Ben Adler | The Nation

Ben Adler

Ben Adler

 The 2012 election, Republican politics and conservative media.

Bachmann's Old Church Holds Anti-Catholic Views—Why Isn't This Hurting Her?

In a country with 70 million Catholics, belonging to a church that believes the Pope is the Antichrist would seem like a lliability for any presidential aspirant. But the revelation last week that Representative Michele Bachmann (R-MN) belonged to the a church affiliated with the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) until she resigned her membership last year doesn’t seem to have had much of an impact yet. WELS says in its Doctrinal Statement on the Antichrist that “it is Scripture which reveals that the Papacy is the Antichrist.” (In essence, WELS sticks carefully to Martin Luther’s teachings and interprets the notion that the Pope is God’s voice in the world as an Antichrist-like attempt to assume the place of Christ.)

Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League—which The Atlantic’s Joshua Green, who broke the story, refers to with the overly generous description of a “a national organization devoted to protecting Catholic civil rights”—showed a lot of Christian forgiveness towards Bachmann regarding her membership in WELS. “We never went after Obama for sitting there for twenty years listening to Rev. ‘Goddam America’ Wright. I don’t want to give him a pass, but I saw no bigotry on Obama’s part,” Donohue told Green. “Similarly, I have see [sic] none on Bachmann’s part. But it’s clear that the [synod]’s teachings are noxious and it’s important for her to speak to the issue.” That’s a non sequitur. Rev. Wright wasn’t anti-Catholic, so his statements weren’t in the Catholic League’s purview. But the Catholic League is not really a Catholic civil rights organization, it’s a politically conservative group that seems to exist primarily to get Donohue on Fox News where he can fight the War for Christmas and other ridiculous battles. Viewed in that light, Donohue’s statement should be seen for what it is: a politically hackish attempt to point out that President Obama had a radical black pastor who might make them uncomfortable.

Donohue is faithfully playing his role in the alliance that has developed between conservative Catholics and Protestants. While they once viewed each other with suspicion, in recent years the groups have cooperated over opposition to abortion rights and gay rights. And no one outdoes Bachmann when it comes to opposition to gay rights.

“A lot of things have changed between evangelicals and catholics in last twenty to thirty years,” says Michael Cromartie, who directs the Evangelicals in Civic Life Project at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Whereas conservative white Protestants used to persecute Catholics and Jews, since the 1970s they have made common cause with them politically if not theologically. “The new culture war is conservative Jews, Catholics and Protestants against liberal Jews, Catholics and Protestants,” says Cromartie. “Even Jerry Falwell said that the Moral Majority means that conservatives of different faiths can work together.”

Cromartie predicts that it will take “about one meeting with conservative Catholics to clarify what her thoughts are on the Church. She may have to give a speech like Obama did in Philadelphia [about Rev. Wright]. But it may not go that far. If she meets with leading Catholics in Iowa and New Hampshire and says ‘We are together on the issues,’ that solves it.”

There are, in fact, quite a few Catholics in New Hampshire. But Catholic pride as such is unlikely to cause major problems for Bachmann there. That’s because New Hampshire Catholics are not intensely religious. If anything, ventures Andy Smith, director of the Granite State poll at the University of New Hampshire, New Hampshire voters are more likely to be turned off by Bachmann’s religious extremism than the anti-Catholic views of her former Church. “Even though there are a lot of people in New Hampshire who identify as Catholic, they’re what my wife’s family calls ‘cafeteria Catholics,’” Smith explains. “They pick and choose what they believe and church attendance is very low.” In New Hampshire, according to Granite State poll data, 28 percent of residents identify as Catholic, but only 33 percent of them go to church once per week or more, with 49 percent attending a few times a year or never.

Bachmann may also be given a pass by conservative Catholics because she was unaware of her former church’s doctrine on the papacy. When her membership in WELS first became an issue in 2004 she flatly, and incorrectly, denied the facts of what her church doctrine holds, saying “my church does not believe that the pope is the Antichrist, that’s absolutely false.” According to Cromartie it’s entirely possible that Bachmann really didn’t know about her church’s doctrine because most lay evangelicals who, like Bachmann, converted to evangelicalism as adults are not well-versed on the finer points of theology. “These people know the faith and politics,” says Cromartie, “but they didn’t go to seminary.”

And so, in the primaries at least, Bachmann’s curious religious history is likely to buffered on the right side by what Cromartie calls the “ecumenism of the trenches” of the culture war and on her left by apathy about obscure theological matters. 

Fox News's Annotated Guide on How Not to Practice Journalism

One strange risk of the News Corp hacking scandal is that it is such an egregious violation of common ethics and morality that it may cause us to overlook how Rupert Murdoch’s media outlets disgrace the profession of journalism on a daily basis. Americans are now wondering, as well they should, whether any News Corp outlet has unethically spied on American soil or on American citizens. But even if they had not done so, News Corp’s Fox News damages American journalism in ways big and small on a daily basis. 

