If Newt Gingrich’s self-destructive criticism of Paul Ryan’s Medicare proposals pushed Republicans more firmly into Ryan’s corner (e.g., Tim Pawlenty’s forced statement that he would sign a bill implementing Ryan’s budget as president, even though he intends to present his own “ideas”), you might think the results of last Tuesday’s special congressional election in New York would then exert counter-pressure against Ryan’s plan. After all, it’s pretty clear that Republican candidate Jane Corwin’s support for Ryan’s budget was the central issue in the campaign, and contributed to her loss in a strong GOP district. But for the most part, conservative opinion-leaders are resisting the pressure, either rationalizing Corwin’s loss as attributable to other factors (mainly through an unconvincing claim she would have won without the presence of self-proclaimed Tea Party candidate Jack Davis splitting the GOP vote), or simply arguing that Republicans need to do a better job of explaining Ryan’s proposal.
In any event, last week’s results guarantee that Democrats will keep relentlessly tarring the entire GOP with the unpopularity of Ryan’s specific take on Medicare. Whatever individual Republicans actually think, they probably calculate they’d rather take their chances on a general election loss over Medicare than invite a primary challenge by dissing Ryan. Many also undoubtedly hope the president will eventually give them “cover” by supporting a budget deal including enough changes to Medicare and Medicaid that makes it describable, accurately or not, as Ryan Lite.
Elsewhere, it’s been another wild week on the Republican presidential campaign trail, particularly on the Wingnut Right. Three national polls of Republicans have shown Georgia-based radio talk host Herman Cain leaping past more highly-regarded competitors to a high-single or low-double digit position of support, despite low name ID and meager (up until now) media coverage. The Hermanator (as he likes to call himself) has already been regularly winning straw polls after candidate speaking engagements, and is at this point the unquestioned favorite of Tea Party activists around the country. He’s been wowing audiences in Iowa in particular, and a Public Policy Institute poll of likely Caucus-goers in the Hawkeye state to be released later today will reportedly show him running second.
The media attention Cain has now earned will be a mixed blessing, making him more of a national conservative celebrity, but also inviting the kind of negative scrutiny he has avoided as a fringe candidate. It could well produce both effects, as illustrated by the mockery he’s already getting for conflating the Declaration of Independence with the Constitution in his announcement speech. In Wingnut World, it’s gospel that the latter document incorporates the former, which is how both Christian Right and Tea Party folk import God, natural law, and an implicit right of resistance against Big Government into the Constitution. Odds are Cain wasn’t being ignorant, but was simply blowing a dog whistle to conservative activists. His insouciance about foreign affairs could be a bigger problem, as could publicity about his past support for TARP and his service on the Federal Reserve Board back in the 1990s. Above all, Cain’s new prominence will bring race back into the national political discussion with a vengeance, even though many of his supporters seem to feel he represents sort of definitive rebuttal against charges that anti-Obama sentiments reflect racial undertones.
Even as polls have been raising Cain, however, an even bigger phenomenon could be unfolding as Sarah Palin—assumed to have been driven away from a 2012 run by poor poll numbers, savage Republican Elite criticism, and her highly remunerative day jobs—is suddenly behaving very much like a proto-candidate. First up, it came out that she had commissioned a full-length feature film centering on her persecution by the forces of Establishment Evil, to be released next month in Iowa, followed by other early primary states. Then she sprang into action by becoming the chief Celebrity Guest at the annual Rolling Thunder motorcycle rally in Washington, and is on the verge of launching a bus tour that will eventually make its way to Iowa. By all accounts, she’s viewing this re-emergence on the national scene as a test of whether she could launch a viable candidacy while pursuing an “unconventional campaign” that apparently would involve low-substance “patriotic” appearances with her large and famous family in tow.
The impact of all this turbulence on the rest of the field is an interesting sub-plot. As someone whose candidacy would be mortally endangered by a Christian Right/Tea Party coalescence around Cain, or a campaign by her doppelganger Palin, Michele Bachmann had quite the nerve-wracking week, including a damaging and clumsily handled no-show at an important Iowa Republican fundraiser she was supposed to headline. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney, considered the likely beneficiary of any surge of support for a presumably unelectable right-wing candidate like Cain or Palin, made his first appearance in Iowa in many months. As he sought to maintain a delicate balance between dissing Iowa and committing to the kind of full-tilt campaign in the state that undid him in 2008, Romney delivered a shirt-sleeve speech to an audience at a state facility in Des Moines. But before he could get into his altar call, fire alarms went off and Romney had to cut short his remarks and urge the crowd to calmly head to the exits. Ever snake-bit in Iowa, the Mittster was foiled on this occasion by someone overcooking a bag of microwave popcorn.
Picture Credit: DonkeyHotey