Let’s see – as this primary season has unfolded, and as the Republicans try to work out who they’ll choose to run against Obama, they are in the process of trying to focus their attack. After all, a focused attack is a successful attack. And for a time it seemed to be the focus would be on one thing – how Obama ruined the economy – which would play well with a nation where folks were losing their homes left and right and unemployment was sky-high, and so were taxes. But the first hurdle was a tough one – the economic catastrophe, from which we are very slowly recovering, actually happened in the final six months of the Bush administration, when we were within days of a worldwide economic meltdown. The TARP legislation – seven hundred billion dollars to save the banking system and to keep all financial transactions from seizing up entirely – was passed in Bush’s last months in office, at his desperate urging. You may have thought that was a bad idea, the opposite of what should happen in a free-market system where the weak fail and massive economic destruction is really creative destruction, but Obama didn’t do anything there. He was still the junior senator from Illinois at the time. So the best you can hope for is that people have short memories – or no memories. And of course that’s a reasonable hope – more than half of all Americans think Obama thought up and pushed through that awful bailout, some don’t know, and about a third of those asked said yeah, they kind of remembered that happened during Bush’s last year. This is good for Republicans. Still, it is hard to get around actual facts. People do keep bringing them up.
But once in office Obama did push through an equally expensive stimulus program – borrowing money to keep cops and firefighters and teachers on the job, with a bit of public works spending to get some of the unemployed back to work, and whole lot of tax cuts, like the Payroll Tax cut, so people had more money in their pockets to spend on necessities and to keep demand from collapsing, leaving businesses with no customers. That’s generally bad for business. But there is the other view. The Republican argument was that we had no business adding any more to the national debt – that debt was unsustainable and it would be far better if the economy ground to a halt, a dead stop, than take on further debt obligations – better dirt roads and no running water and no schools than incurring debt that would saddle our grandchildren and their grandchildren for generations. The counterargument – that this debt now would be slowly but surely paid off if we could get the economy working again and then actually growing, with people earning money and paying taxes again – is a theoretical argument. You buy the theory or you don’t. But the other counterargument was there too – about a quarter of the current debt load we must service is due to stimulus spending, and the rest was from Bush’s two wars – put on the tab – and his two rounds of massive taxes cuts for the very wealthiest of Americans – put on the tab – and Medicare Part D with the low-cost or free medication for the poor and elderly – put on the tab. And add the seven hundred billion for TARP, and Bush starting the bailout of GM with an initial eight billion – he didn’t want GM to go under on his watch. All in all that’s two to four trillion dollars added to the debt we must service. That makes Obama look frugal.
Still you can attack that. Mitt Romney is now saying this of Obama – “He said he’d cut the deficit in half. He’s doubled it. He’s doubled it.” But that’s not quite so, as when Obama took office the deficit was about 1.3 trillion dollars. Last year, it was 1.29 trillion. This year it’s on track to be about 1.1 trillion. It’s coming down slowly but surely, as the economy recovers. So Romney and his cohorts need a voting populace bad at math, and who don’t like to look up the actual facts. Fair enough. America is not a nation of math wizards. And most will believe Romney, because they want to. And no one reads to the end of the news article, where the facts are. We are not a detail-minded people.
But with unemployment stabilizing – we have been adding more than a hundred thousand private-sector jobs month after month after month – and with GM making record profits and the number one carmaker in the world again, after Romney said it should be allowed to go bankrupt – Romney and the Republicans have a problem. They are forced to argue that yes, things are getting better, but they would have gotten much better much faster without all the bailouts and stimulus spending. Maybe that’s possible, but they have to argue a hypothetical – which usually makes people’s eyes glaze over. You have to imagine an alternative universe. And maybe the stimulus worked – eighty percent of economist surveyed said it did, as without it unemployment certainly would be four points higher and GDP surely would be almost two points lower. So things are still awful, but if you want to focus on how Obama ruined the economy, don’t. Stay blurry. And no one pays attention to economists anyway.
But really, Obama has pulled a fast one on the Republicans, taking away their economic argument. That hardly seems fair, and now they will continue to make the argument that Obama ruined everything, but only half-heartedly. They know more and more people will keep bringing up the damned facts and it’s best to find another focus. But the other logical focus is foreign policy, and there the problem is that Obama ended the war in Iraq and Bin Laden is dead and the ranks of the al-Qaeda leadership have been decimated, as week after week another drone strike takes out another few recently-promoted leaders. And there’s lots of commentary that Obama’s reelection campaign slogan should be very simple – BIN LADEN IS DEAD AND GM IS ALIVE. And that fits nicely on a bumper sticker.
