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Ben Adler | The Nation

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Ben Adler

Ben Adler

 The 2012 election, Republican politics and conservative media.

Is Rick Perry the Tea Party Front-runner?

As soon as Gallup released a poll last week showing Texas Governor Rick Perry leading among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who say they identify with the Tea Party, the media anointed Perry the Tea Party’s favorite candidate. “The tea party retains considerable power within the GOP and its backing of Texas Gov. Rick Perry has installed him as the frontrunner in the fight for the nomination,” writes Chris Cillizza in the Washington Post. “Roughly six in ten Republicans and Republican-leaning independents identify themselves as tea party supporters and among that group Perry takes 35 percent of the vote—well ahead of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (14 percent) and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann (14 percent.)”

This confirms two trends we already saw developing: that each major entrant to the Republican field, enjoys an early bounce (Michele Bachmann’s has already come and gone), and that Perry will vie for the support of right-wing extremists.

But there’s a big difference between “the Tea Party,” which is a nebulous network of right-wing activists, and Republicans who, when asked if they like the Tea Party say yes. Among actual Tea Party activists no consensus leader has emerged.

“What we have seen is that among our supporters—we poll them on a continuous basis to see what they’re thinking and whether presidential candidates resonate with them—and it moves around,” says Sal Russo, founder of Tea Party Express. “Newt Gingrich was popular, Romney did well for a while, after the New Hampshire debate Bachmann surged, now Perry is having his surge. Candidates go up and down based on what’s going on, so they haven’t settled on a candidate yet.”

Dawn Wildman, national coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots, agrees. “Every time a new horse comes in it sort of shakes things up,” says Wildman. Every candidate who has been in public life long enough has some blemishes on their record from the Tea Party perspective, but some more than others. “People don’t like Gingrich,” says Wildman. “He comes with too much baggage.” Perry too comes with baggage. “The baggage with Perry is that he’s from Texas and he sounds like Bush. Even with conservatives, they don’t want to look like they’re voting for Bush part three.”

Then there’s the fact that national polls should not be given too much credence. Not all primary voters are created equal. A handful of random states enjoy vastly outsized influence in the nomination process. So the real question is how Perry will perform in key early states and the answer, at least among Tea Partiers, is that it’s too soon to tell.

Iowa, where religious social conservatives like Perry are a large force in the low turnout caucus system, will be a crucial battleground for Perry, as it is much more favorable terrain than socially liberal New Hampshire. But Iowa Tea Party Republicans are hardly ready to commit to Perry. “I don’t think people have had the chance to vet him,” says Ryan Rhodes, a state coordinator for the Iowa Tea Party. “In Iowa one thing people don’t do is choose quickly. Perry might do well in a poll, but will have to answer questions one-on-one in Iowa.”

And despite Perry’s right-wing rhetoric in recent years, his long tenure in office provides ample opportunity for tough questions from Tea Party conservatives. While the Tea Party is nominally focused on economic and budgetary issues, Tea Party activists tend to be conservative on social and cultural issues like any other group of right-wing Republicans. So Perry’s former moderation on immigration and his heretical and his heretical support for protecting Texan girls from cancer are particular sore spots. “I actually think Perry’s going to answer a lot of tough question: his stances on border control, his HPV vaccinations program,” says Rhodes. “He’s been a governor for a long time and in doing that he is going to face a challenge.”

Meanwhile, the Tea Party flavor of last month, Michele Bachmann, is hardly conceding the Tea Party vote. On Wednesday afternoon Bachmann spoke at a Tea Party Express rally in Des Moines. The competition between Bachmann and Perry for conservatives in Iowa will soon become a major front in the Republican nomination battle.

'Moderate' Jon Huntsman Releases Right-Wing 'Jobs' Plan

In what the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza called Jon Huntsman’s “last, best shot” to give his flagging campaign some momentum, the former China ambassador released a plan to create jobs. Speaking in New Hampshire Wednesday afternoon, Huntsman outlined his ideas, with more detailed points on his website.

Huntsman, a former Utah Governor, positions himself as the sane, mainstream alternative to the wingnuts that make up the rest of the Republican field. But the plan is a compendium of conservative hobbyhorses.

The vast majority of his plan has nothing to do with creating jobs, at least in the short term. He focuses heavily on “regulatory reform,” which sounds like some non-ideological effort to streamline government but is mostly code for pandering to the Tea Party. Huntsman would repeal the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill and the Affordable Care Act. He would “Dramatically Rein In The EPA” and “Curb The Excesses”—meaning eviscerate the essential regulatory power— of agencies like the National Labor Relations Board. All of this will please the Koch brothers, but what it has to do with spurring hiring in the near future is unclear, especially since conservatives like to moan about business being unable to hire in a climate of uncertainty. What they mean by uncertainty, it turns out, is if a business owner doesn’t know if his top marginal income tax rate might go up by four points when the Bush tax cuts expire. The uncertainty of proposing enormous alterations to existing law is apparently no problem at all.

Huntsman’s other ideas—such as streamlining drug approval at the FDA, increasing domestic oil drilling, eliminating subsides for foreign oil and expanded free trade—may have some minor job-creation benefits years down the line. They may also have adverse impacts on the environment or consumers’ health. But what they surely will not have is an appreciable effect on the unemployment rate in 2013 if Huntsman were elected.

Huntsman’s plan heavily emphasizes tax reform. His proposals are collectively intended to be revenue neutral. No Republican these days can propose to raise aggregate tax revenue, which is unfortunate, since, as they never tire of pointing out, we have a massive budget deficit. Of course, no Republican has laid out a plan to actually balance the budget entirely through spending cuts.