A perfect case study is actually how Fox News has covered—or failed to cover—the phone-hacking scandal of their corporate sister in Britain. After largely ignoring the events, Fox addressed them on Friday on Fox and Friends and, in less than four minutes, demonstrated how Fox fails to meet the most basic requirements of journalism. Host Steve Doocy and public relations consultant Bob Dilenschneider, who has no apparent expertise on the subject, agreed that the public “piling on,” News Corp is “too much.” They also agreed that Murdoch has done all the right things to address the crisis. They also conflated News of the World hacking into citizens phones with other companies being the victims of hacking.

Here’s an annotated guide to the video:

Lack of ethics. Note that there is no mention of the fact that they are discussing events at a newspaper that shares the same owner as the network they are on. It’s simply pro-forma to disclose that sort of conflict of interest, NBC does it with stories on General Electric all the time. Not so at Fox News apparently.

Hypocrisy. Dilenschneider and Doocy agree that we should be focusing on the more important issues facing the country. Do you remember Fox complaining about how there was too much coverage of the misleading gotcha videos “exposing” ACORN, Planned Parenthood or US Department of Agriculture official Shirley Sherrod? Neither do I.

Intellectual dishonesty. Dilenschneider and Doocy equate News of the World hacking into innocent victims phones and Citibank being the victim of hacking itself so as to dismiss News International’s malpractice as just another hacking scandal.

None of this is new, of course. Back in 2003 the University of Maryland found that Fox viewers were the most likely of all media consumers to believe demonstrable false statements about current events. In 2010 they found the same thing. Whether or not News Corp has committed any crimes in America, they have done plenty of damage. 

The 'Malaise' Speech That Wasn't

Republicans love to compare Barack Obama to Jimmy Carter, for no apparent reason other than that Carter was the last Democratic one-term president. So, naturally, Mitt Romney pounced on Obama’s comment that “America is stressed out.” On Friday July 15, the  thirty-second anniversary of Carter’s infamous “malaise” speech, the Romney campaign was quick to make every possible comparison between then and now. Romney’s campaign sent multiple press releases invoking President Jimmy Carter’s First they declared “President Obama’s ‘Stress’ equals Jimmy Carter’s ‘Malaise.’ ” Within a few hours they were simply referring to “President Obama’s Malaise.”

Unfortunately for Romney, the “malaise” speech is more myth than fact. Carter never actually used the word “malaise” and the speech wasn’t actually the failure as which it is widely remembered. Kevin Mattson explained in The American Prospect in 2009, Carter’s speech was actually a success. “Carter received a whopping 11 percent rise in his poll numbers,” Mattson writes. “The mail that poured into the White House testified that many citizens felt moved by the speech.”

The reason the speech is remembered as a failure is because of what followed. “He blew the opportunity that the speech opened up for him,” Mattson explains. “Carter fired his Cabinet, signifying a governmental meltdown. The president’s poll numbers sank again as confusion and disarray took over. Carter could give a great speech, but there were two things he couldn’t manage: to govern well enough to make his language buoy him or to find a way to yoke the energy crisis with concrete civic re-engagement initiative.”

Although some of the sharper political pundits, such as Politico’s Mike Allen, corrected the record on the fact that the word malaise never appeared in the speech the larger context is still largely missing. (Allen referred to the speech as “disastrous.”)

Today Carter is remembered as a political failure because of his inability to bolster the flagging economy. At least, that’s how Republicans like to remember him. And so the parallel to today’s weak economic growth is too obvious not to note, even for non-partisan reporters.

But, in fact, Carter’s speech was about something quite different: the American people’s civic disengagement and spiritual emptiness. Carter lamented that too many Americans “worship self-indulgence and consumption,” and how “growing disrespect for government” and “fragmentation and self-interest” were undermining our national unity and character.

If you look at what the speech was actually about, and how it was actually received, you do see a similarity to Obama, but not the one Romney wants to invoke. Instead, it’s a call to common purpose that Obama’s best speeches often invoke.

Coincidentally, historians are just as likely to attribute Carter’s failure to win re-election in 1980 to the unsuccessful attempt to evacuate American hostages from Tehran. Given Obama’s perfect execution of a similarly daring operation to kill Osama bin Laden, the implications of Carter’s experience may not auger so poorly for him after all. 

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Was Tim Pawlenty Really Popular in Minnesota?

Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty has made his putative success in a bastion of liberalism the primary rationale for his candidacy. As he told Iowa voters in a typical stump speech: 

“Every Republican candidate is going to come through a room like this and talk to a group like this and they’re basically going to say the same thing.... The question for you is who can do it, who has the fortitude to do it, and who will sell in blue places and purple places. Everybody’s going to say, ‘I’m the one who can get the independents in the end. I’m the one who can get the conservative Democrats.’ But, I’m the one who actually did it.”

