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Ben Adler

Ben Adler

 The 2012 election, Republican politics and conservative media.

Five Questions for Rick Perry

Texas Governor Rick Perry has joined the presidential race. His spokesman affirmed on Thursday that he plans to run and will make a formal announcement in his speech to the Red State convention in Charleston, South Carolina, on Saturday. Perry has become a rock star in many conservative circles. Leading conservative pundits such as Rush Limabugh and William Kristol publicly asked him to run. Despite his mediocre approval ratings, national conservatives credit Perry with governing Texas as a right-wing mecca: low taxes, few regulations to protect the environment, no mass transit, a bare bones social safety net, with guns and executions aplenty. (They also wrongly believe, a misconception Perry actively encourages, that Texas has experienced unusually strong economic growth and that this is attributable to Perry’s policies. As Brad Plumer demonstrated in The New Republic, neither claim withstands scrutiny.)

With his timely jump on the Tea Party bandwagon, his ostentatious religiosity and his ability to draw upon his state’s plenitude of wealthy Republican donors, Perry will instantly join Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann in the top tier of GOP contenders. Poll already show him among the front runners; a CNN/ORC poll released Thursday has him in second, two points behind Romney.

To help introduce Perry and his record to our readers, we hereby inaugurate “Five Questions for,” with questions for the other major candidates to follow. These are questions we would like to ask the candidate, if we had an expectation that he would respond, and that we would like to see reporters pose them on the campaign trail.

Governor Perry:

In April you proclaimed three days of prayer in Texas to ask God to bring rain and end the drought. It hasn’t worked. Do you think God is punishing Texas with drought? Or could it possibly have something to do with climate change?

As Governor you’ve presided over 230 executions. Of the thirty death row inmates whose sentences you commuted, twenty-seven were juveniles after the Supreme Court outlawed executing juveniles in 2005, and two were developmentally disabled adults after the Supreme Court outlawed executing that group. Do you think executing juveniles and the developmentally disabled should be legal? Is there anyone who you think should not be executed? Do you think it’s possible Texas has executed anyone who was innocent?

At a Tea Party rally in 2009 you said that Texas has the right to secede from the Union, saying, “When we came in the Union in 1845 one of the issues was that we’d be able to leave if we decided to do that.” You added that the right might be exercised in the future. “If Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that.” You reiterated these views two days later. This leads some non-Texans to question your commitment to the country you now wish to lead. How do you respond to that concern?

You’re fond of bragging about Texas’s economic performance. Are you equally of proud of Texas’s poverty rate, which is the eighth highest of any state? How about the fact that—according to the Census—Texas ranks fifth highest in energy use per capita and fourteenth highest in violent crime per capita? How would you say your policies have contributed to those statistical outcomes?

Your forthcoming budget will cut billions of dollars from Medicaid and education. Why do you think this is a good idea, in light of the fact that Texas has the most non-elderly women without health insurance of any state, has the sixth highest percentage of women in poverty and the highest rate of children without health insurance?

Republican Debate Offers No Policy Solutions

“Who wouldn’t take that deal, 10 dollars in spending cuts for every one in tax increases?” asked Fox News moderator Bret Baier, at the Republican presidential primary debate Thursday night in Ames, Iowa. Every single one of the candidates raised their hands, to loud applause.

It was, as Jonathan Alter later noted on MSNBC, an “iconic” moment. The GOP field is in total agreement that compromise with Democrats and the majority of Americans who agree with them that deficit reduction must happen and must be done fairly is unacceptable.

In general the debate featured unanimity despite the loud, petty arguments about who supported raising cigarette taxes in Minnesota (Tim Pawlenty versus Michelle Bachmann), and who said what about who (Pawlenty versus Mitt Romney). There was plenty of sniping, but no meaningful disagreement, except for Ron Paul versus Rick Santorum on Iran.

There were pledges of undying fealty to extremist ideology, but no practical explanations of how change would be achieved, other than Representative Michele Bachmann’s promise not to rest until Republicans win a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

Of course, who doesn’t want to vanquish your ideological opponents? But when it comes to how you govern in a country where certain realities, among them the existence of Democrats, apply, the Republican contenders didn’t offer answers. Take Bachmann’s and Herman Cain’s insistence towards the end of the evening that we should not have raised the debt ceiling. Bachmann perversely claims Standard & Poor’s recent downgrade of the US’s credit rating as proof that we “don’t have the money to pay off our debt,” and therefore should not have raised the debt ceiling.

The reason S&P downgraded our credit rating—other than the explicit demand by congressmembers like Bachmann that we ought not to pay our debts—is because Republicans refuse to raise any tax revenue. And there they all were on Thursday, saying they would not raise revenue no matter how sweet the deal.

But solving problems with actual solutions was not on the agenda. Got a problem with healthcare reform? Repeal it, said Bachmann, Romney et al. What to do about the conundrum the Affordable Care Act was designed to solve, which is that we spend more on healthcare while covering a lower proportion of our population than any other developed country? No one said, because no one has answer.

Even Jon Huntsman, the former ambassador to China who shows flashes of sanity, such as his (faint-hearted) reiteration at the debate that he supports civil unions for gay couples, was equally unhelpful on most issues. Take education: the pendulum has swung in the GOP, away from George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” back to believing that the federal government should not guide local schools to better results. So Huntsman said we should repeal No Child Left Behind, but he has no coherent alternative national strategy to address our ongoing educational challenges.

