The 2012 election, Republican politics and conservative media.
Conservatives must be feeling regretful. After nearly fifty years of using appeals to white racial resentment to take over the South, win presidential elections and control of Congress, conservatives are realizing this might come back to bite them in the ass. As the right wing has become xenophobic and anti-Latino, conservatives have watched young Latinos and young Asian Americans join young African-Americans in being overwhelmingly Democratic. The greater diversity of this younger generation has in turn meant that Democrats, especially Barack Obama, have won handily among young voters in recent elections. All of a sudden, conservatives see being the party of angry white males as a potential liability, and they want to change their image.
You can see this concern in Mitt Romney’s recent campaign events touting his substantively thin but rhetorically compassionate education reform agenda. As the Washington Post reported on Romney’s visit to a school in West Philadelphia on Thursday, his first campaign event in a majority black neighborhood: “Mitt Romney’s campaign team has been quietly laying plans for an outreach effort to President Obama’s most loyal supporters—black voters—not just to chip away at the huge Democratic margins but also as a way to reassure independent swing voters that Romney can be inclusive and tolerant in his thinking and approach.” Romney’s campaign insists they are sincere, but they never made any such outreach during the primaries, when they were competing against Newt Gingrich’s successful efforts to appeal to racism in his campaign in South Carolina.
The conservative media are happy to help burnish both white racial anxieties and the official story line that Republicans are the friends of minorities by trying to tell an oddly inverted story of race relations in America. According to National Review’s current cover story by Kevin Williamson, it is the Republican Party which has consistently supported civil rights and Democrats who have opposed it. Meanwhile, conservative blogs, talk radio and Fox News hype random stories of anti-white violence, creating the false impression that whites are more often the victims of hate crimes by blacks than the reverse.
The National Review argument has been thoroughly debunked in many outlets. Over at Democracy Journal, Clay Risen demonstrates “Williamson’s embarrassingly basic misunderstanding of American history.” There used to be liberal pro–civil rights wings and conservative anti–civil rights wings in both parties, hence the misleading factoid commonly cited by conservative pundits that a higher proportion of Republicans than Democrats in Congress voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But it was the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, especially Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, who pushed the issue and got the law passed. Republicans nominated anti–civil rights conservative extremist Barry Goldwater in 1964 and thus began their conversion of the South. Goldwater carried five Southern states despite losing in a landslide. “For a variety of reasons—including, but not only, racial politics—both parties went through ideological realignments in the postwar decades, so that today we speak of Republicans as almost uniformly conservative and Democrats as almost uniformly liberal,” notes Risen. “The GOP of today is simply not the GOP of 1963.” That’s why anti–civil rights Southern conservatives such as Trent Lott, Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms became Republicans. Williamson is simply lying when he writes, “those southerners who defected from the Democratic Party in the 1960s and thereafter did so to join a Republican party that was far more enlightened on racial issues than were the Democrats of the era.”
Most embarrassingly, Williamson starts his story by proudly proclaiming National Review’s history of debunking pernicious myths. (In this case, the myth is that Democrats supported civil rights more than Republicans.) But he makes no mention of National Review’s own history of opposing civil rights. As Jonathan Chait writes in New York, “conservative Republicans—those represented politically by Goldwater, and intellectually by William F. Buckley and National Review—did oppose the civil rights movement. Buckley wrote frankly about his endorsement of white supremacy: “the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically.”
Critics of Williamson’s piece were generous enough not to mention that National Review’s tendencies towards racism and opposition to civil rights continue today. National Review recently let go of longtime contributor John Derbyshire for penning a shockingly bigoted rant in another publication, although as NR editor Rich Lowry, admitted, “Derb has long danced around the line on these issues.” Derbyshire has since continued to write for the racist conservative Website VDARE, which is run by fellow National Review exile Peter Brimelo. Regarding the proper name for VDARE’s corner of the right, Derbyshire wrote on May 10, “The enemies of conservatism are eager to supply their own nomenclature. ‘White Supremacist’ seems to be their current favorite…. Leaving aside the intended malice, I actually think ‘White Supremacist’ is not bad semantically. White supremacy, in the sense of a society in which key decisions are made by white Europeans, is one of the better arrangements History has come up with.”
NR also had to drop another contributor, Robert Weissberg, shortly thereafter for having, in Lowry’s words, “delivered a noxious talk about the future of white nationalism.” Meanwhile NR defends voting laws that would disenfranchise minorities through onerous requirements such as presenting government-issued photo identification. And it argues that the Voting Rights Act is no longer necessary.
That last part speaks to the other half of the conservative misinformation campaign about race. In order to simultaneously pretend to support civil rights in principle and oppose it now in practice, you must make the claim that the movement was so successful it has, if anything gone too far.
There is a corollary to this logic holding that it is blacks that oppress whites, rather than the reverse. This is, of course, a regular feature in arguments against affirmative action. Similarly, McKay Coppins recently reported in BuzzFeed on the odd conservative media fixation with occasional crimes that happen to be perpetrated against a white victim by a group of black aggressors. Coppins writes:
If you’ve spent much time consuming conservative media lately, you’ve probably learned about a slow-burning “race war” going on in America today. Sewing together disparate data points and compelling anecdotes like the attack in Norfolk, conservative bloggers and opinion-makers are driving the narrative with increasing frequency. Their message: Black-on-white violence is spiking—and the mainstream media is trying to cover it up.
This notion isn’t necessarily new to the right, which has long complained about stifling political correctness in the media and the rising tide of “reverse racism….
The irony of the race war narrative’s latest flare-up is that it comes at a time when national crime rates have reached historic lows—including reported hate crimes against whites. According to a report released by the FBI, there were 575 anti-white bias crimes reported in 2010—up slightly from the 545 reported in 2009, but distinctly lower than the 716 reported in 2008. Overall, the past decade has seen a downward trend in anti-white bias crime. What’s more, hate crimes against blacks have continued to outstrip those against whites by about four-to-one: In 2010 alone, there were 2,201 reported. Violent crimes across the spectrum reached a four-decade low in 2010.
Conservative media have been especially eager to smear Trayon Martin, the young black victim of a shooting for which the perpetrator was initially not arrested. They are also getting on the wrong side of modern civil rights struggles, by opposing gay rights and fanning the flames of Islamophobia. And as is especially the case with Fox News, their biggest sin of all may be simple inaccuracy.
On Wednesday morning Mitt Romney rolled out his heretofore non-existent education agenda in a speech at the Chamber of Commerce in Washington, DC. Speaking to the Latino Coalition’s Annual Economic Summit, Romney pledged, “I will pursue bold policy changes that will restore the promise of our nation’s education system.”
He also released a list of education policy advisers and a white paper detailing his proposals. Romney offers a return to the George W. Bush era on education policy. His education committee is stacked with veterans of the Bush administration and Bush’s first education secretary, Rod Paige, will serve as special adviser. Romney is also returning to Bush’s focus on offering parents accountability from schools and choice among them. On higher education student loans, Romney proposes to revive Bush’s legacy of wasteful crony capitalism by replacing efficient federal loans with expensive, inefficient and burdensome private loans.
