Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Magician’s Empty Hand

  The Republican contest to see who will run against Barack Obama has seemingly winnowed its way to the final 2 contestants, with Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum winning every primary but South Carolina, which gave Newt Gingrich a short lived boost before fading back in the polls to a weak third place. Ron Paul has the most loyal followers, but has not managed to win a primary.

  When Romney won the Florida primary and established that not every southern state would vote for someone named ‘Newt’ it looked as though he had won the nomination. Many of the pundits underestimated the number of Republicans that will not vote for a semi-liberal Mormon and Santorum managed to win the Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri contests on February 7th to not only become Romney’s main challenger, but the actual front-runner.

  I’d first heard Santorum talk on KXNO, the Des Moines sports radio station and he made an impression on me as a regular guy who could talk about his favorite sports baseball and hockey just like a fan. Then I started looking at his record. I had known he was a social conservative but didn’t realize he was as reviled by the liberals as Bill and Hillary Clinton are by the conservatives. Santorum even had his last name redefined by gay rights activist Dan Savage after his 2003 interview with the Associated Press in which he said that mutually consenting adults do not have a constitutional right to privacy regarding sexual acts.

  Romney and Santorum both seem like easy targets for potshots, but for vastly different reasons. Romney has had to change and redefine his positions on a number of issues in his progression from the Senate candidate and Governor in a liberal state to an aspiring presidential candidate of a conservative political party. While running for office in Massachusetts (before gay marriage was the firestorm issue it is today) he needed to be in favor of gay rights and seen to be against gay marriage. This led him to endorse civil unions and equal rights while saying he believed “"Marriage is an institution between a man and a woman". As governor, Romney issued at least 189 special same-sex marriage licenses, but in 2012 he claims he was hamstrung by court decisions. On taxes, Romney raised revenue as governor to balance the budget as required by state law. He claims he closed loopholes while other say he increased taxes in a backdoor way by raising license fees. While Romney panders to the right in criticizing Obama’s health care reform, his opponents point out the similarities to the health care reform instituted under Romney’s governorship. On every controversial issue, Romney’s detractors have enough quotes to put him on either side of it and Romney has enough quotes and explanations to prove he was consistently on his preferred side of any issue all along. The problem for Romney is that the time he has to spend defending himself from past positions takes away from his attempts to define himself for 2012.

  Meanwhile Santorum has been remarkably consistent in his opposition to taxes, health care reform, gay marriage, and contraception among other causes dear to conservatives. As he becomes more of a potential nominee, the mainstream media picks up on his past and present comments to poke fun at him and alert the middle of the road voters to his more controversial statements. But since Santorum rarely if ever contradicts himself, all the newfound attention portrays him as the type of champion of conservative values that Romney could never dream of being. For instance, today Yahoo is reporting on Santorum defending his 2008 comments in which he talked about how Satan would have his sights set on attacking America. And he continues to make hay with the conservatives every time his 2003 interview in which he said "If the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything." is reexamined. But while Romney can be made to look foolish to Republicans by highlighting his changing stances on issues, Santorum embraces his positions and statements and while he may look foolish and bigoted to party outsiders, he shows himself as a principled conservative to the exact groups whose support he needs to win the nomination. Since Santorum is not redefining himself, defending himself against his critics allow him to define himself even more clearly for his target audience.

  Romney’s main claim to the Republican conservatives is that he is the more electable candidate against President Obama and Santorum is trying to counter that argument by pointing out his blue-collar roots. In my opinion at the moment neither of these men can beat Obama in November, but since I also believe all elections are a referendum on the incumbent, any Republican candidate could win the election if the economy were to take a downturn. Obama has run into some controversy in recent weeks as his health plan’s mandate to require employers to provide free contraception came into effect and caused a firestorm of protest from Catholic and Protestant schools and hospitals, but he skillfully managed to defuse the issue until after the election. I think the only thing that could derail his election would be a Mideast crisis that would cause $5 dollar gas, but with the election only 9 months away and the economy appearing to show signs of improvement, Obama should be able to weather any crisis until past November.

  Lost in all the commotion of the debate over whether religious institutions should be forced to provide contraception as part of their health care plans was the agreement between the Republican controlled House and the Democratic president and Senate to add another 90 billion dollars to the deficit by extending a 2 percent payroll tax cut on social security taxes and also extending unemployment benefits. I like a 2% cut in my taxes as much as anyone, just not at the cost of borrowing at least $1,200 for it (my family of 4’s share of the 90 billion dollars added to the deficit). It's basically a wash unless I don’t have to pay it back or I have to pay other people’s share of the 90 billion. While the Democrats gave a little by paying for a portion of the spending by making federal workers pay more for their pensions, the Republican house have seemingly given away their principles by agreeing to tax cuts, benefits, and increased deficits.

  I understand the Republicans were reluctant to be blamed for allowing the payroll tax to be raised and fearful of losing their majority in the House as a result, but they were brought into their current position of power to NOT increase the deficit. It will be very hard for a Republican candidate to criticize the Democrats for the budget deficit when the Republicans have gone along with increasing it, but I’m sure that the Republicans calculated that the voter anger with losing their 2% tax break outweighed the Tea Party anger over increasing the deficit. And I’m also sure that the Republicans allowed ‘no’ votes for the members most vulnerable to ‘Tea Party’ pressure. When I see stuff like Republicans voting to increase the deficit less than 2 years after running on a fiscal responsibility platform and Democrats voting for bank bailouts in 2008 and 2009 it makes me wonder if our government is really a one-party system that just appears to offer a choice to voters.

  It was a misdirection worthy of a fine magician who draws the audience’s attention away from his empty hand long enough to slip the card in to be pulled from behind an ear or a rabbit to be pulled out of a hat. Just as everyone’s attention is drawn to what some candidate said 5 or 10 years ago or who will pay for an employee’s contraception, the politician’s empty hand delivers another 90 BILLION DOLLAR IOU to our friends in China. Can any candidate or group make a difference in the face of this kind of ‘enlightened’ self-interest? If the Tea Party is to have any creditability after having the party they brought into power pull this fast one, they will have to make their own party and find their own candidates.