Wingnut Watch: Pivoting to Ames

By / 8.4.2011

Formally, at least, Wingnut World was divided over the big votes earlier this week on the debt limit increase “compromise” package. Even as conservative blogs (generally) urged a “no” vote, with varying degrees of heat, House Republicans approved the bill by a robust 174-66 margin. The House Tea Party Caucus even favored it 33-29, though the major “splits” were less ideological than institutional; virtually anyone with a connection to the House GOP leadership or in a senior committee position voted “yea.”

But in the immediate wake of the vote, conservatives seem to have united in a strategy of utilizing the “deal” to plot an incessant, scorched-earth campaign for more spending cuts, and particularly an assault on entitlements. The deal certainly does provide many opportunities for additional fights: an appropriations battle prior to the end of the fiscal year (less than two months from now), which will almost certainly involve another effort to shut down the government; a “disapproval” vote for the president’s scheduled second-stage increase in the debt limit, which will probably occur in early October; the “debt committee” struggle over additional deficit reduction measures in November, which will occur against the background of pending automatic spending cuts that will occur in December if no action is taken; and then a longer-term fight over tax policy in 2012 in anticipation of the expiration of the Bush tax cuts at the end of that year.

While many wingnuts are relishing these battles, they will involve some intra-conservative tensions, especially in terms of the priority assigned to protection of defense spending and avoidance of revenue increases, and the relative emphasis placed on entitlements cuts as opposed to even deeper discretionary spending cuts than are already baked into the cake in the debt limit deal. On the former front, it’s worth noting that three presidential candidates who opposed the deal—Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann—all cited fears of defense cuts as a factor. Efforts to resolve the conflict between defense hawks and anti-tax militants will probably push conservatives into the perilous territory of insisting on major cuts in Social Security, Medicare benefits and Medicaid. The programs are all protected in the “deal” from automatic cuts and the cuts themselves are unpopular and reinforce Democratic attacks on earlier Republican support for Paul Ryan’s radical Medicare and Medicaid proposals. Indeed, one of the major conservative grievances about what is otherwise a pretty solid victory for their cause is that the “deal” did not provide bipartisan cover for significant changes in the big entitlement programs.

All these issues, of course, will be problematic for the GOP presidential candidates, for whom the schedule of regular fiscal battles through the nominating process and into the general election campaign, will represent at best a major distraction, and at worst a long series of right-wing litmus tests in which there is only one right answer. Without question, this scenario will make it hard for any eventual nominee to “pivot” to a swing-voter friendly general election strategy.

At the moment, though, the would-be 45th presidents have other, more immediate, fish to fry. The candidates competing in the August 13 Iowa GOP Straw Poll are moving into the pre-event mobilization phase, buying tickets for anyone they think will vote for them in Ames that day, gassing up the vans and buses, planning entertainment for attendees, and managing expectations. The big question according to most handicappers is whether Pawlenty’s statewide organization can overcome Bachmann’s enthusiasm and momentum. There’s some talk that Ron Paul could sneak past both Minnesotans and pull off an upset. Rick Santorum’s organizational efforts could well push him past Herman Cain, who does a lot better in the polls but hasn’t spent much time in the state.

Meanwhile, a candidate who is not competing in Ames but is expected by most observers to announce his candidacy soon afterwards, Rick Perry, is having some issues with his outreach to the Christian Right. After last week’s conspicuous Perry flip-flop towards support for a federal constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, he’s now executed a similar maneuver on abortion, eschewing earlier statements in favor of state control of that subject and endorsing a federal constitutional ban. Additionally, there are signs that the big prayer rally he is sponsoring in Houston this weekend could have an attendance problem. A spokesman for the event, however, had this to say:

We are not really concerned with the quantity of people that come. It’s frankly more about the powerful event that will speak to those who do come. It’s never been about the numbers.

That’s probably code for what matters to Team Perry–who is on the podium representing important Christian Right factions, not who is in the seats taking in the show. They are basically props.

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore