This week, America got to experience the fifth debate between the GOP candidates, to which America responded, "We've had four of these things already?" Yes, America, and they are tending to blur together. But the sheer malevolent ubiquity of these debates is teaching us something about the modern political media -- when it comes to paying a high price to build some cheap pageantry just so you can plant and confirm your own media narrative, there's nothing quite like a debate to do the job. It's an exercise in controlled combustion. And with the intra-party insurgent Tea Party serving as audience and co-sponsor, this was the week of purity tests, anti-establishment leanings and fealty to whatever the Tea Party conceives as "liberty." (A hint: it's actually not what libertarian Ron Paul conceives as "liberty"!)
Mostly, this was the debate in which Republicans were finally supposed to turn on each other. Mitt Romney and Rick Perry needed to have a fight now! Michele Bachmann needed to claw her way back into the mix somehow! Jon Huntsman needed (apparently) to unload a bunch of awkward quips! Let's have Rick Santorum and Ron Paul yell at each other some more about isolationism, for auld lang syne! No one seemed capable of taking measure of the fact that the first primary was still many months away, and no one was inclined to simply remain calm. Even Newt Gingrich glumly went along, despite previously complaining about the way the debate moderators were transparently seeking party infighting.
So we led into the CNN debate believing that the next twist in the rivalry between Romney and Perry was all but assured to play out. When the two last clashed, Team Romney was crowing about how they were going to crush Team Perry by attacking him on his Social Security position. And while Wolf Blitzer began with a brief toss to Bachmann -- it was important to get her involved immediately so they could quickly shed themselves of the "fickle media ignores Bachmann" criticism -- they soon had Romney and Perry going at it. Funny thing, though: Romney's attacks didn't gain much traction with the audience. Perry found, in the Tea Party faithful, a crowd that was perfectly happy to hear Social Security referred to as a "Ponzi scheme." The big kick everyone was promised didn't happen.
But that's when things got gloriously unmoored, as Bachmann took over the proceedings, went after Perry for a public health decision he'd made in an effort to halt the spread of the human papilloma virus and steered the entire debate into a patch of pure Gardasilliness. Soon, Bachmann had her competitors piling on Perry. Things heated up again during a debate over immigration reform. Soon, Perry looked like a cornered animal, Bachmann looked emboldened and Romney -- we imagine -- maybe looked at his fellow candidates doing his dirty work all around him and thought, "I bet I make up some ground on Perry by the end of the week." (And that's precisely what happened.)
The infighting continued during the week, with Perry being accused of crony capitalism, Romney being hit for killing jobs with his health care reform and Bachmann taking it on the chin for spreading some crackpot tales about modern medicine. For awhile, the campaign became an unpredictable beast again. And for the first time, Republicans were going at each other instead of making sustained attacks on the sitting president.
But for President Barack Obama, it was a small kindness during what may have been one of the worst weeks of his presidency. Democratic failures in two special elections on two sides of the country got framed immediately as a referendum on his presidency. His American Jobs Act caught opposition from members of his own party. Fundraisers struggled behind the scenes to manufacture enthusiasm, a prominent Democratic pundit was calling for panic and a new campaign-oriented website became "the laughingstock of the Internet." And yet, all of that may be the least of his problems when compared to what was going on in the afterlife of a tiny energy company named Solyndra in Fremont, Calif.
For all of this and more about this week on the campaign trail, please enter the Speculatron for the week of September 16, 2011:
By now, the fact that Michele Bachmann has fallen in the primary polls since Rick Perry declared his candidacy has been well-established. In the recent round of numbers from Public Policy Polling, she fell to single digits and fifth place -- behind Newt Gingrich, which is every bit as bad as it sounds. What's worse is that, as Walter Shapiro discovered after watching 50 hours of Fox News political coverage in August, she's not getting much love from her erstwhile supporters at Fox News. Months after the network's Chris Wallace was made to grovel before her for asking her if she was a "flake," Shapiro discovered that she had been rendered "entirely absent" from the network, "like a Red Army general excised from the Great Soviet Encyclopedia after being purged by Joseph Stalin." What's a former top-tier candidate to do? Scrape her way back into the race. So she came into this week looking to target Perry, who's been siphoning off her support. Gamely, she joined in the chorus of naysayers attacking Perry for his stance on Social Security. (Though, this was somewhat awkward for her, given the fact that she had previously evinced a desire to "wean everybody" off of it. But during the debate, she found the wedge issue necessary to cleave Perry from his Tea Party fans -- his decision as governor to mandate, through executive order, that young girls receive Gardasil, the HPV vaccine. Gardasil is well known as an effective preventative measure against HPV -- and the deadly cervical cancer that can come as a result. But Bachmann hit on Perry's decision to use an executive order instead of the legislative process as an example of his big government leanings, and she cited a donation Perry had received from Gardasil's manufacturer, Merck, in order to frame the issue further as an example of corrupt crony capitalism. (Though this was also somewhat awkward for Bachmann, who's taken lots of money from pharmaceutical companies over the years.) But it was a good plan. And it might have worked for Bachmann. But then, she took things a step too far by taking the issue in a new, strange, "anti-vaccine" direction. In post-debate interviews, Bachmann suddenly had a weird tale to tell about an impossible medical misadventure: The problem is, it comes with some very significant consequences. There's a woman who came up crying to me tonight after the debate. She said her daughter was given that vaccine. She told me her daughter suffered mental retardation as a result of that vaccine. There