The Progressive Fix

Wingnut Watch: The Rise of Fearless Republicans

President ObamaThere are still some observers in Washington who believe congressional Republicans will be forced by President Obama’s jobs speech and proposal to cooperate with Democrats on some sort of emergency economic legislation. But that’s not the perception, and certainly is not the inclination, of the citizens of Wingnut World, who greeted the president’s speech with a combo platter of ideological hostility and mocking indifference.

Almost universally, conservative opinion-leaders insist on calling the proposal a “stimulus” rather than a “jobs” bill. Given their equally universal claim that the 2009 economic stimulus legislation did not create any real jobs (viz. Rick Perry’s claim during the Florida candidates’ debate), this indicates its dead-on-arrival nature among conservative leaders and probably the House. Once the White House made it clear it proposed to “pay” for the jobs proposal with measures that include a limitation on itemized tax deductions by high earners, conservative condemnation solidified even more.

The bigger picture, of course, is that conservatives have long settled on a message and policy agenda that insists nothing other than business tax cuts, federal spending cuts, and aggressive deregulation can possibly be considered as helpful to the current and future U.S. economy. Public investments? That’s just a code word for more spending or worse yet, pork. Temporary relief for the unemployed or the under-employed? That’s just more stimulus, reflecting the failed ideas of John Maynard Keynes. During the long GOP presidential debate on September 12, no concept beyond disabling government was mentioned by any of the candidates with respect to reviving the economy.

But aside from hostility to the specifics of Obama’s proposal, another note is steadily creeping into conservative messaging on the economic and other debates in Washington: contempt for the president’s political influence. Here’s National Review’s Victor Davis Hanson on the jobs proposal:

In truth, Obama is out of arrows. His quiver is bare, because he came into office as a rhetorical president without much experience or any ideas other than growing even bigger a tired big government. And now the public realizes that both the speeches and the big spending do not work. The result is that we collectively know what the president cannot any longer say — and it proves far greater than what he can say. He is well past the point of Jerry Ford’s WIN buttons or Jimmy Carter’s fist-pounding malaise speech.

This sense that Republicans have nothing to fear any longer from Obama (in the same piece quoted above, Hanson compared Obama today to George W. Bush towards the end of his second term) is increasingly pervasive, and will almost certainly be intensified by hype over the Republican victory in the special election to fill Anthony Wiener’s House seat in New York. If New York Jews are abandoning Obama, many conservatives are undoubtedly saying to themselves, how can he possibly win in 2012?

If, as has been convincingly argued, Obama’s jobs speech represented a definitive effort to force Republicans into a choice between cooperation and a damaging display of indifference to the country’s economic suffering, conservatives show every indication that they will happily risk the latter. This in turn could have an effect on the tone of the GOP presidential contest, where a very confident party with fewer fears about electability could indulge itself in a base-pleasing competition tilting very far right.

The CNN-Tea Party Express debate in Florida certainly showed signs of that dynamic. A lot of headlines about this and the previous candidates’ debate focused on criticisms of Rick Perry’s harsh rhetoric on Social Security, suggesting that there was in fact a limit to how far right the primary electorate would choose to let a potential nominee go. But the fact that uber-conservative Michele Bachmann has joyfully joined in the bashing of Perry for disrespecting the very existence of Social Security shows that this may be less a matter of sensitivity to mainstream public opinion and more a matter of recognizing the strong popularity of federal retirement programs among conservative base voters—who are on average relatively old. Meanwhile, Perry’s right flank was meaningfully exposed during the debate in exchanges on immigration and his aborted effort to inoculate Texas schoolgirls against the HPV virus. He’s in some danger of looking like he feels more compassion towards illegal aliens and sexually active teenagers than towards the conservative seniors who belief they have earned every nickel of their Social Security and Medicare benefits.

The skirmishing between Perry and other candidates in the debate may have helped obscure the virtual unanimity of the candidates in support of policy positions that would have been considered wingnutty as recently as the last presidential cycle. (The shouts from the audience of “Yes!” when moderator Wolf Blitzer asked if a hypothetical person with no health insurance who is suffering from a fatal disease should be allowed to die was representative of the gulf between the conservative GOP base and the rest of the country). One interesting exception was foreign policy, where first Jon Huntsman and then Rick Perry called for an end to the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan without explicit contradiction from other candidates. It will be interesting to see if Perry’s rivals, especially Mitt Romney, choose to go after Perry from the right on this subject in a direct appeal to what used to be called one leg in the three-legged- stool of American conservatism: “national security conservatives.”

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