The best articulation of how to solve problems pragmatically came from Romney, but in defense of a policy he has repudiated at the federal level. Romney explained that rather than letting freeloaders obtain healthcare at emergency rooms and pass the cost on to the rest of society he preferred to require Massachusetts citizens to take personal responsibility and buy health insurance. It was, in other words, a good explanation of the rationale for the individual mandate, a sensible conservative answer to the problem of adverse selection in insurance pools. Unfortunately, that’s the kind of position that is verboten in the GOP primary.

GOP Causes S&P Downgrade, but Republican Candidates Blame Obama

It is clear from Standard & Poor’s statement downgrading the federal government’s credit rating that it places the blame squarely on Republican actions and policies. Two of S&P’s biggest concerns about whether the United States will pay off its debt are whether Republicans will be so insane as to refuse to lift the debt ceiling, a possibility Republicans intentionally stoked fears of, and whether the United States will raise much-needed tax revenue. Specifically, S&P changed its baseline assumption that the Bush tax cuts would expire on schedule in 2012 because Republicans are so insistent that they must be renewed. “We have changed our assumption on this because the majority of Republicans in Congress continue to resist any measure that would raise revenues,” wrote S&P. That adds $4 trillion over ten years to the projected deficits. 

So, how are Republican presidential candidates responding? By blaming President Obama, instead of their co-partisans in Congress who are actually responsible. “America’s creditworthiness just became the latest casualty in President Obama’s failed record of leadership on the economy,” said front-runner Mitt Romney in a statement. “His failed policies have led to high unemployment, skyrocketing deficits, and now, the unprecedented loss of our nation’s prized AAA credit rating.” Apparently, Romney knows better than S&P itself why it downgraded our credit rating, and it has nothing to do with lost revenue due to Republican tax cuts, or Republican threats not to pay our debts (a fairly straightforward threat to our creditworthiness if ever there was one.) No, it’s just because of our economic performance, which Romney seems to think is determined entirely by the actions of the president and is in no way beyond his control.

Nominal moderate Jon Huntsman was less partisan and more accurate in his apportioning of blame to Washington as a whole. “Out-of-control spending and a lack of leadership in Washington have resulted in President Obama presiding over the first downgrade of the United States credit rating in our history,” said Huntsman’s statement. “For far too long we have let reckless government spending go unchecked and the cancerous debt afflicting our nation has spread.” That’s perfectly in keeping with Huntsman’s strategy of positioning himself above the partisan fray as Obama and John McCain both did during the primaries last time. Of course, the spending decisions that have brought this on—invading and occupying Iraq and Afghanistan, enacting Medicare Part D, increasing defense and security spending after September 11, 2001—were all initiatives of the Bush administration and his Republican servants in Congress. Huntsman neglects to mention that and instead passively criticizes Obama—but not House Speaker John Boehner—for “presiding over” the downgrade.

Michele Bachmann—who as a member of Congress who refused to vote for a debt ceiling increase is one of the people most responsible for the downgrade—issued a particularly dour statement. “President Obama is destroying the foundations of the US economy one beam at a time,” said Bachmann.

Meanwhile Tim Pawlenty, speaking in Grinnell, Iowa, went on a baffling, nonsensical riff that twisted into knots trying to tie the downgrade to generic conservative talking points. “What he [President Obama] doesn’t understand is all this talk of the full faith and credit in the United States government, he needs to stop being reminded,” explained Pawlenty. “We need to have a president who understands what it means to put our full faith and credit in the American people. His vision for America is to take things out of the private sector and to put it into the government.” You can’t argue with that, can you?

Lost amid the finger-pointing is any review of how the downgrade could have been averted. But, of course, if you’re a Republican you probably don’t want to dwell too much on that question, because the ways we could have done so would come into conflict with Republicans’ obsessive subservience to the myopic interests of a few wealthy men like the Koch brothers and their fanatic supporters like Grover Norquist. Namely, we could have raised tax revenue. Note that I don’t say raising taxes, because we would not have to actually raise marginal rates. Merely allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire on schedule would have done the trick. So would closing tax loopholes while actually lowering rates, had they passed the president’s bipartisan deficit reduction committee’s recommendations, or agreeing to Obama’s $4 trillion debt reduction proposal.

If you want to take a longer view of how the US debt reached this height, Steve Benen of The Washington Monthly made a timeline illustrating how it is almost entirely the Republicans’ fault. But the long view is not of any interest to the modern Republican Party. 

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Mitt Romney's Tea Party Problem

Mitt Romney is the Republican front-runner in national polls and he has raised the most money, but he is lagging in support with an important Republican constituency, especially in the key early states: Tea Party activists. Tea Party leaders say Romney is not the leading candidate among their constituents, even in New Hampshire, which is considered a must-win for the former governor of neighboring Massachusetts. “I wouldn’t say Romney’s the favorite,” says Jane Aitken, coordinator for the New Hampshire Tea Party coalition. Aitken declined to say who is in the lead, as her group does not endorse candidates and even their member groups that do endorse have not yet decided who to support. But she says that from conversations with other Tea Party leaders, there is no clear favorite. 