are very dangerous consequences. It's not good enough to take, quote, "a mulligan" where you want a do-over, not when you have little children's lives at risk. Actual experts in the actual fields of actual medicine immediately stepped into the debate to say that Bachmann's mystery lady was wrong and that her allegations were "unfounded, irresponsible and dangerous." And suddenly, she was hearing it from all sides. The American Academy of Pediatrics condemned Bachmann. Rush Limbaugh, of all people, declared Bachmann to have "jumped the shark." Author Ayelet Waldman, wife of author Michael Chabon, came forward to...well, she came forward to tweet something very oversharey about the whole thing, but her heart, bless her, was in the right place. And University of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics director Art Caplan made a $10,000 wager with Bachmann that she would not be able to find a single person who had "suffered mental retardation" from taking Gardasil. Bachmann's former campaign capo Ed Rollins, who looks smarter and smarter with each passing day for having walked away from Bachmann's presidential campaign, was at least mild mannered in the way he called Bachmann's claim loony: "She made a mistake. The quicker she admits she made a mistake and moves on, the better she is," Rollins said in an interview on MSNBC on Wednesday. "Ms. Bachmann's an emotional person who basically has great feeling for people. I think that's what she was trying to project. Obviously it would have been better if she had stayed on the issue," he said. Rollins admitted that Bachmann has taken what was a hugely positive issue for her and at the least tainted it, allowing Perry to escape the full brunt of scrutiny he would have otherwise borne. Like we said, she took the matter a step too far, and now, Perry's other opponents will likely reap the benefits of his vulnerability. Elsewhere, Minnesota mother Tammy Aaberg, whose son Justin committed suicide after being victimized by sustained homophobic bullying, has gotten 130,000 signatures on a petition that asks Bachmann to speak out against anti-gay bullying. It is possible that Aaberg is not familiar with Bachmann's stance on the LGBT community! Nevertheless, we wish Aaberg all the best.
How bad have things gotten for Herman Cain's once-intriguing but now mostly meh campaign? Consider the fact that after Monday night's debate concluded, the best shine his own campaign could put on the proceedings in their post-game email was the headline, "Cain Participates in CNN/Tea Party Express Debate." Yes! There was a debate! And did you see that Herman Cain was there? Because he totally was! And he was essentially saying the same old thing about planning to plan things and touting his ability to "find and address the right problem." Plus he's not this "9-9-9" plan that everyone has so far treated as the "nein-nein-nein" plan. And he thinks America needs a sense of humor because it's too "uptight." On this matter, we agree with Herman Cain, wholeheartedly. Everyone in America! Go out and get laid this weekend! But you know, if you're following Herman Cain's advice, that you should not make the love that dare not speak its name, right? Yes, this week, the big Cain news was the Curious Case Of The Gay Staffer Cover-Up. As the AP reported: Facing concerns from supporters in Iowa, Herman Cain's presidential campaign tried to conceal the role of a top adviser who had been ousted as leader of a gay pride group in Wisconsin amid a financial scandal, a former staffer has alleged in legal testimony. Cain's former Iowa straw poll coordinator, Kevin Hall, made the allegation in a letter applying for unemployment benefits and in testimony during a hearing last week. The Associated Press obtained the letter, supporting documents he submitted and audio of the hearing from Iowa Workforce Development. [...] The alleged cover-up centers around the role of Scott Toomey, treasurer of Cain's political action committee and senior political adviser thorugh May. Hall wrote that Toomey's sexual orientation and allegations of misconduct in his role as treasurer of the Madison Pride Board, which hosted an annual parade in Wisconsin's capital, "had become an issue" for several Cain supporters. Madison Pride said in 2008 that its board removed Toomey as treasurer after learning bills related to its 2007 event had not been paid and discovering other "financial discrepancies" that it said Toomey had failed to report. The group apologized to its supporters, was forced to scale back its 2008 event and eventually folded. "It was in the paper that he was the person responsible for that financial mess," recalled Steve Starkey, a Madison gay rights activist who knew Toomey. Starkey said Toomey moved to Florida and "went underground" after the scandal. He said his research later found that Toomey's promotional company also had been accused in court of not paying vendors. Toomey filed for bankruptcy in 2009 and reported more than $20,000 in pending legal judgments against him from companies and a credit union, court records show. Hall basically alleged that Toomey exposed Cain to charges of hypocrisy from supporters, given the fact that Cain had previously called homosexuality "a sin and a choice." The Cain campaign tried to cover up the fact that Toomey was involved in the campaign, taking pains to conceal his name on campaign disclosure filings by referring instead to the name of Toomey's firm. Since they were happy to keep sending Toomey money, as long as his name wasn't associated with the payments, it's clear that whatever financial "misconduct" Toomey had been involved in wasn't a pressing issue of concern for the Cain campaign. As Alex Pareene notes: Herman Cain did explicitly say that while a Herman Cain administration will discriminate against Muslims, he would have no problem hiring a qualified gay person. But he will apparently also hire gay people with questionable qualifications and then fake-fire them while keeping them secretly employed in order to not upset anti-gay people, too. That's true leadership. And yet, that's probably not the worst thing Cain has done that's come to light this week. No, the worst thing he's done -- maybe in his life! -- is put out the most stultifyingly crass 9/11 "tribute" video ever made. If you watch this -- and we do not recommend it! -- consider this a trigger alert for multiple PTSD-inducing shots of the World Trade Center's destruction, bad crooning, terrible sound mixing, and an inhuman level of general tastelessness. We're not kidding. It takes all of ten seconds for this thing to hit a peak of pure, mountain-grown despicableness and it plateaus from there.
