The GOP presidential candidates continue to play their parts in an implausible story of a world that could never exist, acting out nonexistent conflicts while delivering dialog that insults the intelligence. That's not because they're stupid. It's because they think you are.
It's like watching a low budget science-fiction movie from the fifties: Dr. Strange vs. The Vulture in the Caverns of the Moon. It's badly executed, even by the low standards of its genre, complete with cheap sets, bad special effects and wooden acting.
They're counting on their audience to provide that state of mind which literature professors call "the willing suspension of disbelief."
Three of the candidates are selling an nearly identical story of hardy earth people who are only able to save their planet once they've been freed from taxes and regulations.The fourth, Ron Paul, is offering a different script, a 10,000 Years BC scenario of unparalleled economic savagery.
Sure, Dr. Paul seems like a likable guy. And it's great that he's saying things about war, terrorism, and human rights that nobody else will, including Barack Obama. But he wants to lead us into a blood-drenched, kill-or-be-killed world. (Remember when he was willing to let an injured man die because he hadn't paid his health insurance premium?)
The candidates' scripted lines weren't all that was "retro,"either. In the year 2012, Wolf Blitzer actually asked them which of their wives would make the best First Lady. What would he have done if they hadn't answered -- held a pie-baking contest? As the scientists' young assistant said when the monster entered the laboratory: Eek!
What did we learn tonight about the Republicans' collective and individual economic fantasies?
We come from a distant planet with news of a world vastly unlike your own ...
Rick Santorum was the first out of the box this time. By invoking the magic word, "deficits," he called the economic coven to order.
The New York Times analyzed the tax plans put forward by Romney, Gingrich, and Santorum to determine how much each of them would add to the national deficit in a single year. Romney's would add $600 billion. Santorum was tied with Gingrich at $1.3 trillion, or more than twice as much.
Ron Paul wants to eliminate the income tax altogether, making the economic future under his Presidency as difficult to predict as the space-time continuum inside a black hole. That's probably why the Times didn't try. (It would be an interesting project, though.)
Let's be clear: All of those deficit estimates -- $600 billion for Romney, more than twice that for Santorum and Gingrich -- vastly understate the true explosion in the deficit we'd see under any one of them.. They only consider the income lost through tax cuts. But other aspects of their economic plan would lead to greatly increased unemployment, prolonged recession, and an increased likelihood of another financial crisis brought about by deregulation.
So the real increase in the deficit could be several times as large. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush both blew the deficit through the roof, and their numbers would be small-time compared to what a Romney or Gingrich Presidency would do.
What all four candidates share is the professed belief -- which Paul and possibly Santorum sincerely hold, but Romney and Gingrich almost certainly don't -- that deregulation and lower taxes will lead to a larger and healthier economy. What's wrong with this belief? There is no time or place in human history that these policies have ever led to that outcome.
Enter The Vulture
Thanks to the now-lamentably absent Rick Perry, Mitt Romney will always be known as the "Vulture Capitalist." Bain Capital and the hedge-fund business model ("Bain Capitalism") it represents is every bit as parasitic and non-constructive as the populist fulminators (and now, hilariously, Newt) say it is. Mitt got rich off of corporate and individual tax breaks and subsidies, and possibly from a bailout too.
Mitt's signature achievement as Governor of Massachusetts was, of course, RomneyCare. His Republican critics are right. The plan is virtually indistinguishable from ObamaCare. So tonight's back-and-forth about individual mandates was extremely instructive.
The Romney and Obama plans, including the individual mandate, are both based on the right-wing think tank proposal developed in the early 1990's as the Republican alternative to Hillary Clinton's plan. That's why it's such a boon to private insurers.
Santorum scored well on this issue: "You are going to claim [about the Affordable Care Act] ... doesn't work and we should repeal and he's going to say, wait a minute Governor, you said it works well in Massachusetts. Folks -- we can't give this issue away in this election." Romney's defense of his plan could have been lifted verbatim from an Obama speech.
Santorum's right about losing a campaign issue, of course. And imagine what Obama might have done if he hadn't broken his campaign pledge to oppose the individual mandate and failed to fight for the public option (or deliberately traded it away). Health care could have been a major plus for him in this election.