Our tax code already privileges wealth—in the form of capital gains, for example—over work, which is taxed at a higher rate. Huntsman would exacerbate that inequality by eliminating the tax on capital gains and dividends entirely. Presumably this is intended to spur investment, even though there is no evidence that tax rates affect whether people invest.

Huntsman would also lower income tax rates while eliminating deductions. That’s an idea with merit, but it’s an awfully slow way to grow jobs. “It is important when talking about a jobs plan to ask whether the plan will move the dial to substantially lower unemployment in the next year or two,” says Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute. “It is hard to see how this plan would. Spending cuts and balancing the budget at 9 percent unemployment is widely and appropriately believed to reduce jobs, not create them.”

Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, dismisses Huntsman’s plan as “just Tea Party talking points.”

“We had strong growth with higher taxes—from the 1940s to the ‘70s and in the 1990s—and pathetic growth with lower taxes,” Baker notes. “There has been no flood of regulations in the last decade, despite the Tea Party tirades, so the premise of this plan is a joke.”

And that joke is the economic plan of the most serious Republican candidate.

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Why Moderate Republicans Still Support Mitt Romney

Mitt Romney has solidified his status as the sole candidate of the moderate wing of the Republican Party. He vastly outpaced all his opponents in fundraising in the last quarter. Jon Huntsman attacks Romney relentlessly, aware that his only hope is to supplant Romney as the moderate choice, but he barely registers in polls. Last week Romney quickly starting scooping up endorsements from Tim Pawlenty supporters after Pawlenty proved insufficiently extremist for Iowa Republican activists. While Romney’s overall front runner status has slipped thanks to the rise of Michele Bachmann and entry of Rick Perry, Romney remains the candidate of mainstream and establishment Republicans.

At first glance, this might seem natural and intuitive. Romney’s record in Massachusetts is reasonable and pragmatic. But for the last four years Romney has been running for president, assiduously courting conservatives. His current positions—staunchly anti-abortion rights, anti–gay rights, anti-immigration and unconvinced of anthropogenic climate change—are anathema to the socially moderate elite wing of the GOP. So why are they sticking by Romney?

There are four reasons: the importance of biography over platform, the widespread assumption that Romney doesn’t believe what he says, the lower salience of social issues and the lunacy of his competition.

After the gross incompetence of the Bush administration, mainstream Republicans want someone who conveys competence. Romney, with his successful business career and carefully coiffed, Power Point presentation–filled persona, has that base covered. “What Mitt Romney benefited from in 2008 is that there’s a real hunger for a candidate who can really do the job of president,” says David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter whose website FrumForum.com is the hub of intelligent and reasonable conservatism. “Romney convinces people he can do the job. As a manager of large organizations and a turnaround artist, he’s especially appealing on that ground.”

Then there’s the way that Romney ironically benefits from the comically brazen, dishonest nature of his pandering to the right. Since it’s so blatantly obvious that he doesn’t really think we need, say, a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, no one in the Wall Street wing of the GOP needs to worry when he spouts such irrational dogma.

Republican elites have long backed candidates who take reactionary social positions, safe in the knowledge that they will never act on them, or never have the chance to. “There’s no possibility of making abortion illegal,” says Bruce Bartlett, a former economic advisor to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush who has since left the Republican Party. “There’s no possibility that we’re going to pass legislation on prayer in schools. Social issues are not really legislative issues. They’re just signaling mechanisms, a way of saying ‘I’m one of you, vote for me.’ We saw this in Reagan, where he never did anything on these issues.”

Of course, Romney’s biggest advantage in holding onto mainstream Republican support while adopting right-wing positions is the fact that he has no competition for their favor. “He’s the most moderate candidate with a chance of winning,” says Bartlett. “The other candidates are a mile right of center and he’s only three-quarters of a mile. Maybe [moderate Republicans] hope he’s not completely insane and he just says the stupid things he says because the Republican electorate demands it and they hope that he’ll govern in as he did in Massachusetts. But maybe that’s just wishful thinking.”

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Tea Party Senate Primary Campaigns to Watch

Tea Party activists helped Republicans win a landslide in the 2010 midterm elections, but they are already unhappy. Less than a year into the new Congress, they see a string of broken promises: the debt ceiling raised, insufficient spending cuts and politics being conducted behind closed doors. “The Republican leadership came in with promises that didn’t happen,” says Dawn Wildman, a national coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots. “They are doing backroom deals, not putting up bills online for seventy-two hours before voting on them, and not keeping other promises.”

Wildman is in regular contact with state and local Tea Party activists and she says they are displeased with their local Republican incumbents and open to backing primary challenges against them virtually everywhere. “There’s not one state saying ‘we just love our guys and want to keep them forever,’ ” says Wildman. “People are not willing to hold their nose to vote any more.”

Some Republicans, though, may be given a pass by the DC-based conservative organizations that often partner with the Tea Parties. For instance FreedomWorks, Dick Armey’s fiscally conservative group, takes a more pragmatic approach to politics. They intend to back right-wing challengers to senators in conservative states where the Republican primary essentially anoints the general election victor. But in Massachusetts, thus far, they are giving a pass to Republican Senator Scott Brown for his numerous heresies. “What you can get in Massachusetts is different than in Utah,” says Matt Kibbe, executive director of FreedomWorks. “I don’t see a better alternative to Scott Brown at this point.”