And, as the Wall Street Journal reports, Pawlenty loves to talk about how he won office and took on Democrats on their home turf in “liberal Minnesota.” As he proclaims in one ad, “In a liberal state, I reduced spending in real terms, for the first time." 

Among all the claims by Republican presidential candidates—which often range from mendacious to downright delusional—Pawlenty’s narrative of success in a bastion of liberalism is hardly the most absurd. “There’s some truth to [Pawlenty’s campaign claims],” says Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota. “Some of his policies were not widely supported, but he has a winsome personality that calmed independent or Democratic voters. His approval ratings were generally over 50 percent.” Jacobs attributes this to Pawlenty’s working-class affectations. “It’s playing hockey, the mullet haircut. People who really disagreed with him on policy issues were not necessarily fired up about it.” (Among Pawlenty’s homey affectations when he was majority leader in the state legislature was using his official last word on budget bills to quote rock lyrics.)

But Pawlenty’s assertion that he can sell plutocratic policies to the public because he won over Democrats and independents in Minnesota doesn’t withstand close scrutiny. It turns out that Pawlenty was never very politically successful, that Minnesota isn’t really all that liberal, and that Pawlenty has flip-flopped on his signature moderate stances.

Minnesota’s politics are actually more populist than liberal. In the “Democratic Farmer-Labor Party” that has meant a commitment to social justice, articulated by such liberal lions as Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale and Paul Wellstone. But among Republicans that translates to a fiery religious social conservatism, epitomized by Representative Michele Bachmann. “Culturally we’ve always been a pretty conservative state,” says Representative Jim Davnie, a Democratic Minnesota state representative. “There’s long been deep divides between the Twin Cities metro area that leans Democratic and some rural areas that lean Republican. There’s a mythology around Minnesota’s liberalism, but I don’t know that it’s as true as the mythology will tell you.”

Most importantly, the Minnesota electorate’s ornery streak manifests itself in strong third party candidacies. Pawlenty’s predecessor, Jesse Ventura, was an independent. In both of Pawlenty’s races an Independence Party candidate took a significant portion of the vote, with more coming from Pawlenty’s Democratic opponents.

Pawlenty never won a majority of Minnesotans. (He got 44 percent in 2002 and 47 percent, to Democrat Mike Hatch’s 46 percent, in 2006). “Both elections featured Independent candidates, which exit polls showed drew more votes from Democrats in close races,” says Jacobs. “I looked closely at the data and there’s no doubt that Independence Party candidates accounted for Pawlenty’s margin, particularly in his re-election.” Jacobs adds that Pawlenty also might have lost in 2006 had Hatch’s campaign not imploded in the final days of the campaign when Hatch’s running mate made a gaffe about Minnesota’s sacred ethanol, and Hatch being overly critical of her in subsequent interviews.

And the state’s demographics—only 5 percent black and 5 percent Latino—are hardly Californian. In 2008, a banner year for Democrats, Al Franken barely edged out the scandal plagued dweeb Norm Coleman for his Senate seat. So winning in Minnesota isn’t the achievement Pawlenty makes it out to be, especially when your wins come with an asterisk.

At any rate, what you want is voters to decide you are the most electable candidate on their own, not to explicitly try claim it yourself. The effective way of running as the most electable candidate is not to say so:  remember how successful Joe Lieberman’s self-introduction in 2004 that he hailed from “the electable wing of the Democratic Party” was? Instead, you prove your electability by crafting a message that appeals to moderates and independents, as Barack Obama did in 2008.

Paradoxically, this is precisely the opposite of Pawlenty’s strategy. While Jon Huntsman appeals to independents and pundits with his restrained positions and rhetoric, Pawlenty is running to the right on every issue. He has completely abandoned and abjectly apologized for his support for cap-and-trade and come out for an aggressively neoconservative foreign policy.

In fact, Pawlenty’s rightward shift started while he was still in the Governor’s Mansion. As Representative Davnie recalls, he met with Pawlenty in 2009 to request his support for a bill to outlaw school bullying. Pawlenty told Davnie what shape the bill would have to take to win his support, and Davnie accommodated him. “I did that,” says Davnie. “I built a broad coalition; it passed both Houses with strong bi-partisan votes, and he vetoed it because he was hearing from the right wing that he shouldn’t sign it because it would protect gay and lesbian students.” The bill would have protected other students as well: advocates for students with disabilities were among its most vocal supporters.

Davnie says Pawlenty abandoned school children being victimized by bullies because he was preparing for his presidential run. “It has to do with him moving to the right to run for president,” says Davnie. “He vetoed it even though it was in many ways it was the bill he asked for.”

But Pawlenty is clearly convinced that he doesn’t need to be substantively moderate, just to disguise the same Republican policies with an affable, ostentatiously homespun demeanor. After all, it worked for George W. Bush. 


Should Bachmann's Poll Numbers Be Believed?

