numbers are a lot closer to whatever the final result in the Florida primary will be. But the voting is still five months away. So you shouldn’t make too much of any poll this early, much less a straw poll.

Herman Cain Wins Florida’s Absurd Straw Poll

 So Herman Cain, the former CEO of a third-rate pizza chain named after a mafia movie, has trounced his more serious presidential rivals in the Florida Republican straw poll on Saturday. Cain received 37 percent of the votes cast, to Texas Governor Rick Perry’s 15 percent and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s 14 percent, the race’s two front runners. Former Senator Rick Santorum, who lost his last election by 18 points and who between the debates everyone forgets is running, got 11 percent. Texas Rep. Ron Paul, whose strange views guarantee he won’t win the nomination, got 10 percent, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who isn’t even running a functional campaign, got 8 percent. They all towered over Rep. Michele Bachmann, who got 1.5 percent. 

Political pundits are already telling us what this means, as if it means anything. On Friday the media over-hyped the importance of Perry’s unimpressive performance in Thursday’s debate, suggesting that one defensive performance might toss him out of his lead in the polls. So naturally they are eager to glom onto evidence of their perspicacity. “Perry's failure to win on the heels of a shaky performance in Thursday's debate will underscore concerns by some of his supporters about whether he can maintain and build on his quick rise in the polls,” reads a typical entry from USA Today.

In the usual manner of these inane expectations’ games, the loss for Perry is seen as worse than for Romney because attempted to win the Florida straw poll and Romney did not. Perry, unlike Romney or Bachmann, instantly blasted out a statement on the results, graciously congratulating Cain and putting the best possible spin he could on being outgunned by a novelty candidate. “Today's Florida P5 straw poll shows the conservative message of job creation, fiscal responsibility and limited government is gaining momentum,” said Perry.

Some pundits will point to Bachmann’s numbers as evidence that her star is dimming is while others will give her a pass because she did not appear on the ballot.

No such grand conclusions should be drawn from this meaningless, non-binding contest. Straw polls, like the famous one in Iowa, are not good proxies for future primary results. They include only a small number of paying participants. The Florida straw poll took place at an event hosted by the Florida GOP that cost $175 to attend. Cain won with only 996 votes. In 2008 John McCain won the Florida Republican primary with 36 percent of the vote. That equaled 701,761 votes. If you want to get an idea of how Florida Republicans might vote, you can take a poll. The last one, from Quinnipiac, showed Rick Perry in first with 28 percent and Romney in second at 22 percent. Cain came in ninth with 7 percent. (The poll included Sarah Palin.)

Those numbers are a lot closer to whatever the final result in the Florida primary will be. But the voting is still five months away. So you shouldn’t make too much of any poll this early, much less a straw poll. 

Herman Cain Wins Florida’s Absurd Straw Poll

 So Herman Cain, the former CEO of a third-rate pizza chain named after a mafia movie, has trounced his more serious presidential rivals in the Florida Republican straw poll on Saturday. Cain received 37 percent of the votes cast, to Texas Governor Rick Perry’s 15 percent and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s 14 percent, the race’s two front runners. Former Senator Rick Santorum, who lost his last election by 18 points and who between the debates everyone forgets is running, got 11 percent. Texas Rep. Ron Paul, whose strange views guarantee he won’t win the nomination, got 10 percent, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who isn’t even running a functional campaign, got 8 percent. They all towered over Rep. Michele Bachmann, who got 1.5 percent. 

Political pundits are already telling us what this means, as if it means anything. On Friday the media over-hyped the importance of Perry’s unimpressive performance in Thursday’s debate, suggesting that one defensive performance might toss him out of his lead in the polls. So naturally they are eager to glom onto evidence of their perspicacity. “Perry's failure to win on the heels of a shaky performance in Thursday's debate will underscore concerns by some of his supporters about whether he can maintain and build on his quick rise in the polls,” reads a typical entry from USA Today.

In the usual manner of these inane expectations’ games, the loss for Perry is seen as worse than for Romney because attempted to win the Florida straw poll and Romney did not. Perry, unlike Romney or Bachmann, instantly blasted out a statement on the results, graciously congratulating Cain and putting the best possible spin he could on being outgunned by a novelty candidate. “Today's Florida P5 straw poll shows the conservative message of job creation, fiscal responsibility and limited government is gaining momentum,” said Perry.

Some pundits will point to Bachmann’s numbers as evidence that her star is dimming is while others will give her a pass because she did not appear on the ballot.

No such grand conclusions should be drawn from this meaningless, non-binding contest. Straw polls, like the famous one in Iowa, are not good proxies for future primary results. They include only a small number of paying participants. The Florida straw poll took place at an event hosted by the Florida GOP that cost $175 to attend. Cain won with only 996 votes. In 2008 John McCain won the Florida Republican primary with 36 percent of the vote. That equaled 701,761 votes. If you want to get an idea of how Florida Republicans might vote, you can take a poll. The last one, from Quinnipiac, showed Rick Perry in first with 28 percent and Romney in second at 22 percent. Cain came in ninth with 7 percent. (The poll included Sarah Palin.)

