The Tea Party Debate: Wrinkles in the Picture

The Liberal Ironist thought he would follow-up his thoughts on the 3rd Republican Presidential Primary debate 1 week ago with some passing observations about the Tea Party Debate hosted by CNN in Tampa, Florida last Monday.  My entry on last week’s debate was enormous; fortunately, the Tea Party Debate was largely a retread of philosophical and policy positions staked-out by the 8 attending Republican presidential hopefuls at the last debate, freeing me to make observations about nuances of reasoning (where apparent), continuities or discontinuities between the debates, and elements of the emotional context in the debate.  This entry should thus be viewed more as a rider to the much longer running commentary on last week’s debate; as it turned out, there were some surprises as the candidates jousted with each other but nothing discontinuous with the substance of the previous debate, if you were familiar with the various hopefuls’ versions of Conservative ideology.

Again, all comments shall be directed towards the Republican presidential hopefuls in order of their current polling strength.

Rick Perry

Governor Perry, like Senator Santorum (who once voted for President George W. Bush’s Prescription Drug Benefit), remarkably said he wouldn’t eliminate the Prescription Drug Benefit if he became President.  Much like the nice-sounding promises of Speaker Gingrich, he proposed institutional consolidation as a way of reducing costs and making that expensive but valuable new entitlement solvent.

Governor Perry’s penchant for simply making up his own facts continues unabated, however:

“(President Obama) had $800 billion dollars worth of stimulus in the 1st round of stimulus; it created exactly 0 jobs.  $400+ billion in this package, and I can do this math on that one: 1/2 of 0 jobs is 0 jobs.”

That makes for a funny red meat line, but the Congressional Budget office produced statistical inferences on numbers of jobs created or saved by President Obama’s stimulus, and it projected that there would be somewhere between 1.5 million and 3.5 million more unemployed if it weren’t for President Obama’s stimulus.  Governor Perry must not have looked it up.

The Liberal Ironist was pleased to hear Governor Perry defend in-State tuition for those whom have been residents of Texas for 3 years–regardless of citizenship.  He took some heat–1st from Senator Santorum, then from the surprisingly anti-immigrant Governor Romney (then from parts of the audience itself)–for defending this policy, but as with his discussion of his executive order instituting the HPV vaccine and in his defense of President George W. Bush’s Prescription Drug Benefit, Governor Perry resisted demands to show some kind of knee-jerk and simplistic Conservative ideology.

If Governor Perry is the Republican presidential nominee, based on his Texas policies and experience he will probably lay the strongest claim to support from Hispanic voters of any of the Republican hopefuls.  He should certainly command more support from Hispanics than Governor Romney, the latter being far more-technocratic, uh…Mormon, and (unlike Perry) openly anti-illegal immigrant.  This is a consideration to set against Romney’s slightly more-competitive general election polling match-ups against President Obama.

Governor Perry also added some nuance to Governor Huntsman’s call for us to withdraw our forces from the Afghan war theater.  While concluding much the same, he still said we should maintain some bases in Afghanistan and that US foreign aid should be targeted at infrastructure development in that country to put it on a sounder social and economic footing for fighting the Taliban.  It was interesting to hear Perry, however-briefly, leave the door open just a crack for nation-building in Afghanistan.

Mitt Romney

Over the last month or so, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has set himself up as the defender of Social Security.  If he is the Republican presidential nominee he will cast himself as the defender of Social Security’s solvency from a supposedly-dithering President Obama; for now, early in the primary season, Governor Romney must cast himself as the defender of Social Security against those who would like to end it outright, like Texas Congressman Ron Paul, or those who once spoke in favor of devolving its resources to State control, like Governor Perry.  While Perry probably won the debate between the 2 of them on the optics of the issue with Tea Partiers, Romney has definitely better-established his credibility on this issue with the non-Republicans whose vote in 2012 will likely prove crucial in the decisive Midwestern States.  In fact, at this rate Romney will also likely have a lock on non-Tea Party Republicans eager to advance a candidate who can represent the GOP establishment rather than a loose populist coalition of anti-Federal Government activist groups.  Several candidates hounded Governor Perry for the usual Culture War non-issues, such as his executive order mandating a vaccine for HPV (which causes cervical cancer) for 12-year-old girls or his granting of in-state tuition rates for non-citizens pursuing US citizenship and residency in Texas.  Here Governor Romney commendably challenged Perry for almost the opposite reason: Perry has tried to get by with a lot of Tea Party support with words of invective without having to get too specific in discussing how he would manage Social Security’s solvency problem (which unlike those confronting Medicare and Medicaid is quite manageable, at least in principle).