Rhetorically Romney is framing education, as Bush did, as his token area of compassion. It is a version of what Michelle Cottle characterized in 2000 as Bush’s “ricochet pander” to moderate suburban white voters with outreach nominally targeted at minorities. In this case Romney is pretending to care about the opportunities afforded to disadvantaged children. Romney’s paper decries “the achievement gap facing many minority groups” that it says “flows as a direct consequence from the poor quality of the schools that serve disproportionately minority communities in low income areas.” But it does not bother to try to prove this causal relationship, or to ask whether poverty might be the direct cause of low academic achievement. That would be an uncomfortable question for Romney, since he proposes to cut federal anti-poverty programs.
Romney echoes Bush’s famous invocation of “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” “Here we are in the most prosperous nation, but millions of kids are getting a third-world education,” said Romney. “And, America’s minority children suffer the most. This is the civil rights issue of our era. It’s the great challenge of our time.” (The Romney campaign immediately promoted praise for Romney’s speech from Julio Fuentes, president and CEO of the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options.)
This agenda and set of advisers places Romney squarely in the more moderate wing of the Republican Party on education policy. In the last few years the Tea Party movement has pulled the party back towards its earlier position of staunchly opposing any active federal role in education even to promote reform. The resurgence of states’ rights, small-government conservatism within the GOP has paralyzed Congress on overdue reauthorization of NCLB. In the Republican primaries it also led former advocates of education reform such as Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum to call for abolishing the DOE and repealing in NCLB. Romney said said he will, “either consolidate [DOE] with another agency, or perhaps make it a heck of a lot smaller.”
But Romney avoids much discussion of what he would do about NCLB. This may be politically shrewd, but it is cowardly. NCLB remains the largest federal education law, and it will have to be addressed.
If Romney fears upsetting Tea Party activists, he is right to. The more intensely ideological among them are already displeased with what he has proposed on other aspects of education policy. “We can only conclude that this is further evidence that Mitt Romney hasn’t yet gotten a clue about what real conservatism is, nor has he any idea that big government, top down educational programs are anything more than serious unconstitutional meddling,” says Jane Aitken, co-founder of the New Hampshire Tea Party and a Ron Paul supporter. But Romey is right to suspect that NCLB, due to its higher profile, will set off specific alarm bells. “If they plan to go back to No Child Left Behind, or continue with programs like that, people are going to be upset,” says Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots.
Eliminating, or even dramatically reduce the size of, the DOE is pure political theater, not in itself a serious policy proposal. As with all cabinet departments, DOE’s spending is primarily the function of implementing certain programs, passed by Congress. Unless you propose to eliminate those programs, you are not really proposing to save much money by simply moving them into a different department. The two main programs in the DOE are Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which offers assistance for children from low-income families, and the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA). Unless you want to eliminate federal aid to poor children and disabled children, you cannot eliminate the federal role in education.
Instead Romney proposes making those funds portable, so that a student can take them to the school of their choice. But, as the Obama campaign’s policy director James Kvaal noted on a conference call with reporters Wednesday afternoon, “Both Title I and IDEA funding to schools is already based on enrollment. Gov. Romney appears to be proposing mechanical changes but he hasn’t spelled out how that would work or be different from current law.” This is sort of detail is missing from much of Romney’s agenda. For example, Romney says that he will give schools report cards so that parents can better assess their performance. But if it’s just repackaging information that is already out there, it is not clear how Romney’s proposal differs, much less makes any noticeable improvement upon, the status quo.
Changes to IDEA or Title I would require congressional action. Since a significant portion of the Republican congressional caucus opposes any federal role in schools--or demands such a limited one that they cannot be mollified while getting the votes to pass a bill through the Senate, where Democrats will at least hold enough seats to filibuster--it is hard to imagine Romney’s proposals coming to pass anyway.
What would get support from Republicans is his fiendish desire to undo student loan reform. The Romney campaign summarizes his proposal thusly: “Reverse President Obama’s nationalization of the student loan market and welcome private sector participation in providing information, financing, and the education itself.” This is code for two things: privatizing student loans and throwing good money after bad into for-profit colleges. In 2010 the Democratic Congress eliminated the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) program, under which the federal government guaranteed and subsidized loans to students, and moved all federal lending into direct lending to students. Direct lending is cheaper for the government, offers the same interest rates to students, and eliminates the financial incentive for private lenders to bribe schools to choose them over direct lending. In October Obama instituted a program to encourage students who had previously borrowed under FFEL to consolidate their loans under the Direct Loan program. As Stephen Burd of Higher Ed Watch at the New America Foundation explained, “The initiative, which will get underway in January, will provide some savings to borrowers who take advantage of it by providing them with up to a 0.5 percent interest rate reduction on their federal loans. But the administration’s primary purpose is to simplify the repayment process for borrowers who currently have to make payments on their federal student loans to multiple loan servicers each month.”
It appears that Romney would undo all of this progress and return to the era of wasting taxpayer dollars on unnecessary corporate subsidies, even as he preaches the Gospel of Austerity. Romney’s policy brief merely says that he would “embrace a private sector role in providing information, financing and education itself.”
That last bit refers to another example of wasteful federal spending Romney apparently wishes to resurrect: for-profit colleges that derive their revenues almost entirely from federal aid while offering lackluster educations, high drop out rates and low rates of employment among recent graduates. Obama has taken several steps to address this issue, much to the dismay of Republicans who are only for government spending when the money ends up in the hands of a corporation instead of a person in need. In 2011 the Obama administration instituted a “gainful employment” rule, which punishes for-profits whose students can’t find work within three years of graduation. In April Obama announced additional protections for veterans being swindled by for-profit recruiters eager to get their hands on the especially generous education benefits that veterans enjoy. Romney opposes the gainful employment rule and touts the virtues of for-profits, claiming, “They hold down the cost of their education by recognizing that they’re competing.”
What is particularly perverse about Romney’s higher education policies is that they in no way actually embrace the free market. Providers of federally guaranteed student loans, and for-profit universities that suction federal student aid, are case studies not in the free market but in rent seeking by entrenched political interests. Their lobbying efforts to hold onto their undeserved riches rival those of defense contractors. Romney says he would bring private sector values of accountability and efficiency to education, but on higher education he would do exactly the opposite.
On K-12 education Romney’s proposals conflict with not only his party’s right wing but his own economic agenda. Romney has endorsed Representative Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) budget, which would require significant cuts to education spending.