Wildman calls that view “incredibly short-sighted.” She says that Tea Party activists in Massachusetts “couldn’t wait to see Scott Brown gone. They’re more concerned with his RINO [Republican In Name Only] status than taking a Democratic seat. From outside we say that’s about the best you’re going to get, but on the inside there’s no compromise.”

Even so, there are plenty of states that grassroots Tea Partyers and national organizations like FreedomWorks will work together on, even if they haven’t yet found a candidate. Here are four Senate races to watch for Tea Party insurgencies.

Utah: “We’re going after Orrin Hatch,” says Kibbe. “We’re going to replace him with someone better.” Hatch, like his former Senate colleague from Utah Bob Bennett, has a fairly conservative, if establishment-friendly, track record. But Tea Party activists took over the Utah Republican convention in 2010 and booted Bennett off the primary ballot, thus ending his career. Hatch, like Bennett, voted for the TARP bailouts and showed a willingness, later abandoned, to work with Democrats on healthcare reform. “[Hatch’s] record looks like Senator Bennett’s,” says Kibbe. “Pro-spending, he supported virtually every bailout that’s been on the table, the individual mandate.”

But the thing that most sticks in the craw of Tea Party activists is that Hatch worked with Ted Kennedy to create the S-CHIP program, which gives health insurance to children from uninsured families that do not qualify for Medicaid.

Hatch has been on a charm offensive to win over Tea Party activists while eliminating prospective competition by raising vastly more funds than any prospectives opponent. Representative Jason Chaffetz, who was seen as Hatch’s strongest potential challenger, announced last week that he isn’t running. But Hatch is not in the clear yet. “We’re happy with some of the recent votes that he’s taken,” says David Kirkham, a Utah Tea Party organizer. “He stood up for Cut, Cap and Balance.” But, adds Kirkham, “he’s got some real stinkers of votes.” Hatch also, as conservative blogger Michele Malkin notes with disgust, co-sponsored a national service bill with Kennedy. Kirkham says the Utah Tea Party will be vetting candidates, looking for a challenger with private sector experience. Thanks to Utah’s unusual rules governing ballot access, Tea Party leaders think they can keep Hatch off the primary ballot, thus mooting his financial advantage. Any candidate who meets with Tea Party approval would surely be an uncompromising extreme conservative. Senator Mike Lee (R-UT), who unseated Bennett, voted against the debt ceiling deal, issuing a statement with Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) as to why.

Indiana: Just as Hatch’s relationship with Kennedy was a famous example of bipartisan friendship, Senator Dick Lugar (R-IN) mentored an Illinois freshman Democrat named Barack Obama. Lugar is fairly conservative, but he has made nuclear non-proliferation his legacy. “A lot of people are looking at Lugar,” says Kibbe.

Nominally the Tea Party movement is focused on economic and constitutional liberty. But as studies of its membership have shown, Tea Party activists are overwhelmingly conservative Republicans. The best predictors of Tea Party identification, in fact, are socially conservative views. So Lugar is being targeted mostly for a record of sensible, bipartisan work like nuclear non-proliferation treaties, that has nothing to do with taxing and spending.

James Bratten, state coordinator for the Indiana Tea Party Patriots, lists Lugar’s main apostasies as his role in the START treaty to reduce nuclear arms, supporting the nominations of Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court, co-authorship of DREAM Act and voting for TARP. Bratten says conservative Indiana Republicans at the county level are lining up behind Richard Murdoch, the state treasurer. Replacing Lugar with a more doctrinaire conservative would be a major blow to bipartisanship, especially on foreign policy.

Florida: In 2010 the most high-profile Tea Party insurgency might have been Marco Rubio’s overwhelming destruction of Florida Governor Charlie Crist in the Republican Senate primary. Crist had been a rising GOP star as recently as 2008, when he was short-listed by Senator John McCain for the vice-presidential nomination. Then the party took its dramatic rightward turn and Crist’s moderate stances on some social and environmental issues made him persona non grata.

When Senator Mel Martinez stepped down, Crist had appointed his chief of staff, George LeMieux, to replace Martinez, safe in the assumption that LeMieux wouldn’t run for the seat in 2010 and Crist could. LeMieux served sixteen months, while Crist got trounced by Rubio. Now LeMieux is running for the nomination to challenge Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), who is looking vulnerable. Tea Party icon Rep. Allen West (R-FL) has bowed out of the race, but Tea Party activists are coalescing around Adam Hasner, the former Florida House Majority Leader. So it’s a Rubio protégé (Rubio was Florida’s House Speaker) against a Crist protégé. Kibbe calls it a rerun of the 2010 race.

The candidates, naturally, are sparring over who is more conservative. LeMieux is touting his 92 percent rating from the American Conservative Union, while attacking Hasner for supporting a judicial bypass option in Florida’s parental notification abortion law and voting for earmarks. Hasner counters that LeMieux is guilty by virtue of his association with Crist. If either candidate unseats Nelson, Florida will have an awfully conservative senate delegation for a swing state.

Texas: With Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison retiring, Tea Partyers have a chance to replace her with one of their own. Democrats are virtually nonexistent in Texas statewide elections. While Hutchison is no moderate, she was defeated in the 2010 gubernatorial primary by Governor Rick Perry, who ran to her right and portrayed her as a member of the Washington establishment. Tea Partiyers are supporting Ted Cruz, the former Solicitor General of Texas. “There is a huge difference between Cruz and [Lieutenant Governor] David Dewhurst who is the establishment deep-pocketed candidate,” says Kibbe.