“The front-runner [among the Iowa Tea Party] would be Michele Bachmann,” says Ryan Rhodes, chairman of the Iowa Tea Party. It is a particularly bad sign for Romney that the qualities in Bachmann that Rhodes cites approvingly are precisely the inverse of Romney’s weaknesses, which are his past apostasies and countless policy reversals. “She’s been consistent. She’s not going to apologize every two seconds for doing things that are not in line with the Tea Party. She hasn’t waited to hear what some poll said.”

In polls Romney sometimes under-performs his overall numbers among self-identified Tea Party supporters. For instance, a McClatchy-Marist poll found Romney in the lead among all Republican-leaning voters but Rick Perry leading among Tea Party voters.

In the 2008 cycle Romney assiduously courted conservatives, calling for doubling the size of the prison at Guantánamo Bay and flip-flopping on gay rights, abortion rights and immigration reform (he now opposes all of them). His adoption of doctrinaire conservatism on social issues continues in this campaign. On Tuesday his campaign announced a Justice Advisory Committee, which will be co-chaired by Judge Robert Bork, the infamous extremist whose Supreme Court nomination was rejected by the Senate.

But some grassroots conservative activists think Romney has been tacking back to the center in this cycle. “He moved to the right in 2008, now he’s going to the left,” says Rhodes. Certainly, Romney has been campaigning as a front-runner, focusing on the more broadly appealing subject of jobs while staying out of the debt-ceiling debacle until a deal had been reached.

Tea Party activists also complain of lackluster outreach from the Romney campaign. “I wouldn’t say Romney has been doing very well with Tea Party conservatives,” says Rhodes. “He’s barely been talking to us.”

“He basically sticks with state Republican party events,” says Aitken. As Politico’s Ben Smith reported Monday, Romney has generally had a more spare schedule than other candidates.

The other problem for Romney is his past moderation and the fact that he seems to let his saner instincts prevail on any subject where he hasn’t yet calibrated a suitably conservative response. Romney upset many conservative—most notably Rush Limbaugh who said “Bye-bye nomination”—when Romney admitted in June that anthropogenic climate change is occurring. At the first GOP debate Romney disagreed with Tea Party phenomenon Herman Cain’s opposition to letting Muslims serve in the cabinet.

Then there’s the elephant in the room for Romney: that he signed into law a healthcare reform bill in Massachusetts that relied on an individual mandate which President Obama used as a model for the Affordable Care Act. “I think [Romney’s problems among Tea Partyers] is principally because of the mandate in Massachusetts,” says Phil Kerpen, vice-president for policy at Americans for Prosperity, a fiscally conservative organization that works with Tea Party groups. “The mandate has become a major issue for conservatives since federal healthcare reform.”

What was once Romney’s signature achievement, and a reason cited by National Review for endorsing him in the last presidential cycle, has become an enormous liability. The policy, of course, is no more liberal than it was in 2007, but conservatives afflicted with Obama Derangement Syndrome now consider it incipient Bolshevism. Romney’s solution—decrying the ACA as a “power grab” while defending his law because it was only at the state level—has strained credulity and failed to mollify his right-wing critics.

FreedomWorks, the Tea Party–affiliated conservative organization run by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, is opposed to Romney’s candidacy. Although FreedomWorks employees point to his overall record and perceived phoniness, their main policy objection is his record on healthcare.

It seems as if economic conservatism has actually replaced religious social conservatism as the doctrine requiring pure, deeply felt and 100 percent faithful adherence. In Massachusetts the state Citizens for Life group is launching a ballot campaign to repeal Romney’s healthcare reform, even as they say Romney’s record on abortion itself is acceptable.

Some Tea Party leaders say Romney still stands a chance with their constituents. Sal Russo, the veteran GOP operative who founded Tea Party Express, says his group polls its donors weekly on their preference in the presidential race. No single candidate has emerged as the consistent winner, and no one has broken 30 percent. “The healthcare mess in Massachusetts raises a red flag,” says Russo. “We met with Romney and shortly thereafter he started to address it. I worked for Ronald Reagan for years, and many times people didn’t agree with Reagan on issues. Whatever somebody did in their college term paper or public office in the past, that's the past. The question is what's your plan today? We're a lot more forward-looking than backward-looking.”

So can a more aggressive campaign of outreach win over Romney’s Tea Party skeptics? “If he has to answer tough questions about his global warming stance and Romneycare, it’s not going to be easy for him,” says Rhodes. But no one ever said running for president is easy. 

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Pawlenty Versus Bachmann Heats up in Iowa

As Representative Michele Bachmann (R-MN) has surged in the polls, her fellow Minnesotan, former Governor Tim Pawlenty, has seethed. How can someone he outranked in the State Senate, who has no legislative achievements and a long record of embarrassing gaffes, be flying past him? Seeing that Bachmann is his main competition in their neighboring state of Iowa and among social conservatives, Pawlenty has been aggressively attacking her in the last few weeks. On Meet the Press he said, “Her record of accomplishment in Congress is nonexistent.” Last week Pawlenty told an audience in Iowa that Bachmann has “a pattern of being inaccurate.”

Now a Pawlenty campaign worker has apparently called Iowa Republicans saying that Bachmann is unstable. According to Ryan Rhodes, 28, who serves as Chairman of the Iowa Tea Party, he received a call last Saturday from a Pawlenty campaign intern. She inquired as to who he might support in the upcoming Ames Straw Poll, and proceeded to trash Tea Party favorites Herman Cain and Bachmann.