Remember way back in 2009 when Michele Bachmann was just a zany backbencher in the House of Representatives, destined to be one day barely remembered for her outlandish statements, the second coming of Helen Chenoweth? Well, if recent polling data has much predictive value, then those days are over, and she is now officially Mitt Romney’s main contender for the Republican presidential nomination. Since Bachmann’s strong performance in last month’s Republican presidential debate and her concurrent campaign announcement, she has been making a strong showing in multiple surveys.

A Des Moines Register poll in late June had Bachmann just one point behind Romney in Iowa, at 22 percent to his 23 percent. Both are way ahead of the rest of the pack, which features Herman Cain at 10 percent and Bachmann’s fellow Minnesotan Tim Pawlenty at a mere 6 percent. Meanwhile, Bachmann appears to be in second in New Hampshire as well. Two polls from last week have her in that position, trailing Romney. According to Public Policy Polling Bachmann registers 18 percent support among Republican primary voters, while University of New Hampshire’s Granite State poll gives her 12 percent.

Bachmann’s strong showing in New Hampshire is especially remarkable—some might say worrisome—given the state’s famed identity as bastion of socially liberal Republicanism. Bachmann is a devout evangelical with a penchant for making polarizing statements. New Hampshire is, according to a Gallup survey, the second least religious state in the country after neighboring Vermont. “New Hampshire Republicans are by and large Northeastern Republicans, what we used to call Rockefeller Republicans,” says Andrew Smith, director of the Granite State poll. “They tend to be quite moderate on social issues.” If Bachmann can come in second in New Hampshire, then presumably she could win in states like Iowa and South Carolina that have a much larger evangelical and socially conservative Republican electorate.

But not so fast. Polls are a lagging indicator. News takes days or weeks to settle into people’s brains, and polls are conducted over a similar period. The results we have seen recently reflect the views of voters in the aftermath of the June 13 debate in New Hampshire. It will be weeks before we know how recent revelations of the homophobic statements and voodoo psychology of Bachmann’s husband, Marcus, will affect her poll numbers.

More generally, polling numbers will often flutter upwards before falling back to earth when a candidate first bursts on the scene. About six weeks ago there was a brief bubble of speculation around Rudy Giuliani, who rose to the top of a national CNN poll. He has hardly been heard from since. A year ago Newt Gingrich was at 11 percent in the Granite State poll; now he gets 1 percent, or less than the margin of error. Cain’s bubble is already deflating, as he has lost one-third of his support in Iowa since last month’s PPP poll. “Many candidates have gone up when they got media attention,” notes Smith. So between now and next February, Bachmann has plenty of time to lose her luster.

That said, Bachmann does have one major asset that she showed off at the debate which will not go away. “She’s the one Republican candidate with charisma,” says Smith. “The other guys are Wonder Bread and mayonnaise sandwiches. She’s got a spunk and confidence about her that’s quite noticeable.” So Bachmann had better hope a certain other spunky candidate doesn’t get in the race. 



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Are Republican Candidates Crazy or Just Cynical About the Debt Ceiling?

It has been the duty of every economics reporter of late to explain how a failure to raise the federal debt ceiling by the August 2 deadline would have disastrous, far-reaching consequences, so I won’t rehash them all here. The basic take away is that the US government would stop paying either its creditors or its beneficiary recipients. The result would be massive pain for the recipients of federal spending, such as the elderly, cash flow problems for government contractors, panic in the bond markets, higher interest rates and economic collapse.

It is precisely because the results would be so terrible that President Obama knows he cannot allow this to happen and Republicans have so much leverage to impose their unwise and unpopular program of fiscal austerity on the American public by threatening not to raise the debt ceiling. So you would think that anyone who wishes to one day assume the responsibilities of the Oval Office would share Obama’s concern and oppose such reckless behavior. But you’d be wrong. Instead the Republican candidates for president, including possible candidate Sarah Palin, say they oppose raising the debt ceiling.

Taken at their word—which of course they shouldn’t be—most of the Republican candidates are not just saying they would like a deficit reduction deal to be part of the debt ceiling vote. They are actually saying that the optimal outcome is no debt ceiling increase. This is an important distinction. The relatively mainstream Republican position—that the debt ceiling should be raised in conjunction with a debt reduction package and not raising it is the fall back option if a deal cannot be passed—is silly enough: raising the debt ceiling is required by past actions, such as George W. Bush’s tax cuts and multiple Asian land wars. But it is less crazy than saying that the debt ceiling simply should not be raised and a massive deal to cut spending is actually their second choice. But that’s the stance many Republican presidential candidates are taking. Tim Pawlenty told Iowa voters, "I hope and pray and believe they should not raise the debt ceiling. These historic, dramatic moments where you can draw a line in the sand and force politicians to actually do something bold and courageous are important moments.” The pound of flesh Pawlenty demands for raising the debt ceiling, and reluctantly at that, is a balanced budget amendment. Palin told Newsweek that we should simply not raise the debt ceiling and avoid defaulting on our debt by focusing on paying off the debt first and cutting all other spending to the amount of revenue we have. Meanwhile Representative Michele Bachmann has promised to not vote for any debt ceiling increase unless it contains a repeal of the Affordable Care Act. And a pony. Pawlenty and Bachmann both failed to answer an inquiry as to why they would prefer no debt ceiling increase to making a deal.

Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman say that raising the debt ceiling should happen only in conjunction with a major reduction in projected deficits. Both avoided answering a query as to whether the House Republicans’ recent refusal to any increase in revenue expenditures as part of such a deal is a wise move. Romney said through a spokesperson, "A vote on raising the debt ceiling has to be accompanied by a major effort to restructure and reduce the size of government.”

It’s especially disheartening to watch the behavior of Huntsman, Pawlenty and Romney, who portray themselves as serious about governing. Should one of them become president and, like Obama, inherit a struggling economy with foreign occupations requiring increased deficit spending, will they rue the precedent they have set: that routine government business, and by extension the whole American government and economy, can be held for ransom? In fairness, such myopia when running for president is a bipartisan problem. In 2006, then-Senator Obama voted against raising the debt ceiling under President Bush. But there was a crucial difference: the Democrats were casting a purely symbolic vote to protest the Bush administration’s policies. They did not actually filibuster the debt ceiling increase. Today Senate Republicans threaten to filibuster a debt ceiling vote that does not meet their specifications and House Republicans threaten to vote the debt ceiling increase down. And the Republican candidates for president encourage this behavior, with some even staking out more extreme positions. What’s unclear is whether this shows that they don’t care about the American economy, or they are just cynically playing to their base, confident that House Speaker John Boehner and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell will do the dirty work of cutting a deal with President Obama. And it’s hard to say which answer is scarier.

Is Tim Pawlenty Responsible for the Minnesota Government Shutdown?

Is it a coincidence that six months after Tim Pawlenty finished his term as Minnesota’s governor the state government has been shut down by an impasse over how to balance the budget? Not according to Minnesota Democrats. Pawlenty’s home state critics say he contributed to the predicament in three ways: he failed to correct the structural imbalance in Minnesota’s finances, he balanced his own budget by pushing expenses into the future for which the bills are now coming due and he abdicated his leadership responsibility to help Minnesota find a sustainable budget trajectory.

“Pawlenty’s policies and leadership, or lack of it, on the budget in Minnesota created the setting for the current crisis that we’re in,” says Minnesota state representative Jim Davnie. Pawlenty was insistent during his tenure on sticking to his pledge not to raise taxes.

With the exception of a cigarette tax he agreed to during the 2005 shutdown he stuck to that pledge. (Pawlenty is fond of claiming that he never raised taxes as governor, reasoning that the cigarette tax is a “health impact fee,” with the funds earmarked for healthcare costs to defray the social cost of smoking.) With the state government starved for revenue, Minnesotans have been paying through other means: local property taxes rose regularly to pick up the slack in funding for government services, although Pawlenty then signed a property tax cap in 2008. Meanwhile the state government imposed brutal budget cuts. For example, the University of Minnesota is freezing wages, cutting costs and raising tuition to compensate for a decrease in state funding.

Without increasing revenue, though, Pawlenty was unable to cut spending sufficiently to balance the budget. Instead, “Pawlenty used every budget gimmick and shift,” says Kristin Sosanie, communications director for the Minnesota Democratic Farmer-Labor Party. “He borrowed money from K-12 schools and put off payments to falsely balance the budget.” Specifically, since Minnesota budgets on a biannual cycle, the state had given 90 percent of funding for education to localities in the first year and 10 percent in the second year. Pawlenty shifted the balance to 70-30, making his last budget seem balanced but leaving a $1.4 billion hole in the budget that Governor Mark Dayton is trying to balance now. Other “budgetary duct tape” used by Pawlenty in his last year in office, according to the Minnesota Taxpayers Association, includes delaying $152 million in tax refunds. All told, when Pawlenty left office there was a projected $6.2 billion budget shortfall, which Sosanie notes is “the largest in our state’s history and the fourth largest among all states as a percentage of our state budget.” (Federal aid and measures taken by Dayton have slashed the deficit to $5 billion, which is the amount that the current shutdown fight is over.)

Democrats argue that Pawlenty’s budget gimmickry was worse than just leaving a mess for his successors to clean up. “It was all a way to avoid having a conversation about what do we want government in Minnesota to do and how do we pay for it,” says Davnie.

Non-partisan experts on Minnesota politics give Pawlenty a more mixed scorecard. “When Pawlenty took over [in 2003] there already was a structural budget deficit,” notes Lawrence Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota. “Revenues and taxes had been cut during the 1990s while the economy was soaring. Democrats, [former Governor] Jesse Ventura and Republicans were all complicit in that. Pawlenty comes in, the economy is falling down and the structural deficit is already in place. There are two ways of looking at that: blame him for not fixing that, or credit him for muddling through without raising revenues, depending on your political perspective.”