Cruz has won endorsements from right-wingers such as Rand Paul, Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA) and National Review’s Jay Nordlinger. Cruz has the perfect biography to excite any movement conservative. Half-Cuban, a debate champion at Princeton and a graduate of Harvard Law, he clerked for Judge Michael Luttig and Chief Justice William Rehnquist. (It’s funny how supposedly anti-elite conservatives suddenly remember how much they love a fancy educational pedigree when one of their own possesses it.) Nordlinger writes that “Ted should be a national conservative cause, the way Rubio was in Florida,” and goes on to fantastize about the “embarrassment of riches” in a future presidential primary between Rubio and Cruz. He’s getting ahead of himself, but if Cruz wins the primary he’s virtually certain to join Rubio in the Senate and gain national prominence. 

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Republican Presidential Candidates Refuse to Credit Obama on Libya

When news emerged from Tripoli on Sunday night that rebels were closing in on the capital city and Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi was soon to be deposed, it should have been a cause for celebration, even among those of us who opposed American military involvement as ill-advised foreign policy adventurism. Although the future remains uncertain, Qaddafi’s departure should and the opportunity it creates should, in and of itself, be noteworthy to anyone aspiring to lead the free world. Republican presidential aspirants did not need to say much to rise to the occasion: a simple statement of praise for the good news, or hope that Libyans will build a better future, or that the aftermath won’t follow the chaos and mayhem of post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, or that the US will be supportive without extending unwise military involvement. But that was asking too much. In many cases, Republicans who want to be president failed to act presidential.

The highest marks go, as usual, to Jon Huntsman. Huntsman had opposed US involvement in the Libyan conflict because we are too over-extended, especially financially, to afford another war. But nonetheless he said on Monday: “Gaddafi has been a longtime opponent of freedom, and I am hopeful—as the whole world should be—that his defeat is a step toward openness, democracy and human rights for a people who greatly deserve it."

Rick Perry, not known for his sober commentary, issued a similar statement. But Perry pretended that Qaddafi’s regime had just spontaneously combusted, instead of acknowledging the role that the US and its allies played, much less—heaven forbid—praising Obama. “The crumbling of Muammar Ghadafi’s reign, a violent, repressive dictatorship with a history of terrorism, is cause for cautious celebration,” Mr. Perry said in a statement. “The lasting impact of events in Libya will depend on ensuring rebel factions form a unified, civil government that guarantees personal freedoms, and builds a new relationship with the West where we are allies instead of adversaries.”

Not everyone followed their lead. Mitt Romney issued a strange statement demanding that the not yet formed Libyan government extradite Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, who was convicted for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. The Scottish government released Megrahi in 2009. Romney’s demand is politically clever, as it positions him as a more forthright defender of American interests than Obama. But it is wildly unsound on policy grounds. For one thing, al-Megrahi has already been tried, convicted, served time and released. To try him again would violate the constitutional principle of double jeopardy. And the US has more pressing concerns in Libya than further punishing al-Megrahi. Our first demand of the new Libyan government should be that it set up a system of constitutional liberty that safeguards individual freedom using an independent judiciary, free press and free religion. Secondarily they will need to hold elections so as to be democratically governed. Then we can perhaps we can work with them on our own strategic interests in the region. Romney’s focus on al Megrahi is an unhelpful diversion.

Remarkably enough, Michele Bachmann actually made more sense in her response to the Libyan events than did Romney. Bachmann hit similar notes to Huntsman and Perry but prefaced them by reiterating her opposition to the US role in Qaddafi’s ouster. “I opposed US military involvement in Libya and I am hopeful that our intervention there is about to end,” said Bachmann in a statement. “I also hope the progress of events in Libya will ultimately lead to a government that honors the rule of law, respects the people of Libya and their yearning for freedom, and one that will be a good partner to the United States and the international community.”

Bachmann’s comment should not, unfortunately, be taken as a sign that she holds surprisingly realist or dovish views on foreign policy. Rather, as Eli Lake explains in The New Republic, she belongs to the racist school of thought among anti-Muslim bigots on the right who believe Muslims are not capable of democratic self-governance. As Lake writes, “Such ideas almost certainly explain why Bachmann showed little interest in backing the Arab protesters earlier this year. Many neocons attacked President Obama for not doing enough to support the protesters in Egypt, but Bachmann criticized the president from the opposite side.”

Rick Santorum churlishly tried to deny Obama credit for the victory our military support just assisted. ”Ridding the world of the likes of Gadhafi is a good thing, but this indecisive President had little to do with this triumph,” he said in a statement.

But give credit to those candidates for at least addressing a NATO-backed rebellion in the Middle East overthrowing a longtime US adversary. Half of the GOP field has simply ignored the event, since it is difficult to fit into their partisan framework.

Of course, foreign policy is also a soft spot for most Republican candidates. All Republicans must wrestle with President Bush’s failures to pacify Afghanistan, catch Osama bin Laden, spread democracy in the Middle East, enhance American popularity or prestige abroad, or manage the Iraqi occupation. Obama, by contrast, killed bin Laden, has seen the Arab Spring rise on his watch, drawn down troops in Iraq without disaster unfolding, and more successfully combated Al Qaeda than Bush did. All that makes this a hard time to criticize Obama, particularly on the grounds that he is soft on national security. Qaddafi’s departure will make it no easier.

Moreover, the GOP field right now is a group with virtually no foreign policy expertise. Composed primarily of former governors and House backbenchers, only Huntsman can claim any significant foreign policy experience. And several candidates have shown themselves to be especially incoherent or ignorant on the Middle East.