“I told them why I backed off Pawlenty,” recalls Rhodes, “and she said something not nice about Herman Cain—but then she said Bachmann is crazy.”

Rhodes doesn’t remember specifically what the intern said about Cain because he “was more upset about the comment about Bachmann.” The essence of the knock on Cain was that he excessively quotes the homespun wisdom of his grandmother. (For example, at the June 13 Republican debate Cain quoted his grandmother on Libya, saying, “It’s a mess.”) As Rhodes ironically notes, this criticism of Cain constitutes “using something unsubstantive to mock Herman Cain for being unsubstantive” [sic].

When the subject turned to Bachmann, the intern said you can’t vote for Bachmann because, “My God, she’s a crazy woman.”

This gambit apparently backfired, as many of Pawlenty’s attacks on Bachmann have. Rhodes says he also disliked the op-ed in the Des Moines Register by Bachmann’s former chief of staff Ron Carey in which he endorsed Pawlenty and scathingly criticized Bachmann. Carey called Bachmann “unable, or unwilling, to handle the basic duties of a campaign or congressional office,” and said she lacks “the judgment, the demeanor, and the readiness to serve as president.” Bachmann’s Congressional office is notorious for high turnover and has many disgruntled former staffers. This presents a major potential liability for her campaign, as these staffers criticize her publicly. On the other hand, many of their attacks, such as the anonymous quotes about her migraines, may win her a measure of sympathy.

Rhodes says he interrupted the intern, explaining that he is seriously considering supporting Bachmann. “I was pretty offended,” says Rhodes. “That kind of thing turns me off to campaigns. You can attack someone on the substance, but to attack them on an unfounded accusation, I think those things are the politics we don’t want to get into.”

After the call ended Rhodes posted about the incident on his Facebook page. According to Rhodes, the Pawlenty campaign saw the Facebook posting and Pawlenty’s Iowa state director Erik Helland called Rhodes to apologize. Rhodes then took the posting off his Facebook wall. The Pawlenty campaign did not respond to a request for comment. They also did not offer much to Rhodes in the way of explanation as to how this happened.

It may, of course, have just been one young intern going off the reservation. But it’s interesting that this particular error reflects an impolitic version of the Pawlenty campaign’s pitch: that he is the least problematic choice they have. The rationale for Pawlenty’s candidacy cited in the media, and less directly by Pawlenty himself, is that his positions are generically conservative, but he is the most electable choice. Former moderates such as Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman have histories that conservative primary voters dislike. Ardent conservatives such as Cain and Bachmann lack experience or policy expertise. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich are unpopular among moderates and discredited in the media. Pawlenty offers a safe choice by process of elimination.

Given that Tea Party activists nominated such polarizing, gaffe-prone firebrands as Sharron Angle, Carl Paladino and Christine O’Donnell for statewide office in the 2010 Republican primaries, Pawlenty’s pitch seems unlikely to inspire Tea Partiers. Of course—as Pawlenty would no doubt point out in private—Paladino, Angle and O’Donnell all lost in the general election.

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Meet Erick Erickson, the New-Media Rush Limbaugh

Last Monday, a lawyer in Georgia issued a proclamation so grandiose that readers could be forgiven for thinking it came from the Pope himself. The writer was Erick Erickson, editor of the blog Red State. In a post titled “The Absolution I Cannot Give,” he intoned:

“In the past 48 hours I have had call after call after call from members of the United States Congress. They’ve read what I’ve written.They agree. But they feel the hour is short and the end is nigh.So some are calling looking for alternatives. Some are calling looking for energy. Many are calling looking for absolution. And so I address them and put it here so you can see my advice. I can give no absolution for what you may be about to do. I can offer no alternatives.”

Republicans in Congress were begging a blogger for permission to vote for the best interests of the country by raising the debt ceiling. If you don’t follow the conservative blogosphere you might have wondered just who is this person was and how he became so important.

(Erickson did not name the representatives calling him, although Representative Joe Walsh (R-IL) confirmed that his office gets advice from Erickson.)

Erickson’s advice is aggressively partisan. Two weeks ago he assured House Republicans that the political fallout from an economically catastrophic default would fall on President Obama, writing:

“As I pointed out to John Boehner yesterday, despite what the pundits in Washington are telling you, it is you and not Obama who hold most of the cards. Obama has a legacy to worry about. Should the United States lose its bond rating, it will be called the ‘Obama Depression’. Congress does not get pinned with this stuff.”

In other words Erickson was encouraging Republicans to destroy the economy on the grounds that it would redound to their political benefit.

How did someone whose only experience in public office has been serving on the Macon, Georgia, city council become an advisor to national Republicans? It’s important to understand that Erickson isn’t just a blogger. “He’s an activist and a media figure,” says one Republican consultant. “Describing him as a blogger is inadequate.” Although Erickson’s rise from obscurity was through Red State, he has a much larger media footprint than just its 178,000 monthly visitors and one million monthly page views. Since April 2010 Erickson has been a regular contributor to CNN. He replaced Herman Cain as host of Cain’s radio show, popular among conservatives, when the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO began his presidential campaign. He also frequently guest hosts for conservative radio host Neal Boortz, meaning Erickson broadcasts for five hours daily.