And the Obama campaign was quick to note that Romney’s past record on education gives good reason to doubt his commitment to educational quality and access. “By his second year as governor, Romney had already forced Massachusetts schools to take the second-largest cuts per pupil in the country,” said Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt. “Those cuts forced school districts to lay off thousands of teachers…. When he got elected he tried to cut funding for early literacy in kindergarten programs, vetoed a bill to create universal pre-k in Massachusetts and questioned the value for early education. As governor he vetoed programs that would’ve helped reduce class sizes in the earliest grades where individual attention is the most important.”
Give Romney credit for this much: he has mastered the Bush playbook of education deception. Rather than simply admitting outright to opposing needed investments in education, you package Republican policies as improving educational quality through choice, free market competition and accountability. It worked for Bush politically, but it hasn’t worked for American children.
The five Republican stooges on the Supreme Court must be very happy. They clearly hoped to give Republicans an advantage in future elections when they took the extreme judicial activist measure in the Citizens United v. FEC decision of overturning a major chunk of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance–reform law. By opening the floodgates to unlimited secret corporate contributions, they figured that they would help the party of corporate cronyism outspend Democrats. So far, they are being proven right.
The most recent financial disclosure reports released by the Federal Elections Commission over the weekend show conservative Super PACs heavily out-raising and out-spending liberal ones. And while President Obama will be able to compete financially because his campaign will raise plenty of money on its own, Democrats may be at a serious disadvantage in down-ballot races where candidate fundraising is considerably lower and a national Super PAC can deluge a small media market with misleading negative advertisements and mailings.
“Conservative interest groups have dumped well over $20 million into congressional races so far this year, outspending their liberal opponents 4 to 1 and setting off a growing panic among Democrats struggling to regain the House and hold on to their slim majority in the Senate,” reports the Washington Post. “The money could be particularly crucial in races below the national radar that can be easily influenced by infusions of outside spending.”
So far this money is being used to drive the future Republican caucuses in the House and Senate further to the right. From the Post:
One example came this week in Nebraska, where a dark-horse Republican Senate candidate upset two better-funded rivals in the GOP primary thanks in part to a last-minute, $250,000 ad buy by a billionaire-backed Super PAC. And in Indiana this month, veteran Senator Richard G. Lugar was ousted in the GOP primary by challenger Richard Mourdock with the help of millions of dollars in spending by conservative groups. The Club for Growth, which backed a losing candidate in Nebraska, spent more than $2 million to help Mourdock in Indiana.”
Up until now there were other theoretical explanations—besides the obvious one, which is that it pays to be a tool of the rich and powerful—for why Republicans had so much more Super PAC money than Democrats. Initially Republicans supported the Citizens United Supreme Court decision that created Super PACs and Democrats, especially President Obama, did not. So Republicans jumped out to an early lead in Super PAC fundraising, which allowed them to vastly outspend Democrats in close Congressional races in 2010. Then in 2011 and early 2012, Republicans were engaged in a competitive presidential primary while Democrats were not, and Super PAC spending was heavy on behalf of candidates such as Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich but not President Obama. Obama gave Democratic donors the green light to pour money into the Priorities USA Super PAC, but it has not kept pace with its Republican counterparts. The Huffington Post reports, “The group has raised $10.57 million since being founded in 2011, far behind the $50-plus million raised by Restore Our Future and the $28 million raised by American Crossroads.”
But they aren’t anywhere near parity yet and they may never reach it. The reason is obvious. Republicans represent the narrow economic interests of entrenched wealth and privilege, while Democrats advocate for a stronger social safety net and reduced inequality. This has always given Republicans some advantage in fundraising, since the wealthy will obviously give more than the poor or middle class. But the wealthy are also fewer, and their donations were limited to reasonable maximums by campaign finance law, while corporations were banned from giving to candidates. Now that corporations and billionaires have a vehicle for unlimited donations, just one of them can give more than if millions of Americans each donated their entire savings. Giving to Republicans can turn a profit when they are elected and fulfill their promises to crush collective bargaining, quash environmental and workplace safety regulations, and cut taxes. So corporations and their wealthy owners have an incentive beyond mere ideology to give heavily.
And so the partisan disparity in Super PAC spending on Congressional races from 2010 is being recreated in 2012. During the Republican presidential primaries in some states, Super PAC spending on advertising outstripped spending by the campaigns themselves. As the New York Times notes, “Through the middle of May, Restore Our Future had spent more than $44.5 million on advertising, direct mail and other advertising, roughly double what Mr. Romney’s campaign had spent during the same period.” If that holds true in the general election, it will favor Republicans, especially in down-ballot races, immensely.
These advertisements that conservative Super PACs buy, which are nominally about educating the public rather than electing candidates, are in no way educational. In fact, much like Fox News coverage, which often repeats the claims these ads make verbatim and without fact-checking, they are primarily focused on spreading lies.
Consider the recent ad buys, including one of $25 million, by Crossroads. In April Crossroads released an ad attacking Obama for being an unserious “celebrity” who appears on late night television while the country goes to Hell. Its statistic to burnish this dark view: “Survey: 85% of New College Grads Move Back in with Mom and Dad.” What survey? It turns out, according to Politifact, that the survey in question was the product of an obscure and now defunct firm that will not divulge any information about its methodology. But the firm’s director did say the survey was done “years ago” and is therefore not appropriate for use in an ad on the current president’s record in office. A March 2012 report from the Pew Center found 42 percent of college graduates 18- to 29-years-old living at home. The ad earned a “false” rating from Politifact.
And the ad that is getting $25 million worth of airtime? Factcheck.org finds its central claim to be “almost entirely false.” They write:
The latest multimillion-dollar attack ad from Crossroads GPS claims President Obama broke a promise to not increase taxes for families making less than $250,000 a year. That’s almost entirely false.
The truth is that Obama repeatedly cut taxes for such families, first through a tax credit in effect for 2009 and 2010, and beginning in 2011, through a reduction in the payroll tax that is worth $1,000 this year to workers earning $50,000 a year. And while it’s true that some tax increases contained in the new health care law would fall on individuals, they have mostly not taken effect yet and are small compared with the cuts the president already enacted. And this ad exaggerates them greatly.
The other claims in the ad are judged by Factcheck.org to be “misleading,” and you can read their full debunking here.
Of course, Super PACs are legally barred from coordinating with campaigns and there is the possibility, remote as it may be, that some Super PAC spending can do more harm than good. Last week Romney condemned a plan by billionaire investor Joe Ricketts to run a $10 million ad campaign tying President Obama to the inflammatory statements of his former pastor Jeremiah Wright. As Politico notes:
The risk from rogue third-party groups is a potential menace to both Republicans and Democrats. The GOP has seen more Super PACs and 501(c)(4) groups form to support its candidates, but there’s nothing to stop an individual liberal gazillionaire from commissioning ads on a subject the Obama campaign doesn’t want to talk about — say, Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith. And rogue ads could create friendly fire as much as score points against the opposition, as the official GOP’s repudiation of the Ending Spending plan showed.