Romney, as the Liberal Ironist noted in the discussion of the last debate, has a 160-page economic plan.  In this most-recent debate he mentioned his proposal to eliminate middle-class taxes on interest, dividends, and capital gains.  This proposal is a nice tweak, by Republican standards, on the W. Bush-era idea of the “ownership society,” which the former President apparently thought he would achieve by elimination of all taxes on dividends and many taxes on corporations.  Of all the Republican presidential candidates, Governor Romney seems to be the most-serious about progressive indexing of his proposed reforms to benefit classes of Americans other than the very-rich.

To his credit, Romney defended his Massachusetts health care reform instituting an individual mandate to buy health insurance.  Kneeling at the Republican altar of the Commerce Clause, he still said that President Obama’s Health Care Reform was “bad law” and had to be repealed, but it’s nice to see Governors Perry and Romney, the top-tier Republican candidates in the 2012 election cycle, defend their records–even immovably–when they are ideologically-nonconforming.  The Liberal Ironist is in deep disagreement with both hopefuls on many issues, but at least they can plead innocent to the charge of subordinating their minds to some fire and pitchfork-wielding Tea Party committee.

Ron Paul

The best that can be said for Ron Paul’s presidential candidacy is that he said during this debate that he “would never use the executive order to legislate.”  If that is the truth, then he would be quite unable to institute many of his more-radical proposed reforms, as he would surely lack authorization even from a Republican Congress to do so.

When asked about whether a hypothetical (though with our utter mess of a health care system no such horror story is really “hypothetical”) 30-year-old man who hasn’t bought health insurance but then needs 6 months of intensive care due to an unforeseen disease or injury should simply be allowed to die, some people in the audience shouted “Yes!”  Even Dr. Paul seemed startled by this.  So much for his indignant insistence in the last debate that those who don’t think the government should be providing benefits to those in need shouldn’t be charged with a lack of compassion!  Dr. Paul may believe he has the wisdom to split that hair, but it warrants further consideration that many of his supporters don’t, and that thought was nicely-dramatized last Monday.

Dr. Paul had a spirited debate with Senator Santorum, who once again brandished his Neoconservative credentials with an all-out attack on Paul’s claim that our traditional interventionist foreign policy essentially caused September 11th.  Ever the Libertarian dogmatist, Dr. Paul dug in and claimed in so many words that the September 11th terrorist attacks were a consequence of our government’s past actions.  This elicited boos much louder than the applause generated by his earlier comments.  Foreign policy isolationists may be a stronger presence among the Tea Party crowd than the larger pool of Republicans, but if those in attendance at the Tea Party debate pass for any form of focus group, I wouldn’t put much money on Dr. Paul’s foreign policy vision changing the Republican Party.  Outrageous as the Iraq War was, I’m relieved to see that the Republican Party is unwilling to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Senator Santorum achieved a strategic victory by calling Dr. Paul out on this subject…for all the good it will do him.

Michele Bachmann

Ms. Bachmann’s attack of Governor Perry at the Tea Party debate–alleging that he executive ordered vaccination of 12-year-old girls against HPV, a sexually-transmitted disease that can lead to cervical cancer, didn’t go over as she had hoped.  Governor Perry said he was “offended” by her allegation that the Governor instituted the vaccine as a payback for a $5,000 campaign donation (out of $30 million in campaign funds raised).  Bachmann’s failed “gotcha” moment during this debate is a milestone in the inevitable collapse of her superficial candidacy; Perry’s informed rejection of her accusations made more of an impression than the charge itself.

In response to Governor Romney’s Massachusetts health care reform, Ms. Bachmann charged that “No state has the constitutional right to force a person, as a condition of citizenship, to buy a product or service against their will.  It’s unconstitutional, whether it’s a state government or whether it’s the Federal Government!”  That’s simply wrong.  The 10th Amendment and the Commerce Clause imply that the States and local governments in fact retain the authority to undertake fairly-radical economic policies regardless of whether their constitutions expressly direct it.  In fact, it is common for States to require licensed drivers to buy car insurance, a fact that seems to have made no impression on Ms. Bachmann.  State constitutions are not obliged to provide a positive enumeration of the powers State governments enjoy.  Not only is Ms. Bachmann not possessed of a great legal mind, but unlike the more-sophisticated Governors Perry and Romney, she seems to think she will make a winning message of imposing the same right-wing policies on all parts of the country.

Newt Gingrich

Either Newt Gingrich believes in Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment (“Thou shalt not insult another Republican”) with all the fervor of any fanatic, or he has accepted that he will not be the Republican candidate for President and wants to be kept on the short-list for a Cabinet appointment.  As in the last debate but with a less surly disposition about it, Gingrich emphasized that rather focusing on whether Perry’s comments about Social Security are “scary” or Romney’s comments about raiding the trust fund to finance our debt being criminal is “scary” and more on President Obama’s (alleged) campaign to frighten the American people during his public statements.