Since so much of the debate after-chat centered around what to do about hypothetical Americans dying because they lacked insurance, Newt Gingrich got to weigh in on the matter, saying that what the uninsured need to do is turn to charity for help, like all poor people who are poor because they are bad people and should feel bad about themselves. This is another "big idea" from the "big thinker" who will usher in a golden age of hard-working Americans seeking treatment for prostate cancer at their local soup kitchen. GINGRICH: Historically, we had charity. We had places that say, if you are down on your luck, if you failed to be responsible, we will take care of you, but that doesn't mean that you're necessarily going to get a private room, that you're necessarily going to get everything somebody would get who's been prudent and who has taken care of themselves. Stupid imprudent people who got sick and don't deserve private rooms and "the best health care system in the world!" As Igor Volsky pointed out, it was charity's inability to cope with all the sick and dying people that compelled the government to create programs like Medicare and CHIP in the first place. CHIP, by the way, deals with children who can't afford medical care, which is obviously the child's fault, for having been born into dire circumstances. Maybe if children learned the lesson, they'd stop being born into poverty! Speaking of charity cases, Newt himself is basically now tromping around like a long-forgotten hobo, begging for someone -- anyone! -- to give him a one-on-one debate. But, as it turns out, debate organizers are just not inclined to give a private room to Gingrich, who needs to understand that he's not necessarily going to get everything somebody would get who's been prudent and has run a campaign in which minimal competence is a feature.
Everything about the Jon Huntsman campaign is just terrible. As candidates like Gary Johnson and Fred Karger keep begging for a turn on a debate stage, Huntsman keeps getting invited, even though his polling numbers are strictly bottom-of-the-barrel. In the latest round of Public Policy Polling, Huntsman is garnering -- that's right! -- two percent! The only thing that gets two percent more consistently is certain types of pasteurized milk. What's worse is that pollsters have also been taking a measure of something called "positive intensity." In short, it's an indicator of how much enthusiasm a candidate inspires in voters. The reason it gets measured is that it takes a barometer of a candidate's potential -- sometimes, a front-running candidate might be the choice of lots of people, but it doesn't necessarily mean they're terribly excited about it. And if you're stuck on the second tier of the raw polling numbers but are nevertheless giving voters something to hum about, this suggests potential room to move up. Well, Jon Huntsman, at this point, is actually generating a negative score in terms of "positive intensity." This is, we believe, a 2012 first! Jon Huntsman literally makes GOP voters feel bad. You know that feeling you get when you're walking through a parking lot at the mall, and you see that some idiot has left their poor dog trapped in a car with the windows cracked, and it's hot and the dog is suffering and you think to yourself, "Well, I'd better find some authority figure to do something about this," but you know that the dog owner just isn't going to learn and that really, what should be done is that you need to rescue that dog from a life of certain unhappiness? Well, that's the feeling that Jon Huntsman instills in GOP voters, every day. (Though, at least one Huntsman staffer has publicly declared herself to be "sick and sad" about all the other Republicans after watching all the debates, so, as always, there are outliers.) So, what's a Jon Huntsman to do? Well, how about trying another big campaign shakeup on for size? This week, the Huntsman campaign shed two DC-based fundraisers in favor of new blood. The former staffers are still "with" the campaign, but won't be working with it on a day-to-day basis. As always, everyone "pointed a finger" at Huntsman campaign manager John Weaver. The other thing that Huntsman has apparently decided to become is the candidate of zingers. Except he's not particularly good at it! At one point in the debate, Huntsman took a shot at Rick Perry that went like this: "For Rick to say you can't secure the border is pretty much a treasonous comment." It seems to be a reference to a comment Perry made about Ben Bernanke, but if we can be perfectly honest with you for a second, we have to admit that we have no idea what Huntsman was trying to do there! And we've given the matter some considerable thought. At other times during the debate, Huntsman referenced Kurt Cobain (conflating Romney's book, "No Apologies" with the Nirvana single "All Apologies") and heroin, and there were just so many '90s era grunge references that we kept wishing he'd bust off a rendition of The Gits' "Another Shot Of Whiskey" or Green River's "Together We'll Never." (As in, "Together, we'll never manage to get me elected president.") The good news is that Jon Huntsman will be dizzyingly wealthy forever, the end.