Back in March Newt Gingrich made a series of contradictory and controversial statements on US involvement in Libya. On March 7, he called for a no-fly zone “this evening,” explaining, “All we have to say is that we think that slaughtering your own citizens is unacceptable and that we’re intervening.” But on March 23, after the no-fly zone had begun, he said he opposed it. “We are not in a position to go around the world every time there’s a local problem and intervene.” Having taken two diametrically opposed positions, anything he says now will counter one of them, so he is probably reluctant to contradict himself yet again.

Pizza magnate Herman Cain made his biggest gaffe of the campaign when he made a statement in May that exposed his total unfamiliarity with the issue of the Palestinian right of return, so he may be wary of weighing in on foreign policy as well.

Foreign policy divides the Republican candidates as no other issue does. The only interesting part of the last debate was seeing Rick Santorum and Ron Paul debate US policy towards Iran. Paul had also opposed the Libyan intervention, but has been surprisingly quiet on Qaddafi’s downfall.

It seems, though, that there is one thing the Republicans can always agree upon: never to credit Barack Obama for anything, even an outcome they sought.

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Cognitive Dissonance: Conservative Media Respond to Libya's Liberation

The success of the Libyan revolution and toppling of Muammar Qaddafi has put conservative commentators in an awfully tough position. President Reagan had unsuccessfully bombed Libya in order to kill Qaddaffi, and had failed at exacting any revenge for Libya’s murder of hundreds of American civilians on Pan Am flight 103. President Bush had worked to normalize relations with Libya and claimed Qaddafi’s willingness to give up weapons programs as evidence of the Iraq invasion’s success at scaring the bad guys straight.

But Qaddafi remained a dictator and a routine violator of human rights. Conservatives say the United States has an obligation to intervene militarily to depose hostile regimes such as Qaddafi’s. But it’s awfully embarrassing for them when it turns out that it is a Democrat who does so, and at considerably lower cost than we paid in Iraq. So how did the conservative media respond on Monday?

One approach is to avoid the subject. Visitors to Townhall.com this afternoon were treated to sizable headlines about Vice President Biden’s comments on China’s one-child policy and Representative Maxine Waters’s distaste for the Tea Party, but could be forgiven for not realizing anything had happened at Libya at all. An Associated Press story relegated to a small side box was the extent of their Libya coverage.

Human Events was practically a stereotype of itself. Its first story in the site lead box asked, “How Long Will Sarah Palin Keep us in Suspense?” followed by an attack on Obama as anti–free trade, a story complaining that Obama is on vacation and an apparent attempt at humor arguing that placing hand sanitizer in the voting booth will help Republicans win next fall. The word “Libya” was nowhere to be found on the homepage.

Influential blog Red State did not weigh in on Libya all day Monday.

The neoconservative Weekly Standard, which exists primarily to editorialize in favor of militarily toppling Middle Eastern regimes, became suddenly demure. They dutifully reported statements from Obama and leading Republicans on the events without offering any analysis.

Other conservative outlets took it upon themselves to finesse the fact that Barack Obama just helped overthrow a terrorism-sponsoring tyrant into their preconceived notions about foreign policy. It wasn’t easy.

On Fox News Sean Hannity cracked that the Libya operation shows that Obama “agrees with President Bush’s doctrine of pre-emptive” military action. This makes no sense, unless Hannity is under the bizarre false impression that the United States supported the Libyan rebels to preempt some imagined attack on the United States’s using imaginary weapons of mass destruction. Otherwise, there is no meaningful analogy to Iraq. Hannity also took multiple shots at Obama for being “on the golf course” during these events.

“So Qaddafi has been toppled, but only after a notably weak and unnecessarily prolonged campaign,” Stanley Kurtz writes in National Review. Rather than seeing our strategic objective achieved without a single American casualty as a good thing, he complains of “a reluctance to see American casualties.” Aside from lives lost and dollars spent (cost being a factor that supposed fiscal conservatives never mention when exhorting the United States to invade foreign countries), the other cost of the Iraq War we have been spared thus far in Libya is the wave of anti-Americanism stirred up by a unilateral invasion. That also disappoints Kurtz, who writes disapprovingly that “Obama was determined that Libya should stand as a precedent for multilateral interventions under United Nations auspices, fought according to UN rules of war.” Most preposterously, Kurtz claims that Obama’s success at working with allies to do what Ronald Reagan could not is evidence that our defense has gone soft. “We may have narrowly escaped the disaster of a failed intervention but Iran, Russia, China, North Korea, and other potential adversaries have taken note of the West’s weakness.”

The Wall Street Journal editorial page made the now-moot criticism that Obama took too long to get behind the insurgency. “We and many others had urged the State Department to engage with the rebels from the earliest days of the revolt, but the U.S. was slow to do so.” Compared to, say, the American Revolution victory has come pretty quickly for the Libyan rebels, but not fast enough for the keyboard commandos on Rupert Murdoch’s payroll.

With these kinds of responses to an operation’s success, it’s hard to imagine what criticisms conservatives would come up with if the Libya mission had actually failed. But they’d figure out something, because that’s what partisan hacks do. 

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Conservative Criticism of Rick Perry's Corporate Cronyism

We recently reported on how Texas Governor Rick Perry has raked in remarkably large donations from business executives in exchange for governmental appointments and policy favors. Now even conservatives are criticizing Perry for putting the interests of corporations ahead of the public interest.