In other words, if you don’t have an ideological fixation with opposing tax increases, then Pawlenty failed. It’s a good thing for Pawlenty’s presidential prospects, though, that he either does share that conviction, or knew that he must act like it if he wanted to compete in a Republican presidential primary. Even so, “muddling through,” as opposed to cutting government down to size, is not a great boast for Pawlenty to run on.

The Pawlenty campaign declined to comment specifically for this story, saying through a spokesperson that “he’s addressed this multiple times,” in television interviews. Typically Pawlenty does so by making the non-sequiter argument that his last year in office did not end in deficit. Pawlenty also maintains it is the fault of localities that raised property taxes to cover the state aid shortfall, since they could have opted to slash services instead.

Value judgments about the proper role of government aside, Pawlenty’s tendency to burnish his image with questionable claims about his budgeting record is indisputable. As Jacobs notes, “Property taxes and city taxes went up, and that was a direct result his cuts in aid to local governments. Pawlenty’s talking point about state taxes ignores the revenue picture for the whole state, where other parts of the state had to make up for his cuts.”

Perhaps most troubling for Minnesota’s future is that Pawlenty participated in undermining the state’s historical bipartisan agreement to adequately fund economic investments. In 1971, Democrats and Republicans, responding to voter discontent over rising property taxes, which funded public education, struck a deal: the state took over the vast majority of education funding so as to hold down property taxes. But the deal was about more than just taxes. Minnesota, seeing the decline in the Rust Belt and flight to warmer Southern states, needed a way to compete economically. Investing heavily in education and other public goods like transportation became its solution. “There was partisan fighting on other issues, but agreement on that because it was the state’s economic model,” says Jacobs. “That agreement has collapsed.” Pawlenty, and other conservative Republicans, prioritized low taxes and spending ahead of that as a priority. The result? Minnesota is losing its historical edge in education.

Now Dayton, a Democrat, has succeeded Pawlenty. He won in a terrible year for his party on a platform demanding that the rich pay their fair share of social costs. The current budget battle pits his commitment to coupling spending cuts with some revenue increases with the new, right-wing Republican majority in the statehouse refusing any tax increases. It’s the federal budget battle in miniature. And, much like in Washington, the former Republican chief executive is partly to blame for the fiscal mess he left.

Republican Presidential Field Off to Slow Fundraising Start

One measure of enthusiasm among a party’s base heading into an election year is early fundraising returns. In the second quarter of 2007 leading Democrats hauled in major campaign cash, an early sign of the enthusiasm gap that they would enjoy throughout the 2008 election cycle. And when Barack Obama outraised Hillary Clinton, $32.5 million to $27 million for that quarter, it demonstrated that Obama would be able to mount a serious challenge to the frontrunner.

This time Republicans, as the party out of power and fueled by an angry electorate, are supposed to be the beneficiaries of the enthusiasm gap. The stronger turnout among their base in the 2010 midterms was a major reason for their victory. And so the remarkably weak fundraising numbers among Republican presidential candidates for the second quarter of 2011 may be a bad sign for the party as a whole.

Among the candidates who have released their numbers so far—Rick Santorum, Representative Michele Bachmann (R-MN) and President Obama have not—Mitt Romney is the clear leader. The former Massachusetts governor raised $18.25 million dollars, all of it for the primaries. (Sometimes a frontrunner will get donations from donors who have already given the maximum for the primaries and will hold that in reserve for the general election.) His next closest contender? Representative Ron Paul of Texas, with $4.5 million. Since Paul is too eccentric to win the nomination, that means none of the plausible alternatives to Romney have mustered the financial might to challenge him. Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty has raised $4.2 million, but that number does not break out how much might be general election funds that he cannot currently use and whether there are debts or delayed payments he must meet. Reportedly, some of Pawlenty’s top aides have been working without pay.

Former Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman took in $4.1 million, but that includes money he donated to his campaign from his own personal fortune, after saying that he would not self-fund. (Huntsman joined the race only towards the end of the second quarter.) Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s campaign continues to falter, with only $2 million raised this quarter and, according to some news accounts, only $225,000 cash on hand $1 million in campaign debt.

Even Romney’s returns could be considered underwhelming. In addition to lagging far behind the money that Obama and Clinton brought in four years ago, they lag his own stated goals. This spring—as rival campaigns are eager to point out—Romney was hoping to raise $50 million by early summer, a mark he has missed by a wide mile. But they are not shy about doubling down on that goal. “We are extremely proud of the strong support Mitt has received across the country. We intend to raise $50 million and more for the primary campaign and we’re off to a very good start,” said Andrea Saul, spokesperson for the Romney campaign.