Gary Johnson continues to fight his exclusion from the debate process that he was oh-so-briefly invited to participate in back in May before being banished by the rules to the outskirts of the 2012 scene. His campaign's senior advisor, Ron Nielson, laid out a solid argument for the Daily Iowan, noting that two weeks ago, Johnson had drawn even with Herman Cain and ahead of Rick Santorum and Jon Huntsman in CNN's own poll, but still was excluded from CNN's debate. (When you consider that, his exclusion is, on every level, flatly ridiculous.) Per Nielson: Our campaign has been respectful when questioning the media's decisions to exclude Johnson, but credible observers have speculated that there may in fact be a "Gary Johnson Rule" to ensure that he doesn't appear on stage. While the national media may have devised polling "criteria" to determine who is invited and who is not, those criteria become a lot less objective if the polls they're based on don't include all the candidates. How can you qualify for the debates when you're not included in the polls? The irony, of course, is that many of the same media outlets who decide the debate participants are also the same people who devise the national polls. While they may say that their debates are open to anyone, their carefully restricted polls effectively play the role of gatekeeper. When Johnson was included by CNN in its last nationwide survey, he placed ahead of Jon Huntsman and Santorum and tied with Cain -- all three of whom have been invited to every debate, including Monday night's. But Tuesday morning, despite his previous inclusion -- and despite polling ahead or even with three other candidates -- CNN released its latest poll without Johnson as an option. We find this truly baffling, and we have been left scratching our heads. And so we ask: Why? What is it that CNN is afraid of? Is a candidate with fresh ideas -- and a track record as a successful two-term governor -- too much for the establishment to deal with? It's a good question! Especially when you consider the ways in which Johnson is distinguishing himself as, perhaps, the purer strain of libertarian, as compared to Ron Paul. For example, Johnson has apparently undertaken an inventory of the marriage equality issue and is reportedly close to coming out in support -- a move that would only further shore up his civil liberties bona fides. As you know, Fred Karger is already in full support of same-sex marriage, and the same report indicates that Buddy Roemer is mulling similar support. And there I've named three of the four constantly excluded candidates! Gosh, you don't think that's the sort of thing that merits exclusion, do you?
Fred Karger has also been trying to stay active on the periphery of the GOP debate scene, as he tries to claw his way to some sort of inclusion. This week, ahead of the Tampa debate, Karger went up with an ad for the locals: "I was hoping to be on that stage to talk about my ideas to turn this country around like my old boss Ronald Reagan did, but again I was not invited to join my fellow candidates for president to debate the issues," said Karger on Monday. "So instead, we will be running our latest commercial, 'Tyrannosaurus Rex,' where I take on the world's largest oil company Exxon Mobil and its CEO Rex Tillerson during tonight's debate. We have purchased commercial time in the Tampa market to run this hard-hitting 30-second spot produced by our filmmaker, John Keitel. We asked Karger what he made of this week's Tea Party debate, and he stood up for his fellows in the "Frozen Out Foursome": I was disappointed to see just another round of attack Obama-mania and each other. It was politics as usual, and more doom and gloom from all eight participants. Where is that Ronald Reagan optimism and spirit? The Republicans running for President need to excite the electorate and help motivate Americans to turn this country around. And let's have future debates include all twelve serious candidates running for President. If Buddy Roemer, Gary Johnson, Thaddeus McCotter and Fred Karger were on that stage you'd have some fresh new ideas which would make for a much more diverse forum. What are these debate organizers afraid of? Karger, who will be making appearances in Utah next week to participate in fundraising events for the Log Cabin Republicans, says that he wants to make it to the stage -- if for no other reason, to dampen the anti-gay rhetoric that has rung out in past debates: "It's so much harder to attack someone when they're in the room," he says.
Thaddeus McCotter noted that everyone in the 2012 slate of GOP candidates wanted to talk, talk, talk about Social Security, and how terrible Rick Perry's stance was, and how it was just awful of him to call it a "monstrous lie," and how dare he, really, because his opinions weren't popular and by gum, they were going to show Rick Perry and win on that issue. At the same time, he noticed that for all the talk, no one really had a plan to do something about it. So McCotter basically decided that if no one else wanted to actually propose something, he would. And since he's a sitting member of Congress, he'd do it there. For what it's worth, here's the basic idea: Rep. McCotter's legislation achieves this through the creation of personal savings accounts eligible for reasonably flexible investment in the free market, offered to all workers aged 50 and younger. Participation is voluntary, and a minimum return on investment is guaranteed. Because the personal investment accounts replace as much as 50% of each participating worker's retirement benefit, the trust funds experience significant relief as soon as the first participants commence retirement. Benefits for current retirees will be unaffected, as will future benefits for workers above the age of 50, and those who choose not to participate. Funding for the personal savings accounts will come not from new taxes (which the legislation specifically forbids), but from efficiencies realized by block granting specific federal programs to the states, and from savings realized from the elimination of other federal programs to be identified in companion legislation. Now, it may not be your cup of tea, but let the record reflect that McCotter didn't just blather up a storm about this issue. As Dave Weigel reports: "To me, the question is not what you term a system that is unsustainable," said McCotter. "The question is what you do to fix a system that is unsustainable. I would hope that, if anything else, this sparks debate among Republicans and Democrats. If you don't like this either, at least come forward with a proposal that you'd use as a basis." I asked McCotter if he disagreed with Perry's central critique: That Social Security was unconstitutional and bad for America's will. "If I agreed with that," he said. "I wouldn't be introducting a bill to save it, would I?" McCotter, of course, was not allowed to participate in the debate, but he watched it at home, from time to time, anyway. He also had a Detroit Tigers game to watch. When our own Sam Stein tweeted, "aren't you a presidential candidate?" asking why he wasn't giving the rest of the field more attenion, McCotter's withering reply to the rest of the field was: "Why watch? I've read their bumper stickers."
