The official failure of the congressional “supercommittee” came and went without much hand-wringing in Wingnut World; indeed, the prevailing sentiment was quiet satisfaction that Republicans had not “caved” by accepting tax increases as part of any deficit reduction package. It was all a reminder that most conservative activists are not, as advertised, obsessed with reducing deficits or debts, but only with deficits and debts as a lever to obtain a vast reduction in the size and scope of the federal government, and the elimination of progressive taxation. For the most part, the very same people wearing tricorner hats and wailing about the terrible burden we are placing on our grandchildren were just a few years ago agreeing with Dick Cheney’s casual assertion that deficits did not actually matter at all.
It is interesting that throughout the Kabuki Theater of the supercommittee’s “negotiations,” the GOP’s congressional leadership came to largely accept the Tea Party fundamental rejection of any compromise between the two parties’ very different concepts of the deficit problem. From the get-go, Democrats were offering both non-defense-discretionary and entitlement cuts in exchange for restoring tax rates for the very wealthy to levels a bit closer to (though still lower than) their historic position. The maximum Republican offer was to engage in some small-change loophole closing accompanied by an actual lowering of the top rates in incomes, plus extension of the Bush tax cuts to infinity. Conservatives are perfectly happy to let an on-paper “sequestration” of spending take place, with the expectation that a Republican victory in 2012 will put them in a position to brush aside the defense cuts so authorized and then go after their federal spending targets with a real vengeance.
The GOP presidential candidates have offered two opportunities during the last week for wingnuts of a particular flavor to assess their views and character. The much-awaited Thanksgiving Family Forum in Des Moines was perhaps the first candidate forum of the cycle in which no one even pretended to set aside cultural issues in favor of an obsessive focus on the economy or the federal budget. The format, involving not a debate but a serial interrogation of candidates by focus group master Frank Luntz, was explicitly aimed at getting to each contender’s “worldview,” the classic Christian Right buzzword for one’s willingness to subordinate any and all secular considerations and choose positions on the issues of the day via a conservative-literalist interpretation of the Bible (i.e., one in which phantom references to abortion are somehow found everywhere, and Jesus’ many injunctions to social activism are treated as demands for private charity rather than redistributive efforts by government).
According to The Iowa Republican’s Craig Robinson in his assessment of the event, Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry were the only candidates who succeeded in articulating a “biblical worldview” under Luntz’s questioning. Newt Gingrich got secular media attention for his Archie Bunkerish “take a bath and get a job” shot at the dirty hippies of OWS, but inside the megachurch where the event was held, the star was probably Santorum, whose slim presidential hopes strictly depend on Iowa social conservatives adopting him as their candidate much as they united around Mike Huckabee in 2008.
It is interesting that immediately after the event, Rick Perry joined Santorum and Bachmann as the only candidates willing to sign the radical “marriage vow” pledge document released back in July by the FAMiLY Leader organization, the primary sponsor of the Thanksgiving Family Forum. This makes him eligible for an endorsement by FL and its would-be kingmaking founder, Bob Vander Plaats. It appears a battle has been going on for some time in Iowa’s influential social conservative circles between those wanting to get behind a “true believer” like Santorum or Bachmann and those preferring to give a crucial boost to acceptable if less fervent candidates like Perry or Gingrich. The outcome of this internal debate, which was apparently discussed in a private “summit” meeting on Monday, will play a very important role in shaping the endgame of the Iowa caucus contest—as will the decision by Mitt Romney as to whether or not he will fully commit to an Iowa campaign (he is opening a shiny new HQ in Des Moines, which some observers are interpreting as an “all-in” gesture).
Without question, it became abundantly clear during the last week that the “Gingrich surge” in the nomination contest is real, or at least as real as earlier booms for Bachmann, Perry and Cain. The last five big national polls of Republicans (PPP, Fox, USAToday/Gallup, Quinnipiac and CNN) have all showed Gingrich in the lead. The big question is whether and when his rivals choose to unleash a massive attack on the former Speaker based on their bulging oppo research files featuring whole decades of flip-flops, gaffes, failures and personal “issues.”
Interestingly, though, Gingrich may have already opened the door to suspicious wingnut scrutiny without any overt encouragement from his rivals. During the last week’s second major multi-candidate event, the CNN/AEI/Heritage “national security” debate last night, Gingrich may have ignored the lessons of the Perry campaign by risking his own moment of heresy on the hot-button issue of immigration, calling for a Selective Service model whereby some undocumented workers with exemplary records could obtain legal permanent status if not citizenship. He was immediately rapped by Romney and Bachmann for supporting “amnesty.” We’ll soon see if Newt’s long identification with the conservative movement and his more recent savagery towards “secular socialists” will give him protection from such attacks, or if his signature vice of hubris is once again about to smite him now that he’s finally become a viable candidate for president.