But that too can be a blessing as much as a curse. Draft dodger George W. Bush disassociated himself with the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth smearing of war hero John Kerry’s record of service in Vietnam. But Bush benefited enormously from the widely repeated claims in the ads. Even news stories debunking the falsehoods peddled by the Swift Boat group may have reinforced negative images of Kerry. Certainly it put him on the defensive. Indeed, this outsourcing of attacks—with a wink and a nudge—has been around almost as long as television commercials for candidates. The most famously effective attack ad in recent presidential politics, the 1988 commercial blaming Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis for a murder committed by a convict named Willie Horton who was out of prison in a furlough program, was not actually paid for by Dukakis’ opponent, George H.W. Bush but by an outside group. Romney may have ultimately benefited from the opportunity to remind voters of Obama’s inflammatory pastor without having to do so himself.
Whatever the specifics of each ad play, it is clear that overall the flood of money from billionaires and corporations into campaigns is helping one party more than the other. The RNC can thank John Roberts for a job well done.
People who work at Fox News might like to think that they are despised by real journalists only because they are conservative and most journalists are liberal. Anyone who read the admiring obituaries of William F. Buckley Jr. in mainstream and liberal outlets would know that is nonsense. Journalists, both liberals and ones with no ideology in particular, are quite capable of respecting conservative pundits and reporters who deserve their respect.
But Fox does not. The reason is not because it holds a set of values that others may not share. And that is only partially because it claims to be “Fair and Balanced” when it is neither.
Rather, it is because it fails the fundamental test of journalism: are you informing your audience? According to a new study by Farleigh Dickinson University, Fox viewers are the least knowledgeable audience of any outlet, and they know even less about politics and current events than people who watch no news at all.
Respondents to the survey were able to answer correctly an average of 1.8 of 4 questions about international news and 1.6 out of 5 questions about domestic affairs. “Based on these results, people who don’t watch any news at all are expected to answer correctly on average 1.22 of the questions about domestic politics, just by guessing or relying on existing basic knowledge,” said Dan Cassino, the poll’s analyst.
“The study concludes that media sources have a significant impact on the number of questions that people were able to answer correctly,” wrote Cassino and his colleagues. “The largest effect is that of Fox News: all else being equal, someone who watched only Fox News would be expected to answer just 1.04 domestic questions correctly—a figure which is significantly worse than if they had reported watching no media at all. On the other hand, if they listened only to NPR, they would be expected to answer 1.51 questions correctly.”
This should come as no surprise if you follow Fox. Consider some recent history. Fox and Friends host Steve Doocy invented a quotation from President Obama completely out of thin air. He falsely claimed that Obama had said he and Michelle were not born with silver spoons in their mouths “unlike some people,” in reference to Mitt Romney’s privileged upbringing. In fact, Obama did not say “unlike some people” and he has been using the silver spoon line for years. Several other news outlets repeated Doocy’s assertion as fact and Doocy initially avoided correcting the record after it was revealed he was wrong. Eventually he admitted that he “seemed to misquote” Obama, instead of stating that he did, in fact, misquote him. And he did not apologize for the error.
When Fox isn’t inventing smears against Obama, it uncritically regurgitates corporate-funded lies about him. Consider a segment of Sean Hannity’s show from last week. He showed a TV commercial by Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group founded and funded by the Koch brothers, that attacks President Obama’s record on investing in renewable energy. Hannity and Frank Luntz praised its effectiveness, with Luntz saying, “It was fact-based, not assertions. You see the facts come up on the screen. There's specific numbers.”
The only problem is that the factual assertions are incorrect. The ad says that “80 percent of taxpayer dollars spent on green energy went to jobs in foreign countries.” But the article it cites as a source clearly states only that the money went to foreign firms. The bulk of American tax dollars spent on the subsidies, according to Politifact, went to American subsidiaries of the firms.
The ad goes on to offer specific examples: “$1.2 billion to a solar company that’s building a plant in Mexico. Half a billion to a car company that moved American jobs to Finland. And $39 million to build traffic lights in China. President Obama wasted $16 billion on risky investments.” I won’t bore you with all the details of how each of these claims is untrue; each has been labeled false or mostly false by Politifact or Factcheck.org and you can go to Media Matters for the full rundown.
Hannity routinely takes Republican misinformation as the gospel truth. To choose just one particularly embarrassing example, he let Herman Cain’s spokesman Mark Block declare, absurdly, that a woman named Karen Kraushaar who accused Cain of sexual harassment was the mother of a Politico reporter named Josh Kraushaar. Hannity did not challenge either the veracity of this claim nor question why this “fact” would cast doubt on Politico’s thoroughly reported revelation that Cain has been repeatedly accused of sexual harassment. In fact, Josh Kraushaar had left Politico for National Journal over a year before the story even ran, and he is not related to Karen Kraushaar. It would have been easy for Hannity to check on these facts and correct Block’s assertion, but he did not. Here is what Josh wrote about it the next day:
Anybody with Internet access would, at the very least, been able to figure out that I haven't worked for Politico since June 2010—and have been working at National Journal since then. I even Tweeted the fact that I wasn't related to Karen Kraushaar earlier that evening before Hannity's show to clear up any potential confusion.
That didn't stop Block. When I heard what Block had said on Hannity's show, I immediately e-mailed him informing him of his mistake. I still haven't heard back.
This laziness, partisan hackery and lack of regard for basic accuracy is what separates Fox News from outlets that merely have opinions. And it is doing their audience a disservice. This Fairleigh Dickinson study is not the first to find that Fox News viewers are the most ill-informed of any news consumers. As of November 22, 2011, Think Progress had found seven studies showing Fox News’s viewers to be the worst informed of all news consumers. In a post about a report that had just come out in the International Journal of Press/Politics, by communication scholar Lauren Feldman of American University and colleagues which found that “Fox News viewing manifests a significant, negative association with global warming acceptance,” Chris Mooney cited six previous studies with similar findings.
I identified 6 separate studies showing Fox News viewers to be the most misinformed, and in a right wing direction—studies on global warming, health care, health care a second time, the Ground Zero mosque, the Iraq war, and the 2010 election.
I also asked if anyone was aware of any counterevidence, and none was forthcoming. There might very well be a survey out there showing that Fox viewers aren’t [emphasis in original] the most misinformed cable news consumers on some topic (presumably it would be a topic where Democrats have some sort of ideological blind spot), but I haven’t seen it. And I have looked.
In the last year, since Fox News fired Glenn Beck and has sought to line up behind more establishment Republican candidates such as Mitt Romney, the new conventional wisdom has been that Fox is tacking back to the center. As a purely strategic move within the Republican party, that may be true. But, unfortunately, this has not been correlated with any improvement in the quality or independence of its journalism.
Another day, another economic speech by Mitt Romney. Romney is constantly trying to refocus the campaign on the economy. After being sidetracked by President Obama’s announcement that he supports gay marriage speech last week, and Romney’s appeal to the religious right at Liberty University on Saturday, Romney is once again on the attack against Obama’s economic record. Romney’s Tuesday afternoon speech in Des Moines, Iowa, was nominally focused on deficit reduction.