One possible explanation for the unimpressive returns is the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which opened the floodgates to unlimited fundraising by outside groups. Republican donors who want to help the cause generally without picking a specific candidate too soon now have plenty of other places to park their money. Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS is already spending $20 million dollars on ads attacking President Obama. Of course, attacking President Obama is something all Republicans can agree on. Eventually they need a candidate to be for, not just a president to be against. So far, it seems, they remain underwhelmed by all their choices.

Will South Carolina Lose Its Primary?

In a surprisingly little-noticed story earlier this week The State of Columbia, South Carolina, reported, “South Carolina’s much-watched first-in-the-South Republican presidential primary could become a far less important first-in-the-South caucus.” The problem is that the state’s Republican state government is seeking to balance its budget entirely through spending cuts. And so, in a fit of impressive if foolish consistency, Governor Nikki Haley opposes shelling out $1.5 million for the Republican primary. “We need to focus on core functions of government, and the presidential primary—which was until recently always paid for by the parties, not the taxpayer—simply doesn’t fall into that category,” says Bob Godfrey, Haley’s spokesman. Without state funding, the state GOP may need to hold a caucus, because an actual primary requires expensive vote-counting technology that only the state owns.

An early primary is an excellent example of a public good. It extends something important to citizens (the power to influence a party’s presidential nomination) and generates economic activity (visits from candidates, volunteers and media). But no private enterprise will want to pay for it, nor should a private company be empowered to control a political primary. Unfortunately for Republicans, they don’t believe in public goods. The only spending Republicans care for is the type where a wealthy, organized interest benefits greatly. (Think military contracts.) If the beneficiaries are many diffuse individuals who don’t make enough to reward the favor with campaign contributions, then Republicans have no use for it.

South Carolina Republican party officials and political consultants are apoplectic, complaining that a caucus would not generate as much national interest as a primary. In principle that ought to be the case, since caucuses restrict turnout by forcing people to come during a set evening time frame and hang around for several hours. Single parents, night shift workers, night-time students and the disabled are among the widely disenfranchised as a result. Alas, the undemocratic Iowa caucus, where turnout is a fraction of the subsequent primary in New Hampshire, remains a media fixation.

But, assuming the negative predictions came true, that would be a delicious irony for South Carolina Republicans to actually reap what their miserliness has sown.

Another irony is that conventional wisdom in South Carolina holds that the high-profile primary is a source of positive attention for the state, and losing it would be lamentable. As The State writes, “The state also would lose national exposure, prestige and millions of dollars that campaigns, media and others spend during the event.”

The primary looks quite different to Northern eyes. Shining a light on the South Carolina politics has a tendency to reinforce the worst images of Southern Republicans. This is the state that produced segregationist Strom Thurmond, Representative Joe “You Lie” Wilson, Governor Mark “Hiking the Appalachian Trail” Sanford and his Lieutenant Governor Andre Bauer, who compared welfare to feeding stray animals. But they were all topped last year by State Senator Jake Knotts, who referred to President Obama and Haley, who is Indian-American, as “ragheads.”

The primary brings attention to the machinations of South Carolina’s Republican operatives, who since South Carolinian Lee Atwater, have been renowned for their race-baiting smears. In 2000, Senator John McCain was undermined in South Carolina by false rumors that he had fathered an illegitimate black child. (This was before it came to light that Thurmond had done exactly that.) Perhaps a lower-profile caucus would actually help South Carolina’s national image.

On the other hand, as any veteran observer of the Iowa caucuses can tell you, events that lower turnout to the most dedicated core of activists have a tendency to tilt the electorate toward extremes. In Iowa’s Republican caucus religious social conservatives enjoy a large influence, which is why Mike Huckabee won there in 2008 and Michele Bachmann is considered a threat to win there in 2012. An even more extremist South Carolina Republican electorate, if such a thing is possible, wouldn’t reflect especially well on the state.

It would have major implications for the race, such as helping social conservatives like Bachmann, Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum, while hurting Jon Huntsman who, unlike Mitt Romney, is planning on contesting South Carolina. So when the South Carolina budget is passed, Huntsman may need to redraw his electoral map.

The Pawbama Doctrine

“Have you seen him speak before?” Asked one relatively young attendee at Tim Pawlenty’s Tuesday morning address to the Council on Foreign Relations. “Yeah, he’s no Sarah Palin,” his friend replied with a sneer that suggested either a begrudging acknowledgment of Palin’s charisma or a rueful admission that the bar for foreign policy expertise in the Republican primary is not very high.

As Pawlenty’s speech demonstrated, he certainly lacks Palin’s winking charm. His one intended laugh line—“President Obama announced his plan to give Assad ‘an alternative vision of himself.’ Does anyone outside a therapist’s office have any idea what that means?”—was delivered with such earnestness and poor timing that it barely elicited a single chuckle from the audience.