The other point is that Erickson doesn’t use his blog as a mere forum for opining, much less conveying information. Erickson is an activist and media is his vessel. In some ways that makes him analogous liberals such as Markos Moulitsas, founder of the Daily Kos blog, and Jane Hamsher who runs Firedoglake. But Hamsher and Moulitsas weren’t getting calls from Democrats in Congress begging them for dispensation to vote for a bill that is terrible for Democratic priorities. “I’m not nearly as plugged-in as him,” says Hamsher.

Why does Erickson have more influence than his counterparts on the left? One reason is the strength of his army. Just as liberal bloggers targeted Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, Erickson has gotten involved in Republican primaries. Although his success was mixed, a few high-profile victories, such as helping Tea Party favorite Marco Rubio defeat Florida’s moderate Republican Governor Charlie Crist for Senate, have made Republican politicians respect his power. “When you take out senators, you become a force,” says Hamsher. “[Red State] has a track record now.”

Erickson also benefits from the legitimacy and megaphone that a mainstream media platform such as CNN confers. “It gives him gravitas when he’s on two to three times per week,” Hamsher says.

Also Erickson occupies a position inside the conservative echo chamber: his “Morning Briefing” 5 am e-mail has about 70,000 subscribers and he is cited by prominent personalities such as Rush Limbaugh. When Erickson counter-intuitively declared Democrat Bill Owen’s special election victory in NY-23 “a huge win for conservatives” because “the GOP now must recognize it will either lose without conservatives or will win with conservatives” it became a widespread notion on the right.

Like many right wing pundits, Erickson is prone to disturbing outbursts. He said that he would “pull out my wife's shotgun and see how that little ACS twerp likes being scared at the door,” instead of filling out the American Community Survey. He also complained that “Barack Obama’s brownshirts are after Glenn Beck” after Beck called Obama a racist.

One unnamed Republican leadership aide told the Washington Post that “He certainly doesn't have the influence of the Wall Street Journal, the Weekly Standard, [website] Hot Air or the National Review.” But that might be wishful thinking because the Journal’s editorial page and The Weekly Standard are loyal partisan servants of the GOP. They both urged House Republicans to pass Boehner’s bill.

Sure enough, when Boehner, Senate leaders and President Obama came to an agreement to raise the debt ceiling while cutting more than $2 trillion in spending, with no increase in tax revenues, Erickson split from the conservative media establishment again. Marc Thiessen, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, called it “a victory for the Tea Party.” But Erickson was underwhelmed and said he could not support it. “Keep track of who on the right votes against it,” Erickson wrote. “They’ll be the real heroes.”

So will Erickson and Tea Party conservative leaders, who worked together to elect insurgent extremist Republicans such as Kentucky’s Rand Paul, accept this as a victory or will they seek to exact revenge on the leadership and the members who voted for it? (The deal passed the House 269-161, all but ninety-five of those voting for it were Republicans.)

Perhaps Erickson will realize that he can’t punish 174 Republicans. That concession to reality may disappoint Tea Party activists, who expected dramatic change from such unlikely figures as John Boehner, the veteran business-toady they installed as Speaker of the House. But as liberals can tell them, winning an election and getting what you want are two very different things.

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Republican Presidential Candidates Slam Debt Deal

Republicans should be happy with the debt-ceiling deal President Obama reached with Congressional leaders on Sunday night. They successfully took a routine function of government—allowing the Treasury to borrow money to pay for spending commitments Congress has already made—and used it as a cudgel to beat significant spending cuts with no tax increases out of a Democratic president and Senate.

But they aren’t. The party’s presidential candidates, who are an excellent weathervane for measuring the mood of the primary electorate, are almost unanimous in their opposition to the deal, which would shave at least $2.1 trillion off the debt, entirely from cuts to discretionary (including military) spending. House Republicans, despite their staunchly right-wing politics, are stuck with the responsibility of governing and preventing a catastrophic debt default. So they are rallying around Speaker John Boehner and the deal.

But GOP presidential candidates, most of whom do not currently hold office, are free to take the maximalist position. Front-runner Mitt Romney, who is supposed to represent the moderate, responsible wing of the presidential field, has said the deal should be voted down. He issued the following statement Monday morning:

“As president, my plan would have produced a budget that was cut, capped and balanced—not one that opens the door to higher taxes and puts defense cuts on the table. President Obama’s leadership failure has pushed the economy to the brink at the eleventh hour and 59th minute. While I appreciate the extraordinarily difficult situation President Obama’s lack of leadership has placed Republican Members of Congress in, I personally cannot support this deal.”

Romney, as is his wont, tries to appeal to extremist conservatives while leaving himself some wiggle room. He seeks to soothe the egos of House Republicans who may be stung by his implication that they are sell-outs if they vote for the deal, by saying it’s really Obama’s fault that they have to vote for it.

Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty also opposes the deal. His spokesman Alex Conant sent The Nation a statement:

“This deal is nothing to celebrate. Only in Washington would the political class think it’s a victory when the government narrowly avoids default, agrees to go further into debt, and does little to reform a spending system that cannot be sustained by our children and grandchildren.”