There are plenty of reasons to worry about the rate of job growth in the short term and federal debt accumulation in the long term, but unfortunately Romney’s proposals would make both problems worse. Rather than offer specific investments or incentives to hire now and plausible plans to reduce the deficit later, when the economy is strong enough to withstand spending cuts, Romney offers the same austerity measures that have crippled the recovery in much of Europe.
It’s worse than just that. If Romney specified which tax loopholes he would close and spending he would cut, at least we’d get deficit reduction, if nothing else. It would also allow for an honest debate about the American people’s priorities on taxes, spending and deficit reduction. But he stubbornly refuses, out of cowardice. Specific cuts could trigger opposition, so Romney offers only bromides.
Romney compared the rising federal debt to a “prairie fire” sweeping the nation. “The people of Iowa and America have watched President Obama for nearly four years, much of that time with Congress controlled by his own party. And rather than put out the spending fire, he has fed the fire,” said Romney. “He has spent more and borrowed more.”
While technically true, this is a bit misleading. Obama inherited an imbalance between spending and revenue because of tax cuts and wars started by George W. Bush and congressional Republicans. Much of the increase in the deficit since Obama took office can be attributed to increases in mandatory spending such as food stamps and decreases in tax revenue that were caused by the recession he also inherited, rather than any of his policies. While Obama did sign some new spending bills, he also signed the Affordable Care Act, which would reduce the deficit. Romney pledges to repeal the ACA and complains that it cut spending on Medicare.
“The time has come for a president, a leader, who will lead. I will lead us out of this debt and spending inferno,” Romney promised. But how? Romney does not say. He wants to extend the Bush tax cuts, then cut taxes an additional 20 percent and raise spending on defense. All of this increases the deficit.
To pay for all of this and then reduce the deficit from current levels would require drastic cuts in domestic programs. But Romney knows that the American people like the idea of cutting domestic spending more than they like cutting actual programs they rely upon. So he avoids offering any specifics. “Move programs to states or to the private sector where they can be run more efficiently and where we can do a better job helping the people who need our help,” said Romney. “Shut down programs that aren’t working. And streamline everything that’s left.” None of this really means anything. No one is for programs that aren’t working or inefficiencies. Unless you say which programs you believe are not working, or which inefficiencies you will remove, you aren’t really saying anything at all. Romney says he will lead on this issue, but he offers no leadership at all.
The Obama campaign may have recently overplayed their advantageous new media hand. The campaign website posted a feature called “The Life of Julia,” which was meant to show the important role of government programs in the life of the average American. Julia attends a head start school, a high school that participates in Obama’s Race to the Top program, gets a loan to to start her own business from the Small Business Administration and so on. And with each step we are reminded that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan want to cut all of these programs. Conservative bloggers and columnists went ballistic with their derision and mockery, composing alternatives such as “Julia is enrolled in a Great Leap program where she will learn critical community organizing and obedience skills.”
But one can see why the Obama campaign thought the feature might be a good idea. Up until now they’ve had a strong lead over the Romney campaign in developing clever, creative features on their website. In recent months they released a widget that allows you to enter your gender and age to see what the Affordable Care Act will do for you, and a Buffett Rule calculator that allows you to enter your annual income to compare your tax rate to Mitt Romney’s currently (13.9 percent) and with the Buffett Rule (it would be 30 percent).
The Romney campaign hasn’t matched Obama with these advanced interactive tools. There are two reasons for that, one is organizational and the other is philosophical.
Organizationally, Romney is simply far behind Obama in plugging staff resources into web development. Obama did not have a competitive primary, and he has raised money prodigiously, while Romney is playing catch up. “Digital is the biggest department at Obama’s headquarters,” notes Patrick Ruffini, a Republican strategist with a specialty in new media. “They’ve had a big lead time. All the parts of a campaign that are about infrastructure, as opposed to messaging state-to-state, is where they’re going to be strong right now. When I worked for the Bush campaign [in 2004] we had all sorts of advantages over the Democrats in terms of data, field, and infrastructure operations because we were running uncontested. Obama has been building this for a year. As you get into general election, the digital side will only get more important for the Romney campaign.”
“Comparing the Obama campaign—who haven’t gone through a primary—with 750 staffers, versus Romney with eighty-seven is comparing apples and hamburgers,” says Zac Moffatt, digital director for the Romney campaign.
But there is also a difference in the campaigns’ digital approach. Moffatt says that making the most elaborate interactive widgets on a campaign website is not necessarily any more useful at voter persuasion than static ones. Thanks to social media, any piece of online content is interactive in the sense that it can now be shared and promoted. And most online users are not going to campaign websites but rather coming across campaign content via sites where they are already spending their time: web ads that pop up while they read a news site, or recommendations from friends on Twitter or Facebook.
“The website is no longer the only platform,” says Moffatt. “You have to reach people on the platform they’re on. If we have graphic on how Obama has decimated women’s economic opportunities, you could say that’s flat, but we could say 25,000 people have shared it.”
An example of how the campaign has turned flat content interactive would be Romney’s jobs plan, which you could “pay” for downloading on your Kindle by tweeting about it using a code. (It was actually free.) With around 40,000 downloads it rose to number nine on Kindle’s best seller list. “For a 160 page-jobs plan, that’s pretty impressive,” Moffatt boasts.
The Romney campaign also contends that Obama’s fancy widgets like The Life of Julia are preaching to the converted, and online ads are a far more important way of reaching undecided voters. Not many swing voters are visiting an incumbent president’s campaign website six months before an election. “If someone goes to barackobama.com in April, they’re not persuadable,” says Moffatt. “The real conversation occurs in paid media.”
Of course, the downloads of Romney’s jobs plan are presumably being performed by supporters. Just as the Obama campaign creates interactive widgets in the hope that true believers will share them with friends, Romney’s jobs plan is seldom downloaded by the sort of swing voter who makes up his mind in October.
For all of the attention that expensive television advertising investments by campaigns and Super PACs will generate, TV is being slowly supplanted by the Internet as the most important political advertising medium. Online ads can be carefully targeted to people who fit certain demographic profiles or have shown interest in certain subjects through searches. Compared to blanketing everyone watching the nightly news or a popular sitcom, it is far more efficient, because you can avoid wasting your dollars on non-voters or people who are certain to vote for your opponent. “A TV ad versus an Internet ad is using a hammer versus a scalpel,” says Moffatt. Moreover, thanks to more advanced recording technology and streaming of TV shows online, increasing numbers of people don’t even watch live TV and therefore don’t see the ads. “One-third of people haven’t watched live TV except for sports in the last week,” notes Moffatt. “You’re missing one-third of potential voters if you just do TV.”