Seeing the Wires
On the personal level, Romney is still forced to deal with his tax breaks. Given the selective nature of the tax forms he released -- why just the last two years? -- there's a good chance he paid little to no taxes for a number of years. And he's certainly bled the tax system for all it's worth, something I don't begrudge people for doing while that's the law -- unless they belong to the party that helped write the law."
Then they're double-dippers and hypocrites. (And yes, we'll get to Newt shortly.)
There's one entertaining outcome to Romney's career embarrassments. They've forced Rush Limbaugh and other professional Republican operatives to defend vulture capitalism against the guy who wrote the Contract With America.
Gotta love it when the director of that sci-fi movie makes a mistake. That's when you see the boom mike enter the frame, or the shadow of a camera operator fall across the actors' faces, just as the space hero begins to fight his villain. And Mitt's villain is ...
Dr. Strange in Lunar Orbit
Newt Gingrich is striking at Romney from his secret moon lair with a personal animosity and stage sneer worthy of any screen villain. Except that Newt's not always wrong. When he slams Romney for his greed, he's right. Just as Romney's right when he calls Newt an influence-peddler.
Pass the popcorn, please.
About that $1.3 trillion his tax plan would add to the deficit: Apparently it's not enough. Newt wants to build a manned base on the moon. That would add a trillion or so to the deficit, easy. Why? The logical answer to that question would be the one given in the 1960s to justify the manned space program: Innovation and jobs. But that would mean promoting ... dare we say it? ... a stimulus.
And if you're talking about stimulus spending, there are much smarter ways to do it than building a base on the moon. So instead Newt invented a 1950's-era Red Menace. " I'd like to have an American on the moon before the Chinese get there," he said. And, no doubt, to get away from the nonexistent war on religion he's always talking about. After all, nothing brings you closer to God than breathing an artificial atmosphere beneath a transparent dome in the Mare Imbrium.
Americans walked on the moon more than forty years ago. The first Chinese have yet to arrive there. They don't seem to be in a big hurry. And guess what? If you're worried about the Chinese economically or militarily, the moon's a pretty good place for them to go. It would cost them a fortune to get there, making them less of an economic threat, and once they get there they would be very far away.
Gingrich even suggested that 13,000 Americans on the moon could apply for statehood. But Puerto Rico? Not so much.
Ron Paul punctured another one of Newt's sci-fi fantasies, that of Speaker Gingrich as deficit cutter, when he pointed out that the Federal deficit actually increased during Gingrich's years as Speaker of the House. That's true. It began dropping the year that Newt left (after an ethics scandal).
Meet the Cast
Santorum and Paul don't stand a chance. They're the supporting actors in our science-fiction movie: the likeable but goofy sergeant who makes it to the third act before being grabbed by an alien tentacle, and the crusty old ship's doctor who says folksy things that make the whole crew laugh.
It'll either be Newt or Mitt, and after tonight Newt's chances are looking worse.
Yes, Newt is an influence peddler. But I have to admit I feel a little sorry for the guy. The Republican Machine -- as scary a bunch of lockstep-marching automatons as you'll ever care to see -- has turned out against him in the last few days with brutal determination. Then I remember his race-baiting rhetoric and I don't feel bad anymore.
He had a pretty weak night tonight, But he did get one major endorsement today. According to the Voice of San Diego, convicted felon and former Republican Representative Duke Cunningham (who's serving a 100-month term for bribery, conspiracy and tax evasion) said, "I have 80% of inmates that would vote for you. They might not be able to but their extended families will."
And yes, Mitt is a vulture capitalist. At least one person who did business with Bain during his tenure says they were duplicitous and untrustworthy.
The End ... or The Beginning?
It's no surprise that Newt and Mitt both made money off Fannie and Freddie, and no doubt from other predatory lending schemes. Newt and Mitt are peddling the same alternate reality, with only a few minor tweaks between them. In some ways it doesn't matter which one wins, because the economic script has already been written.
Wolf Blitzer asked them about the role of religion and God in the presidency. May I answer that question too? I've been pretty unhappy with Barack Obama at times. But God must love him or he wouldn't have given him opponents like these.
And now it's time for the closing dialogue for our sci-fi film. After the invaders have been vanquished, we see our scientist hero and his son staring up at a bright blue sky that's once again free of menacing saucers. The scientist's last lines to the boy reflect our own sentiments about these Republican debates:
"They're gone for now, Billy. Sure, they'll be back -- but next time we'll be ready for them!"