The conservative Washington Examiner lambasted Perry on Wednesday as a “cowboy corporatist.” Timothy Carney, who covers the intersection of corporate and political power for the Examiner, detailed how Perry created and ran the Texas Enterprise Fund and the Texas Emerging Technology Fund to hand over taxpayer money to private businesses. The nominal purpose is helping businesses expand in Texas or relocate there. Being a Perry donor is the surest route to winning a grant from one of these slush funds. Half of Perry’s “mega-donors” have gotten money. Examples include a $4.5 million grant to $80,000 Perry donor David Nance and poultry mogul Joe Sanderson, who gave Perry’s campaign $165,000, receiving $500,000 from the state government.

Carney concludes that “Perry made government a venture capital fund.” The truth is much worse. Venture capital funds can make a profit for their investors. In this case, government was, in the words of Craig McDonald of Texans for Public Justice (TPJ), “providing direct grants to profitable corporations.” Perry turned Texas into a corporate welfare agency.

What did Texas get in return? Not much, according to a “Phantom Jobs,” a 2009 study by TPJ, which found that 66 percent of Texas Enterprise Fund (TEF) grant recipients failed to deliver on their job creation promises. Looking at the compliance reports of fifty TEF grants that cost a total $368 million, TPJ found that thirty-three recipients failed to meet or amended their job creation or maintenance projections. Collectively they delivered 30,381 jobs instead of the promised 49,581. At more than $10,000 per job created, Perry would certainly deride any federal program with similar results as wasteful socialism.

“He’s an exuberant corporate Republican,” says former Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower. “He’s fully embraced the corporate plutocracy.”

Another boondoggle for contributors was Perry’s dream of creating a “Trans-Texas Corridor” (TTC). The mega-highway would have taken land through eminent domain to build a privately owned toll road. Eager to grab their share of the impending road-paving bonanza, construction companies stepped up their donation and lobbying expenditures. As TPJ reported in 2009, “Since the state solicited its first bids for a leg of the TTC project in 2003, private companies that have landed lucrative TTC contracts have contributed $3.4 million to Texas candidates and political committees—a significant increase in their political activity. TTC contractors also have spent up to $6.1 million on Texas lobbyists since the state solicited their respective bids.”

The construction industry is a major source of Perry’s campaign cash. According to TPJ, “From mid-1997 to mid-2001, TxDOT [Texas Department of Transportation] contractors contributed $239,750 to Perry. During Perry’s first nine months in the Governor’s Mansion his administration awarded almost $1 billion in contracts to these same TxDOT contributors.” Between July 2003 and July 2008 Perry received $354,450 from contractors for the Trans-Texas Corridor.

The project has caused headaches for Perry among many different conservative constituencies. Concerns about eminent domain abuse cost Perry the endorsement of the Texas Farm Bureau in his 2006 re-election campaign. Conspiracy-minded paranoids think the Trans-Texas Corridor was part of a planned “NAFTA superhighway.” The right-wing website Townhall ran an article last week called “Rick Perry’s NAFTA Superhighway Problem.” And the plan to lease the highway to a foreign corporation raised hackles on the nativist right.

Perry’s favors for other foreign corporations could pose problems for him with hawkish conservatives. Neoconservative Eli Lake reports in The New Republic that Perry enticed Citgo, owned by the Venezualan government, to move its headquarters to Houston and expand a refinery in Texas with a grant and low-interest loan package worth $35 million. Perry also has cozy relations with Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei.

The most notorious misstep Perry made among conservatives was signing legislation that would require vaccination among Texas schoolgirls for HPV. HPV vaccination happens to be a good idea. But given Perry’s opposition to most other good ideas, it’s just as likely that he was swayed by the $6,000 dollars that Merck, the maker of the vaccine, gave to Perry’s re-election campaign, as by the merits of the issue. Perry has recently reversed himself on the subject, but his right-wing critics, such as blogger Michele Malkin, remain unmollified. After eight years of crony capitalism under another recent Governor of Texas, it’s not only conservatives that Perry will have to worry about.

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Rick Perry's Polluter Cronies

One of Texas Governor Rick Perry’s oft-touted strengths in the Republican primary is his demonstrated prowess at fundraising. Less widely known is how he has raised that money and what he has done in return for it. According to Texas good government and environmental watchdogs, Perry has raised much of his campaign funds from business executives who have financial interests in state government decisions. Often Perry’s supporters come from the energy sector and Perry’s help for them has come at the expense of the environment.

Over his three campaigns for governor Perry raised a remarkable $102 million. Perry’s predecessor, George W. Bush, who was no slouch at fundraising himself, brought in $41 million over two campaigns.

Half of Perry’s haul, $51 million, has come from just 204 sources. Some are political action committees, but most are wealthy individuals. “He relies on a relatively small network of very big hitters, wealthy businessmen and their spouses who want something out of Texas government,” says Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, a nonprofit research group that tracks the influence of money in Texas politics. As the Dallas Morning News reported during Perry’s re-election bid last year, “Perry tapped scores of big-dollar donors—including some who have business before the state or have benefited from taxpayer subsidies,” to vastly outraise his Democratic opponent, Bill White.

As McDonald explains, “Texas is a pay-to-play state.” That means Perry has generously rewarded his contributors with appointments and political favors. Perry has appointed 921 people, who have donated to his campaigns, for a total of $17.1 million, to various jobs and boards. These are not always disinterested public servants. McDonald says, “There are lots of people who have business interests who got appointed to positions with regulatory power over them.”