So the Romney campaign plans to ramp up its online advertising in the general election. There will be widgets embedded, and “rich media” ads, and viewers will be able to share the ones they like on social media. Despite the fact that Romney’s supporters skew older than Obama’s, everyone is online in 2012, and Republicans can’t afford to lag Obama in that sphere. “Last time it wasn't clear McCain got the web,” says Ruffini. “Now both parties get the web. The Tea Party helped out on this front; they understand online organizing.”
“No one has a monopoly on technology in 2012,” says Moffatt. It’s become too pervasive. Has Obama done better than Republicans in the past? Perhaps, but that’s a moot point now.”
Conservatives can’t seem to get their story straight on gay marriage. Some claim President Obama announced his support for marriage equality on Wednesday afternoon to gain political advantage. They reason that he wants to enthuse his base and distract attention from high unemployment. Others confidently predict that Obama has awoken the sleeping giant of socially conservative voters, and they will come out in November to punish him. Meanwhile, some concede that Republicans may not want to aggressively position themselves on “the wrong side of history,” and still others declare that Obama has declared “war on marriage.” And the latter two both work for Fox News.
Obama’s move has thrown Mitt Romney’s regressive position on marriage equality into stark relief. While Obama was already the most pro-gay rights president in history, Romney is actually further to the right than George W. Bush on gay marriage. Romney not only opposes gay marriage but also opposes civil unions that offer equivalent benefits to marriage. That means Romney would deny benefits such as hospital visitation rights to same-sex couples. Bush, on the other hand, supported civil unions, and his former vice president, Dick Cheney, supports gay marriage. Romney also supports a federal amendment to the Constitution that would ban gay marriage.
On other aspects of civil rights for gays and lesbians, Romney is a fairly standard Republican: he was against letting gays serve openly in the military, although he would not reverse the policy now that it has been changed. He opposes the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. And while he says that he does not discriminate in his own personal hiring practices, his openly gay foreign policy spokesman Richard Grenell resigned after being attacked by religious social conservatives and feeling that the Romney campaign was not publicly supporting him.
Any concerns that Romney will use gay marriage as a wedge issue to drum up evangelical voter turnout, as Republicans did in 2004, should be assuaged by the fact that Romney clearly hates talking about social issues. He has complained that he was forced to talk about them too frequently in the last campaign, and he has been known to begin answers to questions on social issues in debates by saying that instead of that subject he should be asked about the economy. He did that again in an interview with a local Colorado television station on Wednesday. After being asked about gay marriage, in-state public university tuition for the children of illegal immigrants and medical marijuana, he interrupted his interviewer and demanded, with audible irritation, “Aren’t there issues of significance that you’d like to talk about? The economy, the growth of jobs, the need to put people back to work, the challenges of Iran; we’ve got enormous issues that we face.” In other words, Romney thinks the only significant issues are the ones he prefers to discuss.
The Romney campaign did not issue any statement, press release or even blog post in response to Obama’s comments. Romney did speak briefly on television, during which time he reiterated his standard talking point that “states are able to make decisions with regard to domestic partner benefits.”
Other Republicans and conservatives were not so recalcitrant. Many of them are portraying Obama’s move as mere election-year politicking. Rick Santorum, in an attempt to seize his last shred of relevance, put out a statement calling it “an attempt to galvanize [Obama’s] core hard left supporters in advance of the November election.”
“President Obama has consistently fought against protecting the institution of marriage from radical social engineering at both the state and federal level,” said Santorum. “I will continue to fight to make sure that the cultural elites don’t further undermine the institution that gives the best opportunity for healthy, happy children and a just and prosperous society.”
Congressional Republicans have echoed those talking points, albeit in less hysterical language. “There appears to be a plan to try to distract Americans from the thing they care most about, which is too many people out of work and the sad state of the economy, and the runaway and reckless spending going on here in Washington,” Texas Senator John Cornyn, who runs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told Politico.
But social conservative leaders are unintentionally contradicting Santorum and Cornyn by arguing that Obama’s embrace of marriage equality will actually be a boon to Romney. “Combined with his administration’s opposition to the Defense of Marriage Act, it reveals a president who is tone-deaf and out-of-touch with the time-honored values of millions of Americans,” said Ralph Reed, founder and chairman of Faith & Freedom Coalition. “This is an unanticipated gift to the Romney campaign. It is certain to fuel a record turnout of voters of faith to the polls this November.”
Family Research Council President Tony Perkins went even further, arguing that Obama could harm himself even among minority voters:
As demonstrated by yesterday’s overwhelming vote in North Carolina, redefining marriage remains outside the mainstream of American politics, especially in the critical battleground states and among minority voters. In North Carolina, the amendment received more than 60 percent of the vote in majority-black counties.
Considering that ten of the sixteen battleground states have marriage amendments that could be overturned by the President’s new policy position on marriage, today’s announcement almost ensures that marriage will again be a major issue in the presidential election.
The President has provided a clear contrast between him and his challenger Mitt Romney. Romney, who has signed a pledge to support a marriage protection amendment to the U.S. Constitution, may have been handed the key to social conservative support by President Obama.
Fox News seemed to be more in tune with Mitt Romney’s desire to just make the issue go away. After a fairly cursory discussion of the topic, it moved on to covering John Edwards’s trial. Anchor Shepard Smith reacted to the news by saying, “The president of the United States, now in the twenty-first century.” He also wondered “if Republicans would go out on a limb and try to make this a campaign issue while sitting very firmly, without much question, on the wrong side of history on it.” But his colleagues at Fox’s website were simultaneously posting a piece with the nonsensical headline, “OBAMA FLIP FLOPS, DECLARES WAR ON MARRIAGE.” Of course, a conservative might say Obama has declared war on traditional marriage. But to say he has declared war on marriage itself simply doesn’t make sense, since he proposes not to eliminate the institution of marriage but to expand it. They later changed the headline to a more accurate, “OBAMA FLIP FLOPS ON GAY MARRIAGE.”
It’s fair to say Obama flip-flopped. But social progress has caused many Americans to flip-flop on any number of civil rights issues. This is only the most recent one, and it clearly caught Republicans off-guard.
Over the weekend Mitt Romney’s campaign issued press releases, pegged to visits to key swing states, listing the purported failures Obama’s first term. Headlines such as “FOUR YEARS OF BROKEN PROMISES FOR VIRGINIA” and “AMERICAN FAMILIES ARE STRUGGLING IN THE OBAMA ECONOMY” lead to lists of facts about the hardships the country faces, from large numbers of home foreclosures to high gas prices.
One statistic in particular stands out, especially in light of Romney’s effort to woo young voters: “Since President Obama Took Office, The Average Cost Of College Has Increased By 25% At Four-Year Public Schools Across The Country.” This fact, while technically true, is wildly misleading. It doesn’t adjust for inflation. Adjusted for inflation the percentage increase is 21.7 percent. That’s much too high, but is it Obama’s fault?
The president does not control tuition at state institutions. But he has attempted to mitigate rising tuitions through financial aid to needy students. Obama doubled funding for Pell Grants, created a tuition tax credit worth up to $10,000 over four years and capped student loan payments.