Ron Paul, by not straying into the anti-vaccine controversy along with Bachmann, managed to play a vital role in ... assisting Mitt Romney's election hopes? That's what Tim Murphy argues this week: Paul won't win the Republican nomination. But Romney might, and if he does, he'll have Paul to thank (at least in part). That's because Paul is able to make the case that Perry is really just a Big Government wolf in sheep's clothing with a level of credibility that pretty much no one else has. Tea partiers, which is to say the conservative base, don't really gravitate naturally toward Romney. Paul's attacks make the gap between him and Perry seem that much smaller. Of course, the bigger news for Paul this week has largely been the way the audience reacted during those times he was permitted to answer a question. On one occasion, the Tea Party audience booed Paul for daring to suggest that all Muslims were not collectively responsible for September 11. Paul is often thought of as the de facto founder of the Tea Party movement, but that crowd reaction, if anything, should remind you that this is just bogus. Much of what Paul stands for goes over like a lead balloon with the Tea Party -- who find Paul's foreign policy/anti-war stances to be a component of "Blaming America." Another example of a crowd reaction running off with the spotlight came during another portion of the debate, when Paul was asked what's to be done about the uninsured. The conversation inspired members of the debate audience to, at one point, shout "Let him die!" Now, we're pretty sure that Paul's "you'd have health care coverage if you chose to take responsibility" stance is something that many of you might find either glib or unrealistic or unsustainable. But let's be clear: Ron Paul did not, at any time, endorse the concept of "let him die." It may be that Paul hasn't thought things through to the extent that he understands his policy position results in needless death. It may be that his faith-based beliefs in the market assure him that all will be well. But the man did say that the medical profession he's familiar with doesn't and shouldn't turn away sick people. Like Gingrich, he believes, perhaps too much, in the power of charity to care for people who need medical attention. All of which is just to say, "Say what you like about Paul's position, but don't link him or sync him to random people who yell obnoxious, repulsive things at debates. As it happens, Paul's ex-campaign manager, Kent Snyder, may as well have been the hypothetical man who was the central character in that debate question. Per Sam Stein: The episode reflects what Paul himself argued should be the free-market ideal for health insurance policy. During Monday night's GOP primary debate, the libertarian Republican made the case that health insurance coverage was a choice. If one decided to forgo it, he ran the risk of mounting bills. If a patient was on his deathbed, it wasn't the taxpayers' responsibility to pick up that tab. "I practiced medicine before we had Medicaid in the early 1960s when I got out of medical school. I practiced at Santa Rosa hospital in San Antonia, and the churches took care of them," Paul said. "We never turned anybody away from the hospital. And we've given up on this whole concept that we might take care of ourselves and assume responsibility for ourselves, our neighbors, our friends, our churches would do it. This whole idea -- that's the reason the cost is so high. The cost is so high because they dump it on the government, it becomes a bureaucracy." [...] While the episode provides a window into the type of principled approach that makes Paul both an appealing candidate and a lightning rod, the question of whether Snyder's story affirms the congressman's worldview is far more controversial. It shows community support can fill the void that government often plays, but at the same time, not all uninsured individuals can rely on family, friends or campaign email lists to raise $400,000. So, it's right to critique Paul's position, but that can and should be done without connecting him to a few lunkheads in the audience who managed to overshadow the debate.
Rick Perry started out this week as the go-to punching bag for the rest of the GOP field, who came to the debate ready to bloody up the frontrunner. As it turns out, the results were fairly mixed. Perry is still running strong in the polls as far as the nomination goes, but the gap is narrowing between he and Romney. Worse, from Perry's point of view, are the polls from this week that found President Barack Obama putting some distance between himself and the Texas Governor. As "electability" remains the top concern of elite Republicans, those aren't numbers that are likely to win Perry their support. But if Mitt Romney managed to make up ground on Perry, he probably has the rest of the field to thank. Romney, as predicted, went after Perry on Social Security -- but just as we imagined, the Tea Party audience was plenty amenable to Social Security being thought of as a diabolical Ponzi scheme. Romney gave the matter his best shot, but in the end, he didn't win over that night's audience -- though he might yet prevail with the larger GOP base, and the independent voters he'll need to court should he make it to the general election. But Perry got hit much harder, and lost some sway with the Tea Party faithful, on issues that didn't garner much attention in the pre-debate media hype. The field went at Perry hard for his reasonable take on immigration -- while border security remains something Perry supports, he's nevertheless extended some limited franchise to illegal aliens in Texas. As a matter of policy, this is actually a sensible approach, but the Tea Party is way, way more into the draconian steps that Arizona is taking. As such, Perry's pragmatism didn't wash. And, of course, there was all the Gardasilliness. Bachmann characterized Perry's executive order that mandated the use of the HPV vaccine as an affront to liberty -- the state forcing a "government injection" on defenseless little girls -- and as a classic example of crony capitalism, the implication being that a $5,000 donation from Merck Pharmaceuticals swayed Perry to make the decision. Whether it did or not, it came to light much later that after Perry gave the executive order, he met and struck up a friendship with a schoolteacher named Heather Burcham, afflicted with HPV-related cervical cancer. Their relationship, and her death, seems to have made an enormous impact on Perry -- so much so that he just isn't willing to shrink from defending his decision. Unfortunately for Perry, on