Perry has also shown an eagerness to do the bidding of his major supporters. Most notably, his second-biggest all-time donor, Harold Simmons, owns a nuclear waste dump. Perry led the charge in 2010, while Simmons gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to Perry’s re-election campaign, to allow Simmons to import nuclear waste from thirty-eight states. On June 27 of this year, ten days after Perry signed the legislation, Simmons gave $100,000 to Americans for Rick Perry. Tom Smith, director of Public Citizen’s Texas office, estimates that the rule change will bring upward of $2 billion for Simmons. “If you put money in Perry’s purse, he’ll create policies you need,” says Smith.

Perry has been similarly accommodating of various other energy interests in the state. Texas has violated the Clean Air Act by allowing industrial plants such as oil refineries to reduce emissions overall rather than at each emissions point. When the Environmental Protection Agency informed Texas that they would have to take over Clean Air Act implementation in the state, Perry complained. “Perry’s on the cutting edge of this whole ‘job-killing EPA’ strategy that Republicans have used,” says Smith. There’s a saying Texas, according to Smith that “it’s cheaper to invest in politicians than in pollution controls.” Perry has been similarly critical of the EPA’s efforts to regulate greenhouse gases nationally.

Perry has been carrying water for environmentally destructive industries since his days in the Texas legislature. Back then, in the late 1980s, he led efforts to prevent species such as the golden cheek warbler from being listed as endangered, because their habitats in West Texas were threatened by suburban sprawl. Developers feared that they would be unable to pave over sensitive lands. Perry’s all-time biggest donor is home builder Bob Perry (no relation).

Most infamously, when liberal Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower sought to require farmers to meet some basic safety requirements for use of pesticides, Perry led the opposition. Hightower merely sought to require public posting of when pesticides would be used and what dangerous chemicals they contain, so that farm workers and neighbors could take precautions. Farm workers would also have been not allowed into fields for a time after spraying. The chemical industry was not pleased. Perry, as chair of the relevant subcommittee in the legislature, tried to revoke the Agriculture Commissioner’s rule-making authority and to make the position appointed rather than elected. When that failed, Perry switched parties to run against Hightower, winning his first statewide election in 1990.

“Perry had been recruited by Karl Rove to switch parties and run against me on behalf of the chemical lobbies,” recalls Hightower. “He is a complete whore to polluter interests in our state. He’s avid practitioner of crony politics.”

But just in case you were worried that Perry has enriched polluters while having to live on a public servant’s salary, rest assured that Perry has become a multimillionaire while in public office. In 2001 Perry bought a house from a friend who had bought it from Doug Jaffe, a member of a family with prominent ties in Texas business and political circles, for $300,000, less than two-thirds of its market value. Six years later he sold it to another associate of Jaffe’s for $1.3 million, pocketing an impressive profit.

Why Mitt Romney's Lack of Character Matters

Last week Politico reported that, facing falling approval ratings and high unemployment, President Obama’s re-election campaign would go negative on his Republican opponent. Currently that means training their fire on Mitt Romney, the national front runner. “Obama’s re-elect will portray the public Romney as inauthentic, unprincipled and, in a word used repeatedly by Obama’s advisers in about a dozen interviews, “weird,” write Ben Smith and Jonathan Martin.

The inevitable high-minded hand-wringing about the “moral cost” to the Obama campaign ensued, and by Friday morning Obama adviser David Axelrod was disavowing the story, saying he would fire anyone who calls Romney weird.

Hopefully that’s just spin from Axelrod, because the strategy Politico describes is a good one. The same exact line of attack against John Kerry—that he’s an out-of-touch flip-flopper—worked well for George W. Bush in 2004. That’s how Bush managed to win re-election with only a 48 percent approval rating.

Of course, the attack against Kerry was silly. Anyone who has spent a long enough time in politics will have what at least appear to be shifts in position. George W. Bush could have just as fairly been described as a flip-flopping elite as Kerry, but that was hardly the main reason Bush was a bad president.

So what makes Romney’s flip-flopping different? The fact that it exposes not just changes in specific position but rather Romney’s total lack of identity or purpose in politics.

Most politicians adhere to a broad political orientation, such as liberal Democrat or conservative Republican, and shift positions over time as the nature of what it means to hold that place on the spectrum changes. For example, if you are a liberal on social issues you may have flip-flopped over the last decade from opposing to supporting gay marriage, as the realm of what is politically possible has shifted. But there is an underlying constancy in that you are always pushing for social progress.

Romney, on the other hand, has no such identity. In Massachusetts he ran to the left; now he runs far to the right. There is no overarching purpose—whether it be fighting for social justice or defending traditional family values—to his political career.

It is perfectly normal for candidates to recalibrate their stance on a complicated issue such as a war over time, but Romney changes his position on issues like abortion on which there is no change of facts on the ground, only in the office he seeks. And when he makes a reversal he adopts the most extreme iteration of his new stance. So he says the Affordable Care Act, modeled on his own law in Massachusetts, is not only a step too far for the federal government it is “a government takeover of healthcare.” (Politifact labels that claim “flatly incorrect.”)

In 2002 he boasted that “there’s not a paper’s width worth of difference” between his and Democrat Shannon O’Brien’s position on abortion, now he adheres to Republican antiabortion rights orthodoxy and wants a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. In 1996 he was so opposed to a flat tax that he took out an ad in the Boston Globe calling it “a tax cut for fat cats.” On Monday he said he wants only one tax bracket.