But what Pawlenty does not share with Palin on matters of style he largely does on matters of substance. He demonstrates a much firmer grasp of general world history, politics and geography than Palin, but Pawlenty’s foreign policy ideology has much in common with hers, (at least before she took a sudden turn towards pragmatism.) And like Palin, one suspects that Pawlenty’s foreign policy positions are determined more by domestic politics than foreign affairs. An evangelical Christian, he has a set of foreign policy talking points designed for the religious right: forcefully advocate freedom, stare down the Islamists in Iran and never criticize our dear friend Israel.

For the past few months Pawlenty has assiduously burnished his hawkish credentials. At a March campaign stop he said, “My basic perspective on foreign policy…is…you're dealing with thugs and bullies, they understand strength, they don't respect weakness.” Last week Pawlenty told Bill O’Reilly of FOX News that Obama’s decision to start gradually withdrawing troops from Afghanistan is “a grave mistake.”

But, while Pawlenty contends with Michele Bachmann for social conservatives on his right flank, he is also positioning himself to be an alternative to Mitt Romney for establishment Republicans. Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations, a bastion of the Establishment, is crucial to that goal. So while Pawlenty painted in broadly neoconservative strokes about first principles, his programmatic advice on specific countries was often more cautious, and it varied based on conditions. By tempering idealism in principle with pragmatism in practice Pawlenty laid out a vision that might just be called a more hawkish Obama-ism. Or, as Pawlenty would say, the “Pawbama doctrine.”

The theme of Pawlenty’s speech, which focused entirely on the Middle East, was that the Obama administration has abandoned the US role as a leader in the global struggle for freedom. Pawlenty asserted that the Obama administration “waited long enough to see the Green Movement [in Iran] crushed,” and that Obama “abandoned the promotion of democracy just as Arabs were about to seize it.” Left unexplained is how US support for democratic movements in the Middle East, where the United States is dreadfully unpopular, would help rather than hinder their local effectiveness. Pawlenty had a long list of demands that the United States should issue to Middle Eastern countries—that they institute free speech, press and religion, independent judiciaries and women’s rights—but rarely did he have a clear answer as to what leverage the United States has to issue these demands  and why using it would work. Twice Pawlenty demanded that Washington show its disapproval for human rights abuses by the Syrian regime by withdrawing our ambassador from Damascus. How this would force Bashar Al-Assad from power, which Pawlenty says is the only acceptable outcome in Syria, is unclear. The United States hasn’t had an ambassador in Tehran for thirty years, and yet, remarkably enough, the Iranian theocracy remains intact. The gaping holes in Pawlenty’s foreign policy were especially evident when he was asked by an audience member how he would apply his pro-freedom agenda to North Korea and he had no concrete answer.

The only country in which Pawlenty offered a credible scenario for how his ideals would be put into action is Libya, where Pawlenty favors stepping up military pressure—or threats thereof—to force Muammar Qaddafi from power. Indeed, Pawlenty offers an unreconstructed return to the foreign policy of George W. Bush. On Libya, as Bush did in Iraq, Pawlenty argues that UN, Arab League and European Union approval or cooperation were unnecessary and that waiting for them constituted “dithering.” Nor does Pawlenty believe that Congressional approval was necessary to launch the US action in Libya. Instead, Pawlenty maintains that because Qaddafi is a terrorist who killed Americans forcibly removing him from power is the sensible approach, speciously analogizing the question of what happens next in Libya to someone asking at the start of World War II what would replace Adolf Hitler in Germany.

Pawlenty’s barbs were aimed as much at some Republicans as at Obama. He lamented that “parts of the Republican Party now seem to be trying to out-bid the Democrats in appealing to isolationist sentiments.” Pawlenty didn’t name these malefactors, but he didn’t have to. He’s clearly referring to Jon Huntsman, who has called for swifter withdrawal from Afghanistan than Obama is implementing. The Huntsman campaign, having caught Pawlenty’s camp previewing the theme of his speech on Monday, issued a response Tuesday morning before the speech was even delivered. Naturally, Huntsman warded off any suggestions of weaknesses by claiming Reagan would have done the same, saying, “America can best project strength in the world when we are strong at home and able to take on our enemies where they are, not when we are expending resources fighting expensive ground wars for which there is no defined exit strategy. Ronald Reagan understood that.” Pawlenty offered a scathing attack on this thinking in his speech, saying, “America already has one political party devoted to decline, retrenchment, and withdrawal. It does not need a second one.”

Pawlenty also cited Reagan whenever possible. Of course, as Thomas Friedman reminded us in Sunday’s New York Times, Reagan withdrew from Beirut because he saw that the United States would be stronger if it stayed out of a messy civil war, and that the Soviet Union was being weakened by its presence in Afghanistan. This is a lesson from Reagan’s presidency that Pawlenty—who would undermine civilian control of the military by letting the generals decide on the pace of withdrawal from Afghanistan, and who contends that the United States will be perceived as weak if it minds its own business—seems not to have learned. 

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