this day, the crowd sided with Bachmann's point of view. However, while Michele Bachmann did fumble the ball before she crossed the goal line by veering into anti-vaccine crackpottery (Perry ably parried that), she did manage to put the "crony capitalism" meme in play. And Perry did himself no favors with his awkward response, "If you think I can be bought for $5,000, I'm offended." The correct response is to say, "If you think I can be bought at all, I'm offended!" By suggesting that there was a level at which one could gain Rick Perry's exclusive patronage, Perry brought scrutiny upon himself, and lo, look at what came out: Merck has actually given Mr. Perry $29,500 through its political action committee since Nov. 2, 2000, just before then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush was elected president and Mr. Perry, then lieutenant governor, was poised to take over the governor's mansion. The firm also gave him $22,000 before he signed the executive order in 2007 requiring the vaccinations, according to a fund-raising database is maintained by the Texas Tribune. The $5,000 campaign contribution from Merck PAC came under scrutiny at the time Mr. Perry issued the executive order for the Merck vaccine in 2007. The donation had been sent to the Perry months before the executive order was signed, but on the same day Mr. Perry's former chief of staff, a lobbyist for Merck, met with Perry aides to discuss the vaccination, the Associated Press and Houston Chronicle had reported. The governor's spokesman at the time told the AP the timing was a coincidence. Campaign finance records also show Merck has donated $352,500 to the Republican Governors Association since 2006, when Mr. Perry began to play an active role in the organization, according to news reports and an RGA spokesman. See, now we're talking about some real walking around money! (And in terms of the pay-to-play in the Texas statehouse, it's just the tip of the iceberg.) And who better to take that walk with than your chief-of-staff, late of Merck Pharmaceuticals? (Again, tip of the iceberg.) But for all their travels together, did they manage to improve health care options for Texans in general? Apparently not: "Texas just hasn't proven it can run a health system," said Dr. C. Bruce Malone III, an orthopedic surgeon and president of the historically conservative Texas Medical Assn. More than a quarter of Texans lack health insurance, the highest rate in the nation, placing a crushing burden on hospitals and doctors who treat patients unable to pay. Those costs are passed to the insured. Insurance premiums have risen more quickly in Texas than they have nationally over the last seven years. And when compared with incomes, insurance in Texas is less affordable than in every state but Mississippi, according to the nonprofit Commonwealth Fund. That has taken a toll, as nearly a third of the state's children did not receive an annual physical and a teeth cleaning in 2007, placing Texas 40th in a state ranking by the fund. Over the last decade, infant mortality rates have risen in Texas while declining nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Seniors, despite guaranteed Medicare coverage, also are suffering, as nearly 1 in 5 ends up back in the hospital within a month of being released, one of the highest readmission rates in the country and a leading indicator of systemwide problems. And Tim Murphy at Mother Jones got into the next frontier of Perry's cronyist favor-trading: For years, the Texas juvenile justice system was wracked by reports of rape, unsanitary conditions, and physical abuse. According to statistics submitted by the TYC in 2007, 83 percent of residents who requested counseling that year were ultimately diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. At one youth facility in central Texas, the mistreatment and squalid conditions (feces on the walls and bed-sheets, steel bars blocking fire escapes) were so bad they left no choice but for the agency to shut it down entirely. Gov. Rick Perry did not take swift action to address the problem, which his office knew about for years. Allegations of systematic mistreatment at TYC facilities first came to the Governor's desk in 2001, when then-Rep. Dick Armey (R-Texas) forwarded along a complaint that his office had received. That was six years before media coverage of the conditions in juvenile detention centers launched a public scandal. And critics of Perry, who is now a frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination, point out that he received tens of thousands of dollars from lobbyists and executives for a firm tied to some of the worst abuses. In happier news for Perry, he did take home some decent endorsements -- including Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. Perry also allowed Donald Trump to squire him around New York City, for fancy dining and a Fashion Week drop-by, because that's what two totally accessible men of the people do, apparently. Finally, in Texas execution news, the Supreme Court has halted the execution of Duane Buck, who was convicted of a double murder but ended up going through a dubious sentencing phase in which he was deemed likely to commit future violence -- a hurdle that needs to be surmounted in order to win the death penalty -- on the basis of his race. The Supreme Court, in this matter, agrees with the evaluation of former Texas AG and current Texas Senator John Cornyn that further scrutiny is required in this case. The SCOTUS will not review Buck's clemency request. To call this a last-minute matter is an understatement -- as the aforementioned Tim Murphy reports, Buck had already eaten what he thought to be his last meal when the stay was granted.
We think that the clearest sign of Buddy Roemer's outcast state is the fact that this week, the New Orleans Times-Picayune ran a story titled, "Buddy Roemer Gets Airtime," in which they report that Roemer was on "The Daily Show" and "The Rachel Maddow Show" the week before. To repeat: this is Roemer's home-state newspaper, covering the fact that Roemer got some coverage a week after it happened. We will continue to stick up for Mr. Roemer, all the same, to the death! So go read his Q&A with the Lexington, SC Patch. Why not? He talks about Obama's jobs bill and trade wars with China. Most importantly: he hates money in politics. You should hate it too! As he says of the 2012 GOP field, "You want to know who a man works for? See who he gets a check from. Look at these Republican candidates. See who they get checks from. Big corporations, super PACs, special interests, and lobbyists. Nothing is going to change."