While many of the second-tier candidates have not issued statements, it’s probably safe to assume they will take the same tack, since they are all positioned to the right of Romney and Pawlenty, In fact, conservative heroine Representative Michele Bachmann (R-MN) promised long ago that she will not vote for any debt-ceiling deal that does include repeal of healthcare reform, so it’s obvious she will be dead set against this agreement.

The only Republican presidential aspirant to support the deal thus far is former Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, who is angling for the support of independents and political pundits by striking a more reasonable tone. Huntsman endorses the deal, saying:

“While this framework is not my preferred outcome, it is a positive step toward cutting our nation’s crippling debt. 
Because the legislation promises cuts commensurate with the debt ceiling increase, forces a vote on a much-needed federal balanced budget amendment and provides the only avenue to avoid default, I encourage members of Congress to vote for this legislation.”

Still, Huntsman is hardly adopting a moderate stance on the larger budgetary questions. The Balanced Budget Amendment he speaks so fondly of is, as Ezra Klein has explained, a completely impractical and radical proposal that would turn the federal government into an ungovernable mess like the state of California. (Conservative economist Bruce Bartlett calls it “mind-boggling in its insanity.”)

It’s also important to remember that this deal is not yet done, even if it passes. A special Congressional committee will be asked to come up with $1.5 trillion in further deficit savings. What those savings will consist of is going to be hotly contested in the months to come. Huntsman, the supposed moderate in the GOP field, demands that they include no additional new revenues, saying, “Going forward, I will aggressively advocate for a plan from the congressional committee that includes real cuts, entitlement reform, and revenue-neutral tax reforms—without any tax hikes.”

In short, the Republican presidential contenders can be counted on to push their party and the public debate even further to the extreme right between now and November 2012.

Mitt Romney's Dishonest and Unsuccessful Record on Job Creation

Mitt Romney has made weak job growth under President Obama and his promise to do better the central argument of his candidacy. The Romney campaign sends out daily missives with headlines like “College Students to Obama: Where are the Jobs?” and “President Obama has Failed to get California Back to Work.” They have made multiple videos to hammer the point home.

In fact, whenever Romney is asked about another issue, he is liable to preface his answer by saying that nothing matters so much as jobs. In the last Republican debate,when asked about “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal, he began with the total non sequitur, “Well, one, we ought to be talking about the economy and jobs.”

At the same debate Romney asserted:

“What this president has done has slowed the economy.  He didn’t create the recession, but he made it worse and longer.  And now we have more chronic long-term employment than this country has ever seen before.... This president has failed.  And he’s failed at a time when the American people counted on him to create jobs and get the economy growing.... I spent my life in the private sector, twenty-five years.... You can tell how—how to get jobs going in this country, and President Obama has done it wrong.”

Such a claim—that President Obama has failed at creating jobs and Romney’s private sector experience means he would do better—naturally raises the question: How has Mitt Romney done at creating jobs?

Not so well, as it turns out. First, during that quarter-century of private sector experience, Romney worked at a private equity firm that attempted to take over and turn around failing companies. As Bloomberg reported last week, that often meant laying off workers. Other times, they failed to revive companies and shed workers in bankruptcy. Relative to an innovative entrepreneur such as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who invented a product and built a large company, Romney’s record in the private sector was not one of impressive job creation. These incidents have haunted Romney’s career since 1994, when laid-off workers protested his Senate campaign.

But even if you were to assume that any private-sector experience equals job creation, it does not necessarily follow that business success translates into success in public office. As governor of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007, Romney presided over anemic job growth. According to Reuters, “Labor Department figures showed Massachusetts ranked forty-seventh among the states in the rate of jobs growth in those four years —ahead of only Ohio, Michigan and Louisiana.” You might expect this to make Romney shy about constantly attacking anyone else’s record on job growth, but it hasn’t. Nor, apparently, has a series of embarrassing revelations about Romney’s campaign commercials and speeches. 

In June Romney released an ad featuring a recent college graduate named Ryan King of Midland, Michigan, who complained that he could not find a job. As it turned out, King got a job within days of his college graduation and also happens to be vice-chair of the Midland County Republican Party. The Wall Street Journal dubbed the ad “A Baloney Sandwich.”

Meanwhile Romney’s bizarre commercial in which Nevadans stand up and declare they are “not a bump in the road” as a retort to President Obama’s acknowledgment that there have been bumps in the road to economic recovery was plagued by similar dishonesty. Two of the people holding up signs complaining about the lack of jobs available to them turned out to be full time students and leaders in the University of Nevada–Las Vegas College Republicans chapter.

Undeterred, Romney has pressed ahead with using these phony stand-ins for supposed victims of Obama’s economic record. Last week a Romney ad in New Hampshire featured Packy Campbell, a former Republican state legislator whose business suffered “in the Obama economy.” It turns out that, even by Campbell’s own admission, his business was falling off before Obama took office.

Meanwhile Romney visited the Valley Plaza shopping center in North Hollywood, California, to lament that it has not been redeveloped because of economic conditions. As TPM’s Benjy Sarlin explains, the strip mall was badly damaged in a 1994 earthquake and has struggled ever since. And the death blow to its redevelopment plans were delivered by none other than iStar, a company owned by Romney donor Jay Sugarman, which foreclosed on the property. The Romney campaign did not return a request for comment.