Those numbers are a lot closer to whatever the final result in the Florida primary will be. But the voting is still five months away. So you shouldn’t make too much of any poll this early, much less a straw poll. 

Herman Cain Wins Florida’s Absurd Straw Poll

 So Herman Cain, the former CEO of a third-rate pizza chain named after a mafia movie, has trounced his more serious presidential rivals in the Florida Republican straw poll on Saturday. Cain received 37 percent of the votes cast, to Texas Governor Rick Perry’s 15 percent and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s 14 percent, the race’s two front runners. Former Senator Rick Santorum, who lost his last election by 18 points and who between the debates everyone forgets is running, got 11 percent. Texas Rep. Ron Paul, whose strange views guarantee he won’t win the nomination, got 10 percent, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who isn’t even running a functional campaign, got 8 percent. They all towered over Rep. Michele Bachmann, who got 1.5 percent. 

Political pundits are already telling us what this means, as if it means anything. On Friday the media over-hyped the importance of Perry’s unimpressive performance in Thursday’s debate, suggesting that one defensive performance might toss him out of his lead in the polls. So naturally they are eager to glom onto evidence of their perspicacity. “Perry's failure to win on the heels of a shaky performance in Thursday's debate will underscore concerns by some of his supporters about whether he can maintain and build on his quick rise in the polls,” reads a typical entry from USA Today.

In the usual manner of these inane expectations’ games, the loss for Perry is seen as worse than for Romney because attempted to win the Florida straw poll and Romney did not. Perry, unlike Romney or Bachmann, instantly blasted out a statement on the results, graciously congratulating Cain and putting the best possible spin he could on being outgunned by a novelty candidate. “Today's Florida P5 straw poll shows the conservative message of job creation, fiscal responsibility and limited government is gaining momentum,” said Perry.

Some pundits will point to Bachmann’s numbers as evidence that her star is dimming is while others will give her a pass because she did not appear on the ballot.

No such grand conclusions should be drawn from this meaningless, non-binding contest. Straw polls, like the famous one in Iowa, are not good proxies for future primary results. They include only a small number of paying participants. The Florida straw poll took place at an event hosted by the Florida GOP that cost $175 to attend. Cain won with only 996 votes. In 2008 John McCain won the Florida Republican primary with 36 percent of the vote. That equaled 701,761 votes. If you want to get an idea of how Florida Republicans might vote, you can take a poll. The last one, from Quinnipiac, showed Rick Perry in first with 28 percent and Romney in second at 22 percent. Cain came in ninth with 7 percent. (The poll included Sarah Palin.)

Those numbers are a lot closer to whatever the final result in the Florida primary will be. But the voting is still five months away. So you shouldn’t make too much of any poll this early, much less a straw poll. 

The GOP Race to Eliminate Government Entirely

At the Fox News/Google Republican presidential debate in Orlando on Thursday, candidates argued with one another more frequently than at any of the previous debates, but they all shared one theme: that the federal government is the enemy. To a degree that has been unmatched in recent years, serious contenders for a major party nomination expressed contempt for the very government they seek to lead. You would have to go back to Barry Goldwater in 1964 and his segregationist allies to find a campaign when “states’ rights” were so in vogue.

The Republican Party seems to have taken a decisive turn against the “compassionate conservatism” of George W. Bush. Bush’s signature domestic policy, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), was repeatedly singled out for abuse by candidates who were virtually unanimous in their agreement that the federal government has no role to play in educating children.

Representative Ron Paul (R-TX), the Goldwater conservative, demanded that we “get the federal government out of educating our kids,” and suggested that the federal government abandon enforcing NCLB.

Paul is only slightly more extreme than his opponents on the subject. Mitt Romney was the only candidate to embrace the education reform agenda that President Obama has continued from the Bush administration, which Rick Perry derided as “not conservative.” Perry declared that “the federal government has no business telling states how to educate our children.” So the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the 1975 federal law requiring schools to accommodate the needs of children with disabilities, violates Perry’s principle. What would happen to disabled children in Rick Perry’s America? Romney himself echoed the idea that we should remove the federal government from the education sphere. Representative Michele Bachmann argued for eliminating the Department of Education, saying, “I would pass the mother of all repeal bills on education.” Bachmann, as she proudly noted, got into politics to combat the godlessness her foster children were exposed to in public schools. She neglected to mention that she helped found a charter school that lost its charter due to inappropriate religiosity.