Mitt Romney seems to have come through his first period of peak worry. Yes, Rick Perry entered the race and zoomed to the top of the polls, but the beat on Perry has and continues to be that Perry lacks that certain je ne sais quoi -- which is French for "electable," which in turn is horserace jargon-blah for "capable of appealing to elite donors and pundits." So Romney's star dimmed, but only because it was briefly, bullishly obscured, not because his light winked out. Now, the polls are starting to narrow again. And Romney's particular strength remains with general election voters -- the voters his candidacy has been pitched to since it began. He's also doing great with Republicans who believe in global warming. You know. Those six or seven people. And in news that's really just as good, Romney's starting to improve on that "positive intensity" rating -- that means more people aren't just finding him electable, that means more people are finding him exciting. Exciting? Mitt Romney? We know, we know. This is strange territory. But you know what one great way of making yourself seem more exciting? Start hanging around in close proximity with Tim Pawlenty. It's a time tested technique! You put a jar of MiracleWhip next to Tim Pawlenty and people will confuse it for Sriracha sauce. This is a natural phenomenon that you can prove with science! So it was great news that Tim Pawlenty chose to ignore everything he'd been saying all year about his personal political beliefs and his feelings about Mitt Romney and offer the former Massachusetts governor both his endorsement and his assistance. In return, Mitt's going to help him out with that campaign debt of his. Which is gentlemanly! And yeah, maybe some are concerned that Pawlenty's supporters aren't flocking to Romney right away, but so what? How important could those supporters be, anyway? It's not like Pawlenty's supporters are sitting around, bragging about their accomplishments. And it wasn't just TPaw who did Romney a solid this week. Mike Huckabee said some nice, this-will-help-you-get-elected things about Mitt this week as well. And that's remarkable, because Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney do not like one another. What's key about this sort of support is that it indicates that the frost that's always existed between Romney and the elite thinkers and backers and wheeler-dealers of the establishment GOP is starting to thaw. And while Romney wasn't terribly successful in his first attempt at attacking Rick Perry -- the Tea Party debate audience look upon Perry's position on Social Security far too favorably -- Romney received a lot of convenient help in the form of his fellow competitors. In front of the audience Perry wanted badly to court, Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum and Ron Paul battered Perry on any number of issues, and from time to time, he looked out at that audience and could not see the friendly faces he expected. Romney had to imagine that this was perfect: let the second tier nibble Perry to death! Romney's focus isn't on the messy internecine beatdowns, it's on the White House. The more that dynamic plays, the more Romney can stay above the sloppy punch-ups, the better Romney can expect to do. Now, however, to really bring it home with elites, Romney has to start making the technocratic arguments on which he's made his reputation. And it's especially important considering that he cannot run on the major accomplishment wrought from those arguments -- Massachusetts' health care reform package. The thing is, so far, he's passing on the opportunity. In going after Perry on Social Security, he walked right up to the edge of one basic argument we know he's capable of making. He repeatedly insisted on making Perry answer to the charge that he felt like Social Security should be administered by the states. As we pointed out the night of the debate, Romney should be capable of pointing out that state-run Social Security is untenable, for the very reasons that Ian Millhiser points out here: A workable plan to allow states to opt out of Social Security would require draconian provisions, such as a mandate that everyone must retire in the same state that they worked and paid taxes in. Otherwise, workers who are too young to receive Social Security benefits would move to an opt-out state to avoid paying Social Security taxes -- and then promptly move to a state with Social Security benefits the moment they became eligible. Eventually, the entire system would collapse under the weight of too many Social Security beneficiaries who had not paid into the system. Elsewhere, Romney got off to a decent start on debunking Perry's "Texas jobs miracle" when he pointed out that Perry had been dealt "four aces." But he didn't expand on the metaphor, and this allowed Perry to shoot back with a quip about poker. Surely Romney is capable of putting it to Perry: "How can you possibly replicate the Texas Miracle in the larger United States? You had cheap housing inventory in Texas. You had a population boom in Texas. How is this possibly repeatable?" Romney has to know that he has these edges. If he wants to keep garnering elite support, he'll have to start using them.
Rick Santorum doesn't like what was done to his last name, and he doesn't seem ready to share his first name either. In Monday's debate, Santorum was a persistent thorn in Perry's side, going after him on the HPV vaccine (Santorum, like a lot of conservatives, believes that preventative treatment for an STD is a de facto induction of pre-marital sexual activity) and immigration reform (Santorum really, really does not like Hispanics. Think we're kidding? Let's recall the moment where Rick Santorum referred to the Hispanic vote -- as in the vote of Hispanic-American citizens -- as "the illegal vote.") What is all the scoring off Perry getting Santorum, exactly? A hot sack of spicy, deep-fried nothin', that's what! Santorum's still sniffing around single-digits, and low single-digits at that. Mainly he's doing Romney a solid by getting into the scrap in the first place, and doing so in a way that relates to the Tea Party audience with whom Romney has no affinity. But some are starting to notice something about Santorum. With Jon Huntsman calling for withdrawal from Afghanistan, Ron Paul calling for outright isolationism, and Romney and Perry combining to send some seriously mixed messages that seem like an attempt to simultaneously cross-dog whistle at both the war-fatigued and the war-mongery, Santorum might be the only guy left in the game who truly wants to go full-neocon. Marc Thiessen -- Fred Hiatt's prized neocon hack -- briefly stepped from his Abu Ghraib-themed torture-masturbatorium to write about how heartsick all the squish-talk on maintaining our bodily-fluid-purifying forever wars was making him: In the New Hampshire debate a few months ago, Mitt Romney was asked by a voter, "Osama bin Laden is dead. We've been in Afghanistan for 10 years. Isn't it time to bring our combat troops home from Afghanistan?" Romney instantly replied: "It's time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can" and went on to explain that the lesson he had taken from our experience in Afghanistan is that "our troops shouldn't go off and try and fight a war of independence for another nation." Tonight it was Rick Perry's turn to flirt with withdrawal. Not long after Jon Huntsman gave his regular call for retreat, Perry said, "I agree with Governor Huntsman when we talk about it's time to bring our young men and women home as soon and as obviously safely as we can. But it's also really important for us to have a presence there. And I think the entire conversation about how do we deliver aid to those countries, and is it best spent with a hundred thousand military who have the target on their back in Afghanistan? I don't think so at this particular point in time. I think the best way for us to impact that country is to make a transition where that country's military is going to be taking care of their people. Bring our young men and women home and continue to help them build the infrastructure they need." And all this was happening on or near or adjacent to September 11th, said Thiessen. SEPTEMBER 11th! His colleague Jennifer Rubin picked up Thiessen's baton (hopefully after disinfecting it!) to add that she, too, felt "horror" at what she saw, opining, "Perhaps Santorum should get another look." "'Chyeah, whatevs!" say the GOP voters, thus far, about Santorum.