Will any of these embarrassing, dishonest gaffes cause Romney to shift his campaign’s focus? Thus far they have not. On Monday, Romney was back at it, with a press release titled “President Obama has Failed Hispanic Americans on Jobs.” Of course, being shamelessly hypocritical has never bothered Romney before, so why should it start to now?

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Be Fair to the Bachmanns

There are plenty of good reasons to question Michele Bachmann’s fitness for the presidency, including but not limited to: her thin record of legislative achievement, her blatant hypocrisy in opposing government spending while her family accepts farm subsidies and government grants and her bigotry. Here are two things that have nothing to do with her fitness for office: being prone to migraines and her husband’s supposedly effeminate mannerisms.

And yet, for the last week, the media has put intense focus on those two non-issues. Bachmann’s husband Marcus, a counselor, has been getting a lot of attention for his shockingly homophobic views (he calls gays “barbarians”) and the fact that his clinic has employed “reparative therapy” to wean patients off homosexuality. Marcus Bachmann’s homophobia and unhelpful “therapy” reflect on his wife’s fitness to be president, so they are fair game. What should be off-limits to real journalists is baseless speculation that Marcus Bachmann is gay because of the pitch of his voice or sway of his gait.

And yet, taking their cue from comedians such as Jon Stewart and Bill Maher, reporters have begun openly speculating that Bachmann is a closeted or repressed homosexual. Andrew Sullivan made fun of his voice, comparing it to Corky St. Clair from Waiting for Guffman. Keith Olbermann, perhaps unintentionally, seemed to elliptically reference the speculation in a segment on Marcus' homophobia by calling him "bizarre-sounding" and saying he can't be "kept in the closet" during the campaign. More seriously, Michelle Cottle wrote an article in the Daily Beast in which these jokes about Bachmann transmogrified into full-blown “rumors.” These “rumors” about Bachmann’s sexuality cited no claims of Bachmann having ever actually engaged in sexual acts with another man. Absent such evidence, or even assertion, it is simply irresponsible for journalists (as distinct from comedians) to publicly muse on the subject.

It is also a rather perverse sight to see progressives and gay rights advocates reinforcing retrograde norms of gender conformity by arguing, or even merely implying, that a man with a high-pitched voice must be gay. This does nothing to help us build a society in which a wide spectrum of non-conforming gender identities are respected. Homosexuality should not be mocked as the absence of manliness, a point that Sullivan and Dan Savage -- who has delighted in mocking Bachmann’s “fruity” mannerisms -- would be sure to make if the victim of their innuendo were not a political opponent. Just because the victim of vulgar, unsubstantiated attacks is a bigot does not justify them.

There is also a curious assumption by liberals such as Savage that calling Bachmann gay undermines his homophobia. Is the implication that if Bachmann is perfectly straight then his views are not odious? Or that if the voice delivering his statements on homosexuality were gruff and macho they would be any less hurtful and unprofessional?

Meanwhile, the conservative online tabloid the Daily Caller broke a story last week that Michele Bachmann suffers from migraines. These severe headaches can force her to rest, recuperate or occasionally seek medical treatment. And she takes medications to treat and prevent her migraines. The Caller, as is its wont, oversold the scoop as some dramatic expose of a drug-addled candidate. The headline included the incendiary phrase “heavy pill use alleged.” It used all anonymous quotes to imply that Bachmann has some sort of chemical dependency.

The media feeding frenzy around Bachmann’s migraines was stupendous. Pundits immediately debated whether it is a legitimate story, with many conservatives, such as National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru, saying it is. Politico followed the Daily Caller with a report confirming the anecdotes. Apparently, Bachmann took longer to recover from surgery because of her migraines and has even lay down with the lights off a couple times. Shocking. On the trail her opponents were asked about the story and rival Tim Pawlenty’s jab that “All of the candidates I think are going to have to be able to demonstrate they can do all of the job all of the time," was breathlessly reported. Then, of course, the media had to analyze whether Pawlenty’s swipe at Bachmann was a sign of desperation on his part, and ask whether his campaign was behind the story in the first place (a charge Pawlenty denies and which there was no evidence to support.)  

As Nation contributor Dana Goldstein has explained, this is all nonsense. Millions of Americans suffer from chronic pain of one sort or another. Whether it’s migraines, acid reflux, a herniated disc or arthritis, the country is filled with people who take pills to prevent or treat their pain and may sometimes be briefly be incapacitated. Plenty of men with medical conditions, including John F. Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt and migraine sufferer Thomas Jefferson have served as president with distinction. Just as there is a whiff of homophobia to the implications about Marcus Bachmann, there is a distinct odor of sexism to the suggestion that because of a common, relatively minor, condition that Michele Bachmann might supposedly be too enfeebled or chemically dependent to be president.

In both cases, of course, some pundits say they are not actually interested in the unimportant subject itself but the meta-question of how a candidate handles the political challenge. “While Marcus’s sexuality holds little interest for me,” writes Cottle, “I am interested to see how the Bachmann camp will handle the still-below-the-radar-but-getting-tough-to-ignore buzz.”

This is an excuse -- as flimsy as the sudden Republican obsession in 1998 with perjury in civil lawsuits -- to harp on the underlying issue. Since the real subject is transparently irrelevant to the duties of the presidency, political opponents and media pundits turn it into a question of character or management. Did the candidate lie about the issue in the press? Did he or she do damage control correctly? Just ask Anthony Weiner what the end result of that can be.