Gingrich’s surly disposition matches a complete disregard for facts he well-understands.  A Tea Party supporter asked the candidates a rather naive question: “What is your plan to balance the budget, and get this spending under control, so that my children’s share of the debt is erased, without compromising my retired mother’s already-tenuous financial future?”  Hmmm…Essentially, she asks, “How do we eliminate the Federal debt entirely without touching current Social Security and Medicare outlays?”  (I call the question naive because the questioner is herself a member of the Tea Party and as such presumably thinks she is “Taxed Enough Already:” Without raising income or payroll taxes considerably such extremely incompatible policy goals will prove elusive.)  Anyway, when Gingrich responded to this question, he claimed it was all quite simple:

“But that’s just a Washington mythology.  Anybody who knows anything about the Federal Government knows that there’s such an enormous volume of waste, that if you simply had a serious all-out effort to modernize the Federal Government, you would have hundreds of billions of dollars of savings follow…”  You should mistrust those who start an assertion with “Any idiot can see that–,” as this thinly-veiled insult cannot hide the irony of the fact that a controversial claim is being made.  In Paul Ryan’s failed 10-year budget blueprint, in tense negotiations over the debt limit increase, and now in their participation on the deficit-reducing Congressional “Super-Commission,” House Republicans are proposing cutting hundreds of billions of dollars in Federal spending by cutting entire Federal programs, not “waste.”  Gingrich still didn’t proceed to say that he could eliminate annual Federal deficits without raising taxes; this would have done much to expose current Republican concerns with the deficit as a pretext for politically-preferred budget cuts.

Eliminate waste from government spending, Gingrich says, and Federal outlays can fall by $500 billion a year.  (He takes this proposition on the authority of 1 Conservative think tank.)  Anyway, for perspective, domestic discretionary spending currently totals around $400 billion a year.

Speaker Gingrich probably came up with the philosophical statement of the night at this debate when he said “The American people create jobs, not government.”  This is the rallying cry of the Republican Party in both its technocratic and its populist wings, post-2009: The economy is organic, the output of as many plans are there are citizens, not the result of a master plan.  Taken too far this statement becomes tautology, and it also suggests that on some level Republicans don’t claim responsibility for the results–desirable or undesirable–once they have established what they consider favorable circumstances for the private sector.  But the Liberal Ironist suspects that current anxieties focus largely on our common lack of control in contemporary life–and even if government is the only agent with the capacity to redress some aspects of that sense of a loss of control, Americans probably have an easier time grasping the nature of a concession of freedom to government–even if the freedom lost (such as the freedom to buy less cost-effective light bulbs or the freedom to go without health insurance) isn’t of much practical use to most people.  I don’t think for 1 second that this pithy comment will improve Newt’s chances of winning the nomination, but I do think it’s the most-upbeat summary of the current Republican Party’s self-representation.

Herman Cain

It’s funny to watch Mr. Cain of Georgia, founder of Godfather’s Pizza, transition from being one of the most-unschooled candidates to one of the most policy-driven debate participants.  (It’s the sort of thing that almost makes you optimistic about the resilience of our political system.)  Back in June Mr. Cain was saying he wouldn’t appoint a Muslim to his cabinet due to doubts about “their” loyalties; soon after he said that local communities had the right to prevent the construction of houses of worship whose beliefs they disagreed with.  Now he’s eager to discuss his “9-9-9 plan,” in which our current Federal tax structure would be replaced by a 9% income tax, a 9% corporate income tax, and a 9% sales tax.  Between the lowering of the upper income tax rates to 9%, the net higher taxes likely to be paid by the poor, and the apparent elimination of the capital gains tax (through which many corporate executives are lavishly-compensated), as well as the simple fact that the poor spend more of their money on consumption than the rich, Mr. Cain’s tax plan could actually result in the poor paying a larger share of their income in taxes than the rich.

Cain is also the heir to former President George W. Bush’s unsuccessful 2005 bid to add an option to convert one’s payroll taxes to a permanent investment account for the stock market.  He cited the positive experiences of Chile and Galveston, TX (which utilized the option to invest its payroll tax revenues in the stock market), but it remains unclear how receptive the public, post-2008, is to a plan to subject Social Security, even in part, to the vagaries of stock.

Mr. Cain’s most-interesting contribution to the debate was his call for association health plans, under which companies within a sector would be able to bargain for the creation of health insurance plans to cover employees within their own industry.  As is typical of Republican proposals addressing health care, this idea has some plausible merits for cost controls and reimbursement, but is fundamentally unable to address the problem of gaps in coverage, or to promote regular primary care for people who simply want to save money they would otherwise spend on health insurance.  In any event, his grievance that the National Restaurant Association (remember, he is the founder of Godfather’s Pizza) was unable to insure its millions of association employees through an association health plan tailored to industry needs (he declined to elaborate what those needs were) fits well with the rightward ideological turn of the Republican Party on economic principles.