Of course there is Iran. They may very well get nuclear weapons. Something should be done and Romney said it best – “This president should have put in place crippling sanctions against Iran, he did not.” Ah, no – he did do just that – as anyone knows who reads a newspaper. They even mention it now and then on Fox News – although there they say sanctions never work and we should bomb Iraq back to the Stone Age, even if it starts World War III and jihadists blow up Cleveland three times a day. Yes, John Bolton is a frequent guest on Fox. But few Americans eagerly look forward to global thermonuclear war or even suicide bombers blowing up every Starbucks in town. And for a time John McCain and all sorts of Republicans were saying we should have stayed in Iraq, even if Bush scheduled our departure and, at the time appointed, the Iraqis told us to go home. But that didn’t gain much traction as they say. An endless hot war in a country that doesn’t want us there, with an endless stream of our dead and massively wounded the only ones coming home – trying to sell that failed, for obvious reasons. So Obama has pulled another fast one on the Republicans, taking away their foreign policy argument. Drat.
And that leaves the social issues – the fight to end Obamacare – the repeal all of the Affordable Care Act. The government should stay out of healthcare – except for Medicare and Medicaid of course. People want that coverage and the Republicans did not dare say those should be abolished. They just want them privatized – give people a few bucks to buy what private for-profit insurance companies might offer, if they choose to offer anything at all. But even there people are a bit skeptical. That feels a bit like being thrown to the wolves. So it came down to the Affordable Care Act – with its death panels, which never materialized, and the end of the insurance industry, which never materialized, and doctors forced to abandon doing what they thought was best for the patient because some bureaucrat in Washington thought he knew better, which never happened. The best they could come up with was the morally repugnant mandate that all health plans cover family planning and contraceptive services. That wasn’t much, but if you’re going to make a stand you do need someplace to stand. And that would have to do – so they said this mandate was an affront, an attack on religious freedom. They used the outrage of the Catholic bishops in America to bolster their argument. You cannot offer such services. That offends God’s people. You must respect their moral conscience.
But that effort isn’t going so well. There’s endless reporting, here and everywhere, about how the Republicans ended up talking not about religious freedom, and the specific theology regarding what everyone just knew God wanted, but about the evils of contraception itself – which almost all American women use to manage their lives and plan when to have children – and in the case of Rick Santorum, talking about the evils of sex itself. He kept insisting sex was something no one should like, just something one must endure, to make babies, and to make God happy that you did – and something the government had every right to regulate. Contraception was not okay – not at all.
That was going too far. This was seen as an attempt by Santorum, and the rest of the Republicans, to have the government set the rules for just how and how not one would be allowed to be intimate with another – and an attempt to tell women they had no right to decide about matters regarding their own health and well-being. Men had the right to tell women they should have no access to contraception at all, useless the right men, selected by Daryl Issa perhaps, said it might be okay, in some cases. And thus people began talking about the Republican War on Women. Sometimes it also seemed like a War on Sluts Who Enjoy Sex Too Much – quite an insult. Either way that may have lost the Republicans the women’s vote – save for Phyllis Schlafly and Ann Coulter, if Ann Coulter really is a woman. To focus is to narrow – and they have managed to throw away the women’s vote.
But maybe they don’t want it, as a matter of focus. Perhaps most women really are immoral sluts – so to hell with them, literally. And with all the Birther talk over all the years – Obama can’t be a real American – they threw away the black vote, even if they said they weren’t racist, just being precise about the rules. It didn’t seem that way when no birth certificate, no matter how carefully authenticated, would do. And they long ago threw away the Hispanic vote with all the anti-immigrant stuff, like Herman Cain’s gleeful call for an electrified fence at the Mexican border that would fry every man, woman and child who tried to cross to a crisp. Yes, secure borders matter, but the tone of seething heartless scorn didn’t go unnoticed. Janet Brewer in Arizona didn’t help either. But who needs the Hispanic vote, even if Hispanics are the fastest growing minority in America, and in key states more than thirty percent of population? Let the Real Americans decide the election. But of course that excludes the gays too – those people shouldn’t marry each other and be happy. So they never wanted their vote either. And remember Sarah Palin campaigning, with all the talk about Real Americans – who live in the heartland, in small towns, not in big cities, like New York or Obama’s Chicago, or evil Hollywood. And these people, the Real Americans, don’t have fancy-pants degrees and think they’re so damned smart. Who needs them? People who don’t know much, and know they don’t know much, and are fine with that and really despise people who know stuff, are the heart and soul of America. Let’s focus, people.
Who’s left? Where do the Republicans find the votes in December? You can only make the voter registration process so hard before you’re just blatantly denying the wrong people the right to vote. You have to be at least a little subtle there.
But now the narrowing of focus is getting really strange:
Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum said Thursday that President Obama wants more young adults to go to college so they can undergo “indoctrination” to a secular world view.
In an hour-long interview with conservative television host Glenn Beck, Santorum also defended his record on abortion and his vote in favor of President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind education law.
On the president’s efforts to boost college attendance, Santorum said, “I understand why Barack Obama wants to send every kid to college, because of their indoctrination mills, absolutely … The indoctrination that is going on at the university level is a harm to our country.”
He claimed that “62 percent of kids who go into college with a faith commitment leave without it,” but declined to cite a source for the figure. And he floated the idea of requiring that universities that receive public funds have “intellectual diversity” on campus.
And Sarah Palin just creamed her panties. But Ed Kilgore says this:
Hard to imagine, isn’t it – that anyone would think Santorum’s engaged in a culture war after reading comments like that! In one fell swoop, he’s accusing hundreds of higher education institutions of consciously warring against religion; accusing the president of the United States of consciously attempting to exercise mind control over millions of young people; accusing the parents of said young people of stupidly putting themselves into deep debt in order to secure the intellectual and moral corruption of their children; and proposing to end academic freedom in favor of some sort of vague “diversity” standards that he’d be denouncing if the subject was admission of minority students.
And there’s Kevin Drum:
Now, this is a new one to me. It’s commonplace for movement conservatives to believe that universities are dens of depravity and radical left indoctrination. So far, so normal. But as far as I know, most of them don’t believe that efforts to get more kids into college are motivated by a desire to destroy their faith. That’s a step beyond even normal wingnut land.
This stuff leaves me kind of speechless. I already know what hardcore conservatives think of academia and university life in general. Nothing new there. And let’s face it: the political mood at most universities is pretty liberal. So fine. But what kind of person actively believes that the president of the United States favors more access to higher education as a plot to secularize the country? This is 10-page-single-spaced-crank-letter-to-the-editor territory. I wonder if even one single real conservative… will step up and suggest that this is just a wee bit crackpottish?
Don’t hold your breath. The narrowing of focus continues.
But Drum has also said this:
One of the interesting things about the rise of Rick Santorum is that it’s giving a lot of people their first up-close-and-personal look at some of the more – what to call them? - unorthodox beliefs that animate American movement conservatives. They really do believe that we liberals support prenatal testing because it’s a good way of ensuring that Down’s Syndrome kids are all aborted. They really do believe that widespread contraceptive use has led directly to dissolution and cultural decay. They really do believe that “freedom of worship” is a dog whistle used by President Obama to indicate his contempt for religious liberties. They really do believe that global warming is just a hoax designed to allow lefty elites to seize control of the means of production.
And then, after the last Republican debate, there was, of all people, Jeb Bush:
I used to be a conservative, and I watch these debates and I’m wondering, I don’t think I’ve changed, but it’s a little troubling sometimes when people are appealing to people’s fears and emotion rather than trying to get them to look over the horizon for a broader perspective, and that’s kind of where we are.
And Time’s Joe Klein comments:
You must understand: Jeb Bush really is a conservative, and a thoughtful one at that. And yet, he manages to live on this planet, in this country, in the 21st century, and has a track record of actually trying to solve the problems we’re facing without denying that they exist or demagoguing them. He obviously senses that the current Republican candidates are on a Jonestown course, drinking the Rush Limbaugh Kool-Aid on a wide variety of issues.
But it’s not just Santorum:
It is especially sad to watch Mitt Romney, who is not an unintelligent man, make such a fool of himself on so many issues. Part of his alleged “electability” had to do with the fact that he was not insane, that he could appeal to moderates and independents – the sliver where presidential elections are won and lost. But I’ve not yet seen him say, “Whoa guys, that’s a little bit extreme for my tastes” in any of these debates, much less disagree with his opponents from the center. Instead, he has – shamelessly and sometimes hilariously – tried to portray himself as righter than thou whenever the opportunity arises.
This hasn’t worked particularly well with the wing-nuts – who are, by the way, more radical than they are conservative – and, if Romney wins the nomination, his history of posturing is likely to be cataclysmic in the general election. Jeb Bush is clearly frustrated by the byplay, and his fellow Republicans would be wise to heed his words.
But they won’t, and George Will put it this way – “Romney is not attracting people who want rationality leavened by romance. Santorum is repelling people who want politics unmediated by theology.”
And Andrew Sullivan adds this:
I despise what the GOP has become. But it is what it is. And Santorum is its logical leader. Let this party stand up and be counted. Romney would shroud it in bullshit and blather – while not deviating from it a scintilla. If he won the nomination and lost the general campaign, the GOP would simply blame it on his lack of “real conservatism”. And we’d be back where we started. With Santorum, we’d finally get to test whether that “real conservatism” is indeed the future of the GOP or what I think it is – a reactionary form of madness.
And, by the way, those Washington pundits now huffing and puffing about Santorum’s extremism? They should have spoken up a long time ago. Or tell us now what substantive differences there are between Santorum’s apocalyptic war-mongering and Romney’s; or between Santorum’s belief in erasing the difference between politics and religion and Romney’s. Or simply acknowledge they have no principles but defeating Democrats by whatever means necessary.
But that would be honest, wouldn’t it? Like the candidate they now oppose.
But this is what happens when you narrow your focus again and again and again. You disappear.