It’s all a diversion from the real issues. Michele Bachmann is obviously unfit to be president for reasons that have nothing to do with these bogus kerfuffles. Her views -- such as calling homosexuality “part of Satan” -- are intolerant. Her positions are outside the mainstream and based on factually false premises. Her experience is unimpressive. Her rhetoric is irresponsible and divisive. Those are good subjects for reporters to investigate and pundits to analyze. Some of the same outlets, such as Politico and The Daily Beast, have done excellent reporting on these topics. Let’s hope that in the future we can stick to them.

Update: This article originally stated that Sullivan and Olbermann noted Marcus Bachmann's "gay" manner of speaking. Olbermann did not explicitly do so. I apologize for the error.  

Why Moderate Republican Donors are Drawn to Chris Christie

As Republicans lament the shortcomings of their eight presidential candidates, efforts to get a more exciting candidate are ongoing. The drum beat for some unlikely options hasn’t ceased, even when the person in question, like Rudy Giuliani, would make a terrible candidate.

Pundits such as Rush Limbaugh and William Kristol have recently said they’d like Texas Governor Rick Perry to get in the race. But since Perry is a theocratic extremist that does little for the party’s moderate moneybags.

Curiously, many socially moderate big GOP donors have continued to sit on their hands even after former China Ambassador Jon Huntsman got in the race with a record and message aimed squarely at them. Some financiers have given to former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who attempts to bridge the mainstream/right wing divide by running on a moderate, technocratic record with a platform that consists of flip-flops to outlandish right wing positions. (We are meant to believe, for example, that this former advocate of gay rights and abortion rights wants to amend the Constitution to outlaw gay marriage.)

So who are the Wall Street Republicans pining for? Chris Christie, New Jersey’s belligerent governor. Are you confused? So am I, and so is Jonathan Chait. Christie has become a YouTube sensation with the conservative base because he is prone to angry, blunt and condescending outbursts towards villains like public school teachers at town halls. This has not made him popular in New Jersey. His recent poll numbers are low. According to Public Policy Polling results released Wednesday, 43 percent of New Jersey voters approve of the job Christie is doing while 53 percent disapprove. That’s a negative 13 point swing from the last PPP poll on the question, in January.

The fact that Christie, who only got into office by beating an unpopular incumbent in a strong off-year election for Republicans, might not win re-election in 2013 is, perversely, why his backers want him to run for president now. Strike while the iron is still lukewarm!

And so, despite Christie’s repeated insistence that he won’t run in 2012, top Republicans keep begging him to. In May five Iowa Republican donors flew to New Jersey to personally ask Christie to get in the race. Earlier this week major Republican donors gathered to implore him once again to run. Politico’s Mike Allen reported Wednesday in Playbook:

Fifty of the most prized donors in national politics, including several hedge-fund billionaires who are among the richest people in the world, schlepped to a Manhattan office or hovered around speakerphones Tuesday afternoon as their host, venture capitalist Ken Langone (pronounced LAN-goan), a co-founder of The Home Depot, implored New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to reconsider and seek the GOP presidential nomination.... Langone backed Rudy Giuliani in 2008, and his guests came from both parties, although most were moderate Republicans. Most are uncommitted in the presidential race....  Several of them said: I’m Republican but I voted for President Obama, because I couldn’t live with Sarah Palin.

Why are these moderates attracted to Christie? His record is that of a doctrinaire reactionary. He has made brutal, heartless cuts to nursing homes and facilities for people with special needs, resulting in risks to the health of and diminished freedom for New Jersey residents with disabilities. He opposes abortion rights and cut funding to family planning clinics. He opposes marriage equality and says he would veto a bill allowing it. Christie withdrew from a regional plan to regulate greenhouse gas emissions and he has proposed cutting support for renewable energy. In short, none of the hallmarks of a moderate Republican, such as support for the environment or abortion rights, can be found in Christie’s record. Just because he is governor of New Jersey doesn’t make him Christine Todd Whitman.

And it isn’t only on issues of moral judgment that Christie parts ways with Wall Street moderates. Christie is by no means a technocratic manager in the Bloomberg mold. As a devastating profile in Philadelphia magazine demonstrated, Christie’s management style can best be described as bombastic, incompetent and dishonest. He cuts questionable deals with New Jersey’s Democratic power brokers. He makes irrational, ideologically driven decisions, such as refusing to build a much needed rail tunnel under the Hudson River, which would pay for itself in economic growth and efficiency. And he fails at simple tasks of governance, such as properly submitting New Jersey’s application for Race to the Top funds.

The only plausible explanation for why moderate Republican donors would pine for Chris Christie to get in the race is that they are desperately seeking someone who can unite the Tea Party and mainstream segments of the party. Christie is a former federal prosecutor and he seems a bit sharper than, say, Sarah Palin. He may be a reliable conservative, but he’s not as extremist and incendiary as Michele Bachmann. He would excite the right-wing base more than Tim Pawlenty. And moderate Republicans fear that their current options—Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman—are too weak among conservatives to win in Iowa and South Carolina. Christie is appealing, in other words, if you are trying to head off a right wing upset of Romney from Bachmann or someone like her.

Of course, if you want a moderate, responsible, pro-business candidate with a real chance of winning in 2012, there is already one in the race. His name is Barack Obama.

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