Rick Santorum

Senator Santorum increasingly speaks brashly.  At last week’s debate he attacked Governor Perry for not making the HPV vaccine optional rather than mandated; at the Tea Party Debate this week he offered himself as the candidate who had the courage to talk about Social Security’s solvency problem 1st, back in 1994.

Senator Santorum sometimes adds an interesting intellectual dimension often missing from these debates.  In the 1st Republican Presidential Primary debate back in mid-June, Santorum attacked the concept of public reason, the idea that people motivated to pursue public policy goals due to religious or private moral principles should justify those goals in public discourse with secular rationales and appeals to fact rather than an explanation of their beliefs.  In last Wednesday’s debate Santorum said that the problem with the Federal Reserve is that its charter had expanded from maintaining the strength of our currency to that plus fostering employment, and that the Federal Reserve had to return to its simpler original mission.  This intellectual dimension to Santorum’s presidential bid owes to his distinct background–he was a Newt Gingrich-type Republican elected to the US Senate rather than the House in 1994, he is a Catholic Republican probably best viewed as part of the Christian Right, and he had a lot of ideological affinity for President George W. Bush and is finally running for President in a Republican Party that has disavowed the W. Bush legacy.  Senator Santorum’s penchant for offbeat but interesting ideas seems to have worn on the candidate after months of being overlooked by an agitated primary electorate.

His tendency to the philosophical also has its drawbacks, particularly that this philosophy is sometimes a poor man’s Foucaultianism.  If anything, Santorum was even more-hostile than Bachmann to Governor Perry’s executive order instituting vaccinations against HPV.  Maybe the Senator is just desperate to remain relevant in a crowded field by issuing red meat lines, but for him to say that Governor Perry’s aim of spreading awareness and use of a vaccination against HPV was wrong in principle is just nihilistic.  The old charge that the leaders of the Christian Right don’t want us to beat sexually-transmitted diseases because they want those who engage in recreational sex to be exposed to dangerous diseases seems to be true.

Jon Huntsman

Governor Huntsman seems to have come to a realization that acting as a voice of reason and moderation in these debates wouldn’t be sufficient; Governor Romney does a somewhat more ideologically-rectified version of this, and furthermore manages to discuss policy with enthusiasm.  In this debate Huntsman was eager to get to his tax plan.  He proposes marginal personal income tax rates of 8%, 14%, and 24%, and a corporate income tax rate of 25%.  He proposed to pay for these tax rate reductions by eliminating tax breaks.  It has been interesting to watch Republicans go on the attack against tax rate deductions that amount to “tax expenditures,” or de facto government spending through preferentially-low taxes.  This has been a bipartisan response to the anti-tax ideology favored by Republicans (and at times, suburban and rural voters in various States) whereby both parties have managed to institute policies favoring certain constituencies or business sectors.  Huntsman will have to get enthusiastic about discussing the particulars of another issue if he wants to make headway in the Republican Presidential Primary, however; from Mitt Romney and Herman Cain, candidates whom are willing to provide the particular details of their proposed tax policies are in no short supply.

In Conclusion

The Tea Party Debate was more of a focus-grouped elaboration on the previous debate than a radical departure from it.  Viewers did learn a bit more about the way the candidates differ from each other, but other than a few clarifications of their records and 1 or another inserted comments that were somewhat off-point, most of the discussion served to confirm much of what we knew about them from the previous debate.  Representatives Paul and Bachmann continued their precipitous declines into irrelevance, while Speaker Gingrich and Governor Huntsman each seemed to prepare themselves for a running mate or Cabinet office call from 1 of the 2 presidential front-runners.  (Gingrich did this by acting more-cordial than usual, while Huntsman did it by acting more-combative, though playfully-so, than usual.)  While Governor Romney continued to perform well at a far less-receptive forum than he encountered in previous debates, the real winner of the debate must be said to be Perry, whose record tended to dominate discussion and who defended himself on controversial past actions from the left in front of what may be the most-Conservative audience he will join a national debate in front of.  While he still is not as comfortable discussing policy on a national stage as the more-experienced Romney, Gingrich, or Santorum, he was clearly more-prepared and more-“present” after only a few days.  The much-storied Karl Rove attack machine just hasn’t materialized; it’s hard to believe Perry’s opponents from the Party’s abandoned “Compassionate Conservative” wing are just biding their time while letting him consolidate Republican primary support.  Rick Perry is favored to win the Republican presidential nomination; somewhat contrary to the norm, we will likely be able to tell by the end of the Republican primary season whether he is also favored to win the presidency.

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