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This ideological purity worked to the advantage of Michele Bachmann, by making her seem less extreme. Bachmann is often linked with Palin as a Tea Party pinup, but she is a different breed of cat: she knows her stuff. She actually gives factual, informed answers. She lacks Palin's bitter, solipsistic edge. She skillfully framed even her most extreme responses in an amenable way, smothering her opposition to abortion in cases of rape and incest within a paean to the sanctity of life. Bachmann also led the pack in opposition to the Libya intervention and it should be noted that the Republican field was sounding remarkably dovish, with the exception of Santorum, on the subject of foreign wars. Romney said he wants the troops home from Afghanistan "as quickly as possible," but then remembered he'd better consult the generals first. Newt Gingrich, a traditional war lover, called for a review of U.S. policy in the region rather than plumping for more military kinetics. No one mentioned Iran. This is a fascinating development: the only plausible space for Republicans in the national-defense debate may be to Barack Obama's left.
But a nomination race that is comfortable for Bachmann has to be uncomfortable, sooner or later, for the more moderate politicians in the field. Gingrich, amazingly, was the only candidate willing to fly in the face of Limbaugh Law, repeating his worries about Ryan's Medicare plan: "Remember, we all got mad at Obama because he ran over us [on health care reform] when we said don't do it. Well, the Republicans ought to follow the same ground rule. If you can't convince the American people it's a good idea, maybe it's not a good idea." When Newt Gingrich is the voice of reason on a Republican stage, the rightward lurch of the party has become a dangerous, inbred, self-destructive thing.
Establishment Republicans vs. Pitchfork Populists
On the morning of the debate, Romney unfurled a truly striking campaign ad, in which he blasted Obama for (foolishly) calling the latest awful jobs report "a bump in the road." The ad was set in the desert, with people lying parallel on a lonely highway; at first I thought they were dead, but no, they were human speed bumps. And one by one they got up, holding pieces of paper that told their stories: laid off, recent college graduate, single mom, working three jobs, company gone bankrupt. It was the sort of ad a Democrat might have run in a different cycle, and it effectively hammered home Romney's theme: Obama is HooverCarter. This is the single strongest argument the Republicans have going for them in 2012.
But it's only the opening bid. Sooner or later, Romney or whoever takes him down is going to have to provide some alternatives, and this is where the party's ideological straitjacket will pinch the tightest. The standard Republican mantra of smaller government, lower taxes, less regulation is nearly as tattered as Obama's Keynesian spending in the face of a fierce recession, and yet this crop of candidates seems to be doubling down on it. Bachmann promised to repeal Obamacare, as did Romney, and she wants to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency too. Gingrich wants to defund the National Labor Relations Board. All of them blasted government regulation of the private sector in the debate; the vision of federal twerps descending on hardworking businesspeople and sanctioning them for not filling out every form in triplicate is a powerful image. But it also places the GOP against the regulation of Wall Street, whose excesses caused this mess, and against the protection of consumers from the depredations of credit-card mongers and payday lenders. There was also some free-range union bashing, which may work in New Hampshire but might not go down so well with the blue collar Reagan Democrats who have provided the margin of victory in more than a few recent elections.
There are, I'm happy to report, some limits to all the repealing and defunding. At a New Hampshire campaign stop a few days before the debate, Ron Paul was asked if he would privatize the Grand Canyon. He thought for a second, then said no. "That was a trick question," he asked, "wasn't it?" Indeed, for relatively moderate candidates like Romney and Pawlenty, all the tests of ideological purity are trick questions that will leave them either unworthy of Tea Party support now or untenable in a general election. And so they are forced to endure implausible ideological purification rituals Pawlenty's recent, silly tax-lowering scheme, for example or empretzel themselves in order to explain past bouts of political sanity. Romney's latest defense of his successful universal health care plan in Massachusetts is a particularly grisly example of the latter: it was O.K. for him to impose an individual mandate but wrong for the President to do the exact same thing, because health care is a problem that should be left to the states to solve in their own ways. That leaves Romney open to an obvious question: Does he also intend to destroy Medicare by sending it back to the states?
The other option for Republican moderates is to tap-dance. In the debate, Romney walked the tightrope on raising the federal government's debt ceiling. "I believe we will not raise the debt ceiling unless the President finally, finally is willing to be a leader on issues that the American people care about ... And the American people and Congress and every person elected in Washington has to understand, we want to see a President finally lay out plans for reining in the excesses of government," he said. That leaves some wiggle room for Romney when the inevitable debt-ceiling compromise is reached, but his potential support for that compromise is not likely to please the Teasies. These and other inconsistencies will be exploited by the President who will be forced to run a campaign very much the opposite of 2008's, a counterpunching, negative attack on Republican extremism, which fits his character about as comfortably as pitchfork populism fits Romney's. Some presidential campaigns 1960, 1980, 1992, 2008 are exhilarating, suffused with hope and excitement. This is not likely to be one of those. It is likely to be an election that no one wins but someone loses. It will be a reversal of politics past: a pragmatic Democrat will be facing a Republican with all sorts of big ideas, promising an unregulated, laissez-faire American paradise.
Obama will have to come up with a stronger argument than "It could have been worse," but in tough times, the continuing presence of a government safety net is far more reassuring than the message that you're on your own. And in the end, all the Republican talk of repealing and defunding may prove too radical for an American public that is conservative in the traditional sense, and wary of sudden lurches to the left or right.