Last week was a pretty good week for hard-core conservative ideologues in terms of their domination of the Republican Party. In the Fox News/Washington Examiner presidential candidates’ debate on Thursday night, every single would-be president on the stage—even Jon Huntsman—rejected a hypothetical deficit reduction deal involving a 10-1 ratio of spending cuts to tax increases. At the same event, an extended exchange in which Tim Pawlenty went after Michele Bachmann for being a windy bomb-thrower who had never actually been able to accomplish anything in public life went pretty well for the windy bomb-thrower. Meanwhile, the discussion of cultural issues featured differences of opinion that ranged from hard-core opposition to same-sex marriage (with the exception of the pariah Huntsman) and abortion to hard-core opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.
At the Iowa GOP Straw Poll on Saturday, over half the votes were cast for two candidates generally considered to be minor fringe characters in the House Republican Caucus until quite recently, Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul. Tim Pawlenty, who began his national political career calling for a Republican Party that would be amenable to the views and practical needs of Sam’s Club shoppers, ended his audition for Electable Conservative Alternative to Mitt Romney with an ignominious third-place finish. Given his world-class organization in Iowa, T-Paw’s poor showing in this test of organizing strength indicated his failure to make the sale to serious conservatives, and he dropped out of the race the very next morning. Other than Bachmann and Paul, the candidate with the most to boast about on Saturday was Rick Santorum, who managed to get past Herman Cain to finish fourth and keep alive a campaign focused almost entirely on representing the most extreme right-wing cultural views (Santorum’s big moment in the Thursday debate was probably his passionate defense of a ban on abortions where the woman in question had been raped).
Bachmann’s narrow win over Paul in the Straw Poll was significant in Wingnut World for three reasons. First, it confirmed Paul’s continued marginalization in the GOP because of his highly unorthodox views on foreign policy and defense (in the debate, Paul spent an extraordinary amount of time defending Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, and went all Chomsky in attacking the CIA’s meddling in Iran in the 1950s, not a major concern of conservative Republicans then or now). Second, it lifted Bachmann into the top tier of candidates moving towards the actual delegate-selection contests next year. And third, it confirmed the relevance of wingnut-friendly Iowa in the nominating process; a Paul win would have called that relevance into question.
Meanwhile, down in South Carolina, the long-awaited announcement of Rick Perry’s presidential candidacy further tilted the field to the right. His speech, delivered at the annual gathering of devotees of the fervent take-no-prisoners conservative website RedState.com, was a masterpiece of the rawest ideological red meat. Perhaps the most significant moment was when Perry slipped into a tirade about high taxes a nasty comment about the injustice of low-to-moderate-income Americans owing no federal income taxes while “we” are expected to pay more. The desire to raise taxes on the poor is one of the more ironic preoccupations of Tea Party activists, reflecting the reverse class warfare sentiments made so plain in the foundational “rant” by Rick Santelli that launched their movement back in 2009.
Bachmann and Perry, both major figures in the iconography of both the Tea Party Movement and the Christian Right, now represent two-thirds of the viable Republican presidential field for 2012. Realization of that fact has some of the more Establishment-minded Republicans a bit panicked. The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat looked at the field on Sunday and didn’t like what he saw:
No one doubts Romney’s intelligence or competence, but he has managed to run for president for almost five years without taking a single courageous or even remotely interesting position. The thinking person’s case for Romney, murmured by many of his backers, amounts to this: Vote for Mitt, you know he doesn’t believe a word he says.
But his phoniness would remain a weakness even if he won the presidency. He’s a born compromiser pretending to be a hard-liner, and the hard-liners know it—which means he would enter the Oval Office with conservative knives already sharpened and ready for his back.
Rick Perry has many of the qualities that Romney seems to lack: backbone, core convictions, a killer instinct and a primal understanding of the right-wing electorate. He also has the better story….
What Perry doesn’t have, though, is the kind of moderate facade that Americans look for in their presidents. He’s the conservative id made flesh, with none of the postpartisan/uniter-not-a-divider spirit that successful national politicians usually cultivate.
And Douthat didn’t even address Bachmann’s even more strident stance. He concluded his column with that most thread-bare of Republicans cries for help: a plea to Chris Christie to repudiate months of disavowals of candidacy by jumping into the race. Other elite malcontents are promoting a candidacy by the very epitome of conservative fiscal orthodoxy, Paul Ryan, a more reliable figure than Romney who is also more seemly than Perry.
Aside from these desperate measures to add to the field the big debate in the chattering classes right now about the Republican nominating contest is whether it’s effectively a Romney-Perry contest or if Bachmann can remain viable by winning Iowa. Either way, the pressure will remain on Romney to perpetually prove his conservative bona fides, and the most GOP “moderates” can hope for, as Douthat observes, is that he’s lying through his teeth.
Any doubt that the “movement conservative” conquest of the GOP has now been consummated should pretty much be consigned to the trash bin. The main question now is whether conservatives prefer their presidential candidate to be cool and shifty, or raw and shrill.
Photo credit: DonkeyHotey