Romney obviously doesn’t really believe what he now says and it’s not clear if he believed his initial position either. That’s especially true because he does not even bother to come up with a plausible explanation—other than political expediency—as to why he has so radically changed his position.

What one comes away with from watching Romney is that he lacks any core convictions whatsoever. That’s preferable to the ignorance and extremism of his primary opponents. But it is not a positive characteristic. People who got into politics with no sense of what they wish to accomplish other than attaining status and power strike many voters as untrustworthy, and with good reason.

There is nothing underhanded or unfair about Obama’s campaign or supporters pointing this out. It is the flip side of how he would run against Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann, where he would presumably attack their outlandish, if honestly held, positions.

Every election is, or at least should be, a “choice” election rather than a referendum on the incumbent. Voters who went to the polls in 2010 to register their displeasure with deficit spending and slow economic growth by voting Republican acted stupidly. They returned to power the Republicans’ austerity regime and refusal to make a fair deal to reduce the deficit. If they had realized that they were choosing the greater of two evils they might have voted differently. It is not only fair for the Obama campaign to make this choice explicit, it is their democratic duty.

If you want to see just how far Mitt Romney has come from 2002, watch this video his gubernatorial debate with O’Brien.

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A Handful of Rural Right-Wing Extremists Chase Tim Pawlenty Out of the Race

A day after Saturday’s Iowa Straw Poll results came in—Michele Bachmann edged out Ron Paul, with Tim Pawlenty a distant third, just ahead of Rick Santorum and Herman Cain—Pawlenty pulled the plug on his flagging presidential campaign. What does this tell us? That our system of nominating presidential candidates is badly broken, beholden to a small number of extremist party activists in a couple of arbitrarily chosen small, rural states and an unthinking media echo chamber.

The Iowa Straw Poll is not a nominating contest. No convention delegates are assigned there. It is a fundraiser for the Iowa state Republican Party. It is presumed to be significant because, according to campaign reporters like the New York Times’s Jeff Zeleny, it is “a test of organizing strength.” And organizing strength is considered an important capability in Iowa, where the anti-democratic caucus system depresses turnout relative to a normal primary. Since only hardcore activists will participate in the caucuses and they must be cajoled to the polls, the mind-numbing process of identifying and turning out every last supporter in Ottumwa County is a crucial component of campaigns to lead the free world. What this skill has to do with, say, balancing the federal budget is unclear. The mainstream media, meanwhile, report on this ludicrous state of affairs as if it were an objective fact rather than a product of their own unhealthy obsession with Iowa. (After all, Iowa still assigns only a small number of delegates. If the media treated it like comparably sized Mississippi, the importance of who wins there would vanish.)

The straw poll, since it does not even count and it costs money to participate, has even lower turnout than the caucuses. So only the most partisan, ideological Republicans attend. That skews the results wildly to the far right, as demonstrated by Rev. Pat Robertson’s victory at the 1988 straw poll. The results should be taken with an enormous grain of salt.

Bachmann and Paul are members of the House of Representatives, a position from which no one has ascended directly to the presidency in well over a century. Bachmann, with her fervent religiosity, vicious homophobia and penchant for ludicrous right-wing stances such as refusing to raise the debt ceiling and abolishing the Environmental Protection Agency, is a favorite of both the economic and religious far right. Although her winning the Iowa caucuses, or even the Republican nomination, is not considered impossible, it would be nearly unprecedented. One would have to go back to Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater to find a comparably controversial candidate receiving a major party nomination. Paul, whose eccentric passions include abolishing the Federal Reserve and returning to the gold standard, has an ardent following but no appeal among mainstream Republicans. Everyone knows he is extremely unlikely to win any primaries or caucuses, and he will not win his party’s nomination.

A healthy approach for the political and media class would be to treat the straw poll as a curiosity. It’s a chance to see what the most extreme Republican base thinks, but it doesn’t tell you that Bachmann and Paul will come in first and second in Iowa, much less in the Republican primary race. Instead the media creates an elaborate expectations game. While national front-runner Mitt Romney is given an excuse for finishing seventh—behind Rick Perry, who did not even appear on the ballot—because he did not seriously contest the Iowa Straw Poll, campaign reporters repeat ad nauseam that the event constitutes, in Zeleny’s words, “an important test” for Pawlenty. And so the Washington Post dutifully told us on Sunday morning that “Pawlenty’s disappointing finish threatens to end a candidacy that once held great promise…. He will have to reevaluate in light [of] the tallies.”

And re-evaluate he did, announcing Sunday morning that he “cannot envision a path forward to victory.” Why is that the case, as opposed to Pawlenty’s initial, equally plausible, claim that he “moved from the back of the pack into a competitive position for the caucuses”? There are five months left until the caucuses, and the electorate at them will be saner than at the straw poll.

The answer is the tautology of the chattering classes. Political insiders and campaign reporters viewed the straw poll as the last chance for a campaign suffering from lackluster fundraising and polling numbers to build momentum. By setting it up as Pawlenty’s last stand, anything less than a victory would be seen as a failure to prove viability, thus making it harder to win more donations.

This is all silliness. And it’s a silliness predicated on the importance of Iowa, a state with 1 percent of the country’s population that gets to exercise outsized influence over the nominating process. The result of this exaltation of Iowa and every early clue as to its leanings is that manifestly unqualified candidates such Cain, who as of May did not know what the Palestinian “right of return” was, and theocrats such as Santorum, who lost his 2006 re-election campaign by eighteen points, are kept in the race, while a relatively sane person like Pawlenty is drummed out of it.

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