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Wingnut Watch: End-of-the-Year Standoff

The end of the calendar year always means an assortment of “temporary” policies are approaching expiration, including some (e.g., upward revision of reimbursement rates for Medicare providers, and a “patch” to avoid imposition of the Alternative Minimum Tax on new classes of taxpayers) that happen every year. And then there are other expiring provisions central to the Obama administration’s efforts to deal with the recession, most notably unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed, and last year’s major “stimulus” measure, a temporary Social Security payroll tax cut.

With the collapse of the deficit reduction supercommittee and an uncertain future ahead for the “automatic sequestrations” of spending that are supposed to subsequently occur, leaders in both parties are especially sensitive at the moment about taking steps on either the spending or revenue side of the budget ledger that add to deficits. But some of the “fixes” mentioned above are political musts, while others are highly popular or scratch particular ideological itches. It will be interesting to see whether conservative activists wind up taking a hard line against deficit increasing measures, and indeed, against any cooperation with Democrats so long as their own demands for “entitlement reform” and high-end tax cuts are ignored.

The payroll tax cut is an especially difficult subject for conservatives. While it will be easy for them to reject Senate Democratic proposals to pay for an extension of the cut with a surtax on millionaires, it is certainly possible, as Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has acknowledged, to “pay for” this tax cut with spending cuts, perhaps even some that Democrats would consider supporting.

Some conservatives, however, view any deal with Democrats on this and any other fiscal issues as a deal with the devil. One of McConnell’s deputies, Sen. John Kyl, has argued that the payroll tax cut hasn’t boosted the economy (i.e., it is not targeted to “job creators,” the wealthy) and should be subordinated to tax cut ideas that supposedly do. In an argument that is getting echoed across Wingnut World, RedState regular Daniel Horowitz suggests that GOPers make any payroll tax cut extension conditional on a major restructuring of Social Security, which of course ain’t happening.

Since virtually all the end-of-year measures under discussion will boost the budget deficit, and there are limited noncontroversial “offsets” available (mainly “distribution” of new savings attributed to the drawdown of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan), the key question will be which ones conservatives choose to pick a fight over and which ones slide quietly past the furor on unrecorded voice votes and last-minute agreements. If congressional Republicans seem to be acting in too accommodating a manner, it would not be surprising to see GOP presidential candidates using them as foils for their own claims to the “true conservative” vote as the January 3 Iowa caucuses grow ever nearer.

For the umpteenth consecutive week, the presidential contest remained full of surprises and volatility. Herman Cain’s campaign, already losing steam after his poor handling of both sexual harassment/assault allegations and the most recent debates, took perhaps a terminal blow from a new, credible-sounding allegation (made, interestingly enough, via a local Fox station in Atlanta, not some precinct of the “liberal media”) of a long-term adulterous affair. While Cain is again denying he did anything wrong, conservatives are not rushing to his defense this time, and the general feeling is that his campaign is done.

If Cain actually withdraws, it has long been assumed he would endorse Mitt Romney. But as a new analysis by Public Policy Polling showed, Cain’s supporters are very, very likely to move virtually en masse to Newt Gingrich, whose star continued to rise last week. His big news was an endorsement by the New Hampshire (formerly Manchester) Union-Leader, that sturdy right-wing warhorse of GOP politics. This step immediately makes Gingrich the most formidable rival to Mitt Romney in the Granite State: the Union-Leader does not simply endorse and ignore candidates; it can now be expected to undertake a virtually-daily bombardment of front-page editorials defending its candidate and treating his intraparty opponents (particularly Romney) as godless liberal RINOs.

But the impact of the endorsement goes far beyond New Hampshire, given the Union-Leader’s reputation for the most abrasive sort of wingnuttery. It materially helps him solidify his reputation for conservative ideological regularity, which is about to be brought into serious question by all the other campaigns, which are doubtless sorting through their bulging oppo research files on the talkative former Speaker, trying to decide which lines of attack are most lethal.

So far the he’s-not-a-true-conservative attack on Gingrich has been largely limited to his new, dangerous positioning on immigration, unveiled in a recent debate. Gingrich has been quick to stress that his proposal for a “path to legalization” for some undocumented workers does not involve citizenship, and denies its beneficiaries any government benefits whatsoever. But Iowa’s highly influential nativist champion Steve King has already branded Newt’s plan with the scarlet A-word of “amnesty,” and Michele Bachmann is trying to draw a new line in the sand suggesting that true conservatives favor deportation of every single “illegal.”

At this point, the presidential contest appears to be something of a race between Gingrich and his past words and deeds. There is a small window between now and the period immediately before and after Christmas (when something of a truce is imposed) when his opponents can try to bury him as a flip-flopper, an inveterate bipartisan, and a guy whose personal life (not just his marriages and divorces, but his finances) has been less than godly. If they don’t get their act together to do so, he’s looking very strong in Iowa, and even if he loses to Romney in New Hampshire, Gingrich is currently sporting large polling leads in South Carolina and Florida. Particularly for those candidates (Perry, Bachmann, Santorum; Ron Paul is in something of a class by himself) still hoping to seize the mantle of the true-conservative-challenger-to-Romney after Iowa, it’s getting close to desperation time.

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