Some of the candidates seemed not to understand exactly what they were saying. On education, Herman Cain said, “For federal programs where there are strings attached, cut the strings.” Taken literally, it sounds like he’s invoking the strings metaphor to say that federal money for education should flow to the states without any performance requirements being placed on them. That sounds to me like tax-and-spend liberalism rather than hard-headed conservatism. So perhaps Cain wants to cut federal education spending and just said something incomprehensible. Then again, as the recent Republican resistance to requiring accountability from for-profit colleges that collect federal funding demonstrates, modern Republicans aren’t really fiscally conservative at all. They would rather see the government hand out money without conditions than use the coercive power of the state to get good value for our hard-earned tax dollars.

When pure ideology wasn’t sufficient to make their point, the Republican candidates just made things up. Cain declared, falsely, that under the Affordable Care Act he would have been unable to obtain timely treatment for his cancer because “a bureaucrat” would have prevented him from getting this treatment. Romney claimed that “Obamacare intends to put someone between you and your physician.” It’s not clear who is this villain haunting the imaginations of Romney and Cain, but as anyone who has ever had a claim denied by their health insurance company can tell you, there’s already someone between you and your physician.

Candidates showed their distaste for government in far broader ways throughout the night. Former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson boasted that he had vetoed the most bills of any governor in the country, as if all legislation is automatically bad. The applauding audience seemed to agree.

Romney proudly noted twice that he had spent his career in business rather than in government or politics. In fact, he talked about making money at a private equity firm the way candidates used to discuss military service. “I love this country, I worked in the private sector,” said Romney, as if the two facts were linked. “I only spent four years in office,” Romney added. Apparently, Romney thinks his short record of public service, which a normal electorate might see as a liability, is an asset in the Republican primary. Ironically, the Republican voters Romney thinks will like his mere four years in office were the same people complaining that Barack Obama’s eleven years in public office were insufficient preparation for the presidency. It’s also worth noting that Romney neglected to mention his failed 1994 Senate campaign. Had he won he would have served a minimum of six years, rendering him a feckless Washington bureaucrat incapable of managing an economy, right?

The most remarkable denunciation of government was Bachmann’s statement that she would tell a citizen they should keep all of every dollar they earn. From that it would logically follow that Bachmann thinks no government should exist at all.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich called for privatizing virtually everything he could think of. Gingrich thinks “government to government” foreign should be replaced by programs that encourage US businesses to invest abroad. “Our bureaucrats’ giving their bureaucrats money is an obvious step to corruption,” Gingrich averred. How this would apply to, say, military aid to his cherished state of Israel is unclear. Gingrich also wants recipients of unemployment benefits to be required to take lessons from a private business.

States as the great laboratories of democracy was a constant theme. Jon Huntsman dodged a question from moderator Chris Wallace asking how you can require insurance companies to cover anyone without an individual mandate by saying, “Let’s forget about the federal government and turn to the states.” How creating fifty different healthcare regulation bureaucracies is more efficient or less intrusive than one national one was left unexplained. Nor did Huntsman furnish any examples of how a state would actually solve the problem Wallace put to him.

Of course, every Republican has their token areas where concern for limited government flies out the window. For Rick Santorum, a notorious antigay bigot, that is sexuality. A gay soldier asked Santorum via YouTube what he would do about gays in the military. The soldier was booed by many in the audience. So much for the Republican mantra to “support our troops.” Santorum said he would deprive gay Americans of their right to serve their country by reinstating “don’t ask, don’t tell.” At perhaps the evening’s height of dishonesty, Santorum claimed that issuing a regulation that gays cannot serve was actually the position that would keep judgments on a soldier’s sexuality out of the public sphere.

Bachmann has her soft spots for government intervention too. Like Santorum, she has said at a previous debate that she would repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell.” But she also called for a fence “on every inch” of our border with Mexico and more spending on Border Patrol agents.

Ron Paul declared to thunderous applause that the federal government “has no right to be in our schools, to run our economy, or to tell us how to run our lives.” Strangely, though, he does think the federal government should ban abortions. The conservative belief in the magical power to live without a government is so strong that it allowed Paul to dodge a question about why he supports abortion rights for rape victims and women who could die giving birth if he thinks abortion is murder by saying, “Only the moral character of the people will solve this issue, not the law.” The crowd cheered, as if what he just said made any sense whatsoever.

This strain of nonsensical thinking is endemic to Republican voters as well. In the focus group conducted by GOP pollster Frank Luntz after the debate, one man said he likes the idea of abolishing the Environmental Protection Agency but added, “We should regulate to keep water safe.” Who does he think would do that if there was no EPA?

In an interview after the debate Bachmann said to Sean Hannity: “I don’t want to run the bureaucracy, I want to dismantle it.” Of course, bureaucracy is just an ugly word for government offices tasked with implementing the laws that our democratically elected representatives have passed. When Republicans say they want to dismantle “the bureaucracy” they are really saying they want to dismantle the government and the American people’s ability to solve our collective problems through the democratic process.

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