The result is that the actual price that students pay for college has barely risen at all. The College Board crunched the numbers and found, “Between 2006-07 and 2011-12, average published tuition and fees at public four-year colleges and universities increased by about $1,800 in 2011 dollars, an annual rate of growth of 5.1% beyond inflation. The average net tuition and fees in-state students pay after taking grant aid from all sources and federal education tax credits and deductions into consideration increased by about $170 in 2011 dollars, an annual rate of growth of 1.4% beyond inflation.” So this supposed 25 percent increase is really just an increase of $170. That pretty much demolishes Romney’s point.
But no one would argue that Obama’s efforts have eliminated the problem of college affordability altogether. At best, they’ve merely temporarily softened it. So while Romney’s attack on Obama may not be fair, it would still be theoretically possible for him to offer students more in the future.
But Romney has offered no plan of his own for college affordability. As Inside Higher Ed notes, “Education is not even mentioned on his campaign website’s list of ‘issues.’” And he supports Representative Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) budget that proposes enormous cuts to domestic social spending. This would cut Pell Grants dramatically. On Tuesday Senate Republicans filibustered the Democratic effort, backed by the White House, to pass legislation that would prevent student loan interest rates from doubling.
Romney, the fantastically wealthy son of an auto executive, has evinced a “let them eat cake” attitude towards college affordability. His parables of youthful ambition involve borrowing $20,000 from one’s parents to start a business. Here’s what Romney said about student loans at a town hall in Youngstown, Ohio: “My best advice is find a great institution of higher learning. Find one that has the right price—shop around. In America this idea of competition, it works and don’t just go to the one that has the highest price, go to one that has a little lower price where you can get a good education and hopefully you’ll find that and don’t take on too much debt and don’t expect the government to forgive the debt that you take on.” On Monday in Ohio Romney derided Obama’s efforts to aid college students as “free stuff,” to win young voters. “Romney suggested he would try to lower tuition costs by increasing competition between universities,” TPM reports.
Obama laid out a detailed agenda in January for college affordability. Contrary to Romney’s caricature of Obama as a big government liberal throwing good money after bad, it is Obama, not Romney, who has articulated a reform agenda that would harness the forces of market competition to lower tuition. Obama proposes to “to shift aid away from colleges that fail to keep net tuition down, and toward those colleges and universities that do their fair share to keep tuition affordable, provide good value, and serve needy students well.” He would create a higher education program modeled on Race to the Top that would incentivize improved affordability and outcomes and he would create a college scorecard so that families could see which school offers them the best value.
“Romney has no plan to speak of,” says Kevin Carey, policy director at the nonpartisan think tank Education Sector. “Obama arguably has not done much to tackle the core problem of rising tuition, although the policies announced around this year's State of the Union were a good start. And Obama has done a whole lot to treat the symptoms of the rising tuition problem, by fighting for more funding for Pell grants—and succeeding fantastically, the program has more than doubled in spending under his administration—trying to keep student loan interest rates low and introducing alternative loan payback options.”
The candidates also differ on for profit colleges. The Obama campaign has attempted to crack down on colleges that take government tuition subsidies and offer students poor educations with low graduation rates or degrees that are worthless in the job market. Romney champions the for-profit college industry. Romney recently praised for profit schools such as the University of Phoenix and Full Sail University, drawing criticism from experts who note their expensive tuitions, low rates of financial aid and questionable academic merit.
It’s also worth asking why state university tuitions are rising. In many cases it is because state legislatures, usually Republican state legislatures, are cutting funding for state schools. When Romney was governor of Massachusetts, he cut aid to public universities. The University of Florida recently announced plans to eliminate its computer science department after state aid dropped 30 percent over the last six years. (They have since said they intend to save the department.)
The Romney campaign declined to comment specifically on the tuition issue, simply noting that Obama campaigned against economic stagnation and rising college tuitions and now he is up for re-election having solved neither. “No matter how many lofty campaign speeches President Obama gives, the fact remains that American families are struggling on his watch: to pay their bills, find a job and keep their homes,” said Andrea Saul, Romney campaign spokesperson. “While President Obama all but ignored his record over three and a half years in office, the American people won’t. This November, they will hold him accountable for his broken promises and ineffective leadership.”
Obama campaign spokesman Danny Kanner sent me this response: “It’s ironic that Mitt Romney would attack the President’s record on making college more affordable when, just yesterday, he equated the President’s support for keeping the interest rate on student loan rates low with giving away ‘free stuff’, has proposed ending the college tax credit, and endorsed the Ryan budget, which would cut Pell Grants and let the student loan interest rate double.”
With Romney speaking Tuesday at Lansing Community College in Michigan the Obama campaign decided to hit Romney for his record on college affordability. They posted a fact sheet comparing his record to Obama’s. Obama campaign spokesperson Lis Smith issued a statement demanding to know, in light of his past statements and actions, “Why should young Americans trust any support he claims to offer now?” If the Romney campaign is serious about attracting younger voters, they will need to come up with an answer.
As the media shine a spotlight on conservative efforts to disenfranchise Democratic voters through aggressive anti–voting fraud measures, conservatives have begun their counterattack. A pair of op-eds published by conservative activists and pundits in the wake of a national anti&endash;voter fraud conference in Houston demonstrates the approach they will take. They also provide a case study in disingenuous, tautological conservative argumentation. They use statistics that are misleading, irrelevant or evidence of nothing more than the success of their own propaganda.
Both pieces cite polling data showing majorities support requiring voters to show photo identification. “Rasmussen Reports showed that 73 percent of Americans approve of Photo ID laws—and in fact, states that have Photo ID in place are seeing increased turnout at the polls, including minority groups (according to data from Indiana and Georgia),” writes Catherine Engelbrecht, the founder and president of True the Vote, a conservative anti-voter fraud group in Houston which sponsored the recent conference.
John Fund of National Review cites the same source. “A brand-new Rasmussen Reports poll finds that 64 percent of Americans believe voter fraud is a serious problem, with whites registering 63 percent agreement and African-Americans 64 percent,” he writes. “A Fox News poll taken last month found that 70 percent of Americans support requiring voters to show ‘state or federally issued photo identification’ to prove their identity and citizenship before casting a ballot. Majorities of all demographic groups agreed on the need for photo ID, including 58 percent of non-white voters, 52 percent of liberals and 52 percent of Democrats.”
These are circular arguments. Rasmussen Reports and Fox News are both Republican-leaning. Conservatives love to cite poll numbers, especially from sympathetic pollsters, that the public agrees with a false claim as if that made it true. But it doesn’t. Rasmussen finds 73 percent think photo ID requirements “do not discriminate.” That’s up from 69 percent the previous time Rasmussen asked the question. Does that mean photo ID laws became 4 percent less discriminatory during the intervening five months?
