If you really want to understand the psychology and the power of Wingnut World, the Palmetto Freedom Forum event in South Carolina on Labor Day was a real eye-opener.
Set up by South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, Iowa Rep. Steve King, and social ultraconservative Robert George of Princeton University, the event was designed to remove the “soundbite” and horse-race mentality of conventional candidate debates, and present 2012 GOP presidentials with the opportunity and the challenge of making major statements of “first principles” before a murder board of ideological inquisitors.
The event was spoiled a bit by Rick Perry’s last-minute cancellation to go home to look over the shoulders of professional emergency managers and first responders dealing with the recent rash of Texas wildfires. Even if you give Perry full credit for doing the right thing, it’s clear he benefitted by avoiding a probable grilling from inquisitor Steve King over immigration policy (King asked other candidates not only about illegal immigration but about appropriate levels of legal immigration). And actually, it’s doubtful Perry would have done that well under questioning from Robert George about the constitutional issues involved in abortion policy, since the Texan has flip-flopped on the subject quite recently.
The other candidates (for a full video, go here) performed pretty much as demanded. They all bellied up to the bar of “constitutional conservatism,” the belief that right-wing policy prescriptions are the only way to remain faithful to the fundamental design of the Republic. Everyone vibrated at the idea of “American exceptionalism,” the notion that this country is not only exempt from any concept of universal norms of behavior and cooperation, but is divinely appointed to keep alive laissez-faire capitalism and conservative Christianity as models for the rest of the world.
Even though Perry was absent, Steve King dutifully quizzed the candidates not only on how they would deal with illegal immigrants, but whether they agreed with him that it was time to cut back on legal immigration as well (Herman Cain was the only—perhaps naïve—protester against that proposition).
The sheer zaniness of the event was probably best evidenced by Robert George’s extended interaction with several candidates over their willingness to engage in a constitutional confrontation with the U.S. Supreme Court in the event that Congress passed legislation seeking to outlaw or significantly restrict abortion. Bachmann and Gingrich eagerly agreed with George’s suggestion that a Republican president should fight to deny federal courts jurisdiction over abortion policy; Mitt Romney allowed as how he would not go quite that far.
But George also backed Michele Bachmann into a corner by getting her to admit she had no specific basis for her repeated argument that a state-imposed personal health care purchasing mandate—i.e., what Mitt Romney had helped create in Massachusetts—violated the U.S. Constitution.
For observers of the hyper-conservative mutation of the GOP over the last few years, the most startling development in Columbia was probably Mitt Romney’s agreement with his inquisitors that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac should be privatized and the Community Reinvestment Act repealed. This series of steps reflects the wingnut belief that federal efforts to increase homeownership by poor and minority families caused the housing and financial meltdowns of 2008. He didn’t start babbling about ACORN or William Ayers or the president’s birth certificate, or engage in a Santelli-style rant about “losers” and “parasites” stealing from virtuous rich people. But the fact that a sober character like Romney is buying into Tea Party conspiracy theories is not a good sign.
The presidential candidates will get together again Wednesday night in a more conventional setting and format: the Ronald Reagan presidential library in California. It appears Perry will show up this time, having pretty firmly established himself as the front-runner in the race (the latest token is a poll showing him leading among Republicans in Nevada, a state thought to be totally in the bag for Mitt Romney). The venue may discourage sharp elbows given the certainty that someone will invoke Reagan’s so-called “Eleventh Commandment” against personal attacks between Republicans. But Ron Paul has already taken the initiative to go negative on Perry with a broadcast TV ad, timed to coincide with (and perhaps air during) the debate, comparing Paul’s 1980 endorsement of Reagan with the Texan’s endorsement of Al Gore in 1988 (when he was still a Democrat and Gore was considered a moderate and defense hawk). It will be interesting to see if Michele Bachmann or one of the lesser candidates picks up the opportunity that Steve King missed in South Carolina to grill Perry on his immigration stance. The one certainty tonight is that everyone will kneel at the altar of St. Ronald, and it’s doubtful anyone will recall that he signed two tax increases as president, sought to negotiate nuclear disarmament with the Soviets, and cut a deal with Tip O’Neill to avoid cuts in Social Security—that RINO!
Photo credit: outtacontext