For Barack Obama, this truly was an awful, awful week. And for once, it wasn't for all the same old reasons. That war between "The People Who Think Obama Can Overcome Very Real Legislative Hurdles By Using The Magic Powers Of The Bully Pulpit And Until He Does This Hogwarts Stuff He Is A Traitor" and "The People Who Think That The Policies That George W. Bush Was A Monster For Supporting Are All Well And Good As Long As A Democrat Supports Them And Who Will Go Back To Thinking They Are Awful As Soon As A Republican Is Back In The White House" was more or less muted as Obama plied his craft at an aggressive push for his American Jobs Act. And while those polling numbers continue to be no box of chocolates, for once they weren't all rancid -- Obama managed to put some real distance in those head-to-heads between he and Rick Perry. This week, frankly, the pain may have come from some more serious wounds. In two special elections, Democrats lost -- so every party hack had to go out there and downplay their importance. Now, to be honest, it's that Nevada special election that's more worrisome. Obama can carry New York State six days a week and twice on Sunday. Nevada, on the other hand, is a much more important state in the 2012 picture. Did you read any reporters who played up that result? Or called it a bellwether? Keep reading those reporters. The New York result, in which the 9th district went to a Republican for the first time since the Crimean War, doesn't portend any long-term misfortune. What it does do, however, is pack on several metric tons of distraction in the form of frustrated organizers, depressed donors, and pundits who have concerns that Obama may have lost the Jewish vote. Maybe the worst thing about this is that the NY-09 special election does not happen if a grown-ass man manages to find the wherewithal to not send pictures of his dong to women who are not his wife on Twitter. Instead, the whole thing is a referendum on the Obama administration. We are loathe to admit this, but it maybe must be said: based on considerations that are purely political, it's a powerful case study in why you should never resign amid a sex scandal. And hey, you know how Elspeth Reeve has a post up today at the Atlantic celebrating the fact that if Obama goes just twenty more days, he'll "claim the record as the most scandal-free president since 1977?" Well, I think the most fervent critics of the president are prepared, at the very least, to put an asterisk in those record books, if not call shenanigans on it entirely. The word of the week is "Solyndra." For those who've not been paying attention, this is a solar energy company that received a fast-tracked loan from the government and then went belly-up dead. Can it be considered a full-fledged scandal? There's good reason to be skeptical that it can be. But an attempt will nevertheless be made to make it so. There's a single Obama fundraiser in the mix that the GOP has decided to harp on, despite the fact that the loan process began in the Bush administration and there's a number of Republicans that backed the deal, too. Additionally, there are extant emails that revealed that the loan guarantees were pushed, the officials in charge of oversight were feeling rushed. The word on the street was that Solyndra was either not ready for prime-time, or they'd taken a flier on an idea and fallen short. Way short. But even if this matter falls short of catching out Obama twirling a sinister mustache and stoking high-level corruption, the fact is that ample damage has been done to the administration because this company's failure allows Obama's opponents to thwack him in all the places that hurt the most. This is about jobs being lost as a jobs debate finally begins. This is about the failure of a solar company after the White House went to the mat promoting green energy jobs. This is about winning the future -- but you can't win it if taxpayer investments don't pan out. And the worst part is that Obama put his brand behind this company, making a high-profile appearance, touting it as a model for where he wants the nation to go. In this economy, if a company gets the Obama seal of approval, it better go on to lights-out success. And beyond all that, this can potentially hurt all Democrats in the end, because they are the only party in town that's even trying to make the case that a functional government is possible. So while it's not likely to end up putting a notch in the scandal side of the balance sheet -- it's still a liability. Beyond that, you have Congressional Democrats undermining the Jobs Act on which Obama's counting on being able to run for re-election. You have James Carville urging the president to count to three and start firing people in a blind panic. And you have bundlers who have taken to offering presidential access at half the price, because they aren't able to fill next week's fundraising dinners. And to top it off, what is this AttackWatch website thingy that's become the butt of every conservative jokester on the internet? I'll tell you what it is: it's 2008's "Fight The Smears" site, which succesfully couched itself in an honest defense of the president's record and biography, redesigned as a brutalist, frightful snitch machine. Look. We're all for rapid-response and robust defense. If you're not prepared to do both in contemporary politics, you're not worth having around. But this AttackWatch seems designed to induce attacks -- or at the very least induce people to believe they're seeing one everywhere. It's "Fight The Smears" remixed by cynicism. And the dumbest thing is, it's fighting the last war. If the eventual GOP nominee is found falling back on the hoary old Ayers/Wright/Birther tropes, it probably means they're eight points down in the polls and desperate. It's not fair to say AttackWatch has jumped the shark. When something jumps the shark you can at least get to appreciate the arc of the jumper! AttackWatch was born on the other side of the shark, breathing hard like it just did something difficult. That's the sort of week it's been for the incumbent. He'd best hope that similar periods are few and far between.
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