Whether voter fraud is a regular occurrence, and whether photo ID laws discriminate by disproportionately disenfranchising minorities, city-dwellers, young people and the disabled are matters of fact, not opinion. They should be answered empirically, not by taking a poll. One needs to only look at the data to discover that in-person voter fraud is virtually nonexistent in the United States today. The Republican solution to this imaginary problem, photo identification requirements, is clearly discriminatory, because members of some demographic groups are much less likely to have IDs than others.
If polling shows that a majority of the public disagrees with these factual findings, that just proves they are ignorant or that they have been misled by conservative propaganda. And then conservatives turn around and cite the evidence of mass ignorance, or successful conservative propaganda, as proof that their false claims are true.
Even the majorities in favor of photo ID laws cited by Engelbrecht and Fund are not dispositive. Unlike incorrect beliefs about factual matters, popular opinion on what voting law should be does have some relevance. But unlike some other policy matters, voting rights law should not be decided solely on the basis of popular opinion. Voting rights are civil rights. And it is a fundamental American value that civil rights cannot always be legislated away. A majority’s desire to oppress or disenfranchise the minority must be constrained.
The remainder of Engelbrecht’s and Fund’s analysis are mere sophistry and speculation. That’s election law expert Rick Hasen awarded Fund’s piece the “Fraudulent Fraud Squad Quote of the Day” for the following contention: “Most fraudsters are smart enough to have their accomplices cast votes in the names of dead people on the voter rolls, who are highly unlikely to appear and complain that someone else voted in their place.”
Hasen responds, “I’d love to see the evidence of a single election in the last quarter of a century in which in person impersonation voter fraud using dead people affected the outcome of an election.” Opinion polls notwithstanding, photo ID laws remain a solution in search of a problem.
After Mitt Romney’s foreign policy spokesman Richard Grenell resigned on Tuesday in response to social conservative complaints about his sexual orientation and his support for same-sex marriage, Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association is claiming credit. On his radio program Tuesday afternoon, Fischer—who was the first to criticize Grenell for being “an out, loud and proud homosexual”—boasted, “This is a huge win.... I will flat-out guarantee you [Romney] is not going to make this mistake again. There is no way in the world that Mitt Romney is going to put a homosexual activist in any position of importance in his campaign.” (Fischer is a former evangelical pastor who is prone to making controversial remarks such as, “We should screen out homosexuals who want to immigrate to the United States.”)
That, of course, raises an important question: if staunch religious conservatives such as Fischer can dictate Romney’s policy and personnel decisions, what other demands will they make?
I called Fischer to find out. He says there are a number of stances on issues Romney has thus far avoided that would reassure the “pro-family” community. The most significant includes a pledge to veto the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would protect gays and lesbians from workplace discrimination, reinstating “don’t ask, don’t tell” and removing spousal benefits for the domestic partners of federal employees. Fischer laid out these same ideas in his initial attack on Grenell. “Romney needs to make the following public commitments…if he is to have any hope of generating even modest enthusiasm in the base.… If he’s going to pander, he’d better start pandering in a big, fat hurry.”
Here’s what Fischer told me on Wednesday:
One thing [Romney] can do is come out and endorse North Carolina’s marriage amendment. Sanctity of marriage is a very important issue for the pro-family community. I would urge him to restate his commitment to rigorously defend the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). I would urge him to commit to revoking spousal benefits for unmarried domestic partners. President Obama has extended spousal benefits to partners of federal employees in violation of DOMA. We need to hear Romney take a position on reversing that. He needs to publicly commit to vetoing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) if it reaches his desk. I think he should reinstate the ban on homosexuality in the military. He said he won’t do that, but he should make it clear that military chaplains on his watch will have freedom to teach biblical view of sexuality without any fear of repercussions.
Romney has a nuanced—some might say slippery—relationship with a few of these issues. On DADT Romney criticizes President Obama for signing the law repealing it and allowing gays to serve openly in the military. But his rationale is not exactly that it was the wrong policy in the abstract, only that it was too stressful for the military. Therefore he says it would be even more disruptive to reverse the repeal now. This complicated position has the virtue of being partially acceptable to people on both sides of the issue. He must attempt to keep the anti-gay conservative base mollified while not alienating the large majority of the public that supported letting gays serve. His position allows him to sidestep taking any stance of accepting or rejecting homosexuality, while nominally caring only about what is best for the military as a whole. Of course, what was best for the brave men and women already serving in the military who happened to be gay doesn’t enter into this calculation. It is politically shrewd, albeit nakedly calculating and cowardly.
On some of these other hot-button issues, such as benefits for the domestic partners of federal employees and ENDA, Romney hasn’t taken a stance in this campaign. His campaign declined to comment on these issues. But Romney has spoken about ENDA in the past. Back in 1994 when he ran for US Senate, he pledged to co-sponsor ENDA if he was elected. Then, in 2007, he said he would not support ENDA as president. So Fischer should rest assured that, as of Romney’s most recent flip-flop, he opposes protecting gays from discrimination in the workplace.
The other issues are essentially symbolic. The president has no say over state ballot initiatives regarding marriage. The supposed oppression of anti-gay military chaplains is an obscure myth that no one outside the religious right even knows about. It is mostly idle conjecture that chaplains will not be allowed to insult homosexuality now that gays can serve openly in the military, not actual evidence of any chaplains being punished.
Symbolism, though, is important to Fischer, as it is to many social conservatives. Unlike other evangelical leaders, who pretended that their only objection to Grenell was his advocacy for marriage equality, Fischer readily admits that he doesn’t think Romney should have openly gay staffers. “If Richard Grenell had kept his sexual preferences to himself, none of this would have happened,” says Fischer. “Nobody would know, nobody would care.” I asked if that meant he thinks gays can work on the Romney campaign only if they remain in the closet, but not if they are open about their sexual orientation. Fischer didn’t dispute that characterization of his views, saying, “In [Washington,] DC, personnel is policy. If [Romney] wants to reassure the evangelical community that he’s with us on the sanctity of marriage then he should not make hiring decisions that confuse us about where he stands.”
The Romney campaign declined to respond to Fischer’s comments. Romney has butted heads with Fischer in the past, most notably when he criticized Fischer’s lack of “civility” at the Conservative Political Action Conference last year.
Given that Fischer has expressed misgivings about Romney in the past, especially about whether he is truly committed to the social conservative cause, I wondered why Fischer was so happy that Romney dumped Grenell. Isn’t this just more evidence that Romney doesn’t, in his heart, oppose homosexuality? That he just will bend to the conservative base as much as he has to? Then again, does it matter? Or is the proof that you can control a candidate as valuable as the proof that he personally agrees with you? “You would prefer to have a candidate that you know is with you in his heart on these issues,” says Fischer. “But ten years from now all that’s going to matter is the policies he pursued, it’s not going to matter why he pursued them. If he will do the right thing because it is politically expedient, then he will have done the right thing. At the end of the day that’s what’s going to count.”