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At CPAC, The Worst of Both Worlds

The Republican coalition, and indeed American conservatism itself over the past 30 years, has been characterized as an odd, almost unnatural pairing of “culture warrior” social conservatives and Ayn-Rand-fixated fiscal conservative, held together by little more that intellectually inconsistent rhetoric and the willingness of both parties to contort themselves beyond recognition to keep this doomed-looking political marriage alive. But after my two-day sojourn at this years Conservative Political Action Conference, I’m beginning to agree with Digby: not only do they belong together, but they may even deserve one another.

Still, whatever political shotgun wedding joined the two factions together, the cracks in this union have begun to show and grow. At CPAC, the two sides reminded me of two insufferable individuals stuck in a loveless marriage, who think they’d be so much better of without the other, but are really two sides of the same bad penny. Repulsed by one, and not seduced by the other, I realized that CPAC’s cultural and fiscal conservatives represented the worst of both conservative worlds.

Small wonder, then, that the two candidates most feted at CPAC embody that dichotomy — and with no discernible conginitive dissonance. No surprise, there. After all, cognitive disonnance first requires cognition.

From a Distance: The Culture Warriors

For reasons I mentioned earlier, I experience CPAC’s culture warriors from a distance, but for me their rhetoric was intensely personal, as it probably for millions of Americans with no desire to live in Rick Santorum’s nightmarish America.

Santorum is a self-styled “true conservative,” right-wing, Christian fundamentalist of Catholic background. In 2005, Time Magazine called him “one of America’s 25 most influential evangelicals.” That is still certainly true today.

Santorum believes that religious values (at least his religious values) should play a large role in shaping government policies. For those not sure what this means, Santorum has a list of examples:

1. Santorum wants “a blanket ban on abortions.” The fact that the U.S. had this very same prohibition up until 1973, and the result was black-market abortions that killed not only fetuses by also lots of pregnant women, seems to have escaped the former senator’s attention.

2. Santorum wants a ban on gay marriages. He would likely bring back antiquated anti-sodomy laws as well. “If the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual [gay] sex within your home, then you have a right to bigamy, you have a right to polygamy, you have a right to incest, you have a right to adultery. You have a right to anything.”

When Santorum gets on the subject of homosexuality, one can’t help noting a tinge of hysteria, along with a generous helping of illogic and exaggeration. Santorum would probably try to ban other related activities, such as the use of contraceptives to prevent pregnancy. He certainly wants to get rid of Planned Parenthood.

What this adds up to is that when Santorum says religious values should play a greater role in government policy, he means that there should be lots of laws regulating your personal life, particularly your sex life. This is pretty typical of religious fundamentalists, particularly American Christian ones. They just can’t leave other people’s bedrooms alone.

Not that Mitt Romney is much better. As I pointed out earlier, Romney may be the personification of the worst of Wall Street and fiscal conservative wing of the GOP, but at CPAC he went his out of way to establish his “culture warrior” credentials. In the course of his speech, he tried to morph from a “Massachusetts Moderate” to “to an extremely conservative governor.”

Since I’m covering CPAC as a member of the media, I’ve tried to keep myself out the “story.” I’ve observed and listened, without offering my own views or much else about myself. The result is that sometimes I think CPACers mistake me for a member of the tribe.

There were only a couple of times I came close to giving myself away. When Foster Friess, Chairman of Friess Associates, said in his introduction of Rick Santorum that Santorum “never says anything divisive,” I stifled a snort. I guess comparing parents like me to felons, and saying that families like min “don’t contribute to society” doesn’t count as divisive. When Rick Santorum himself said that conservatives truly embrace the idea that “all men are created equal,” I couldn’t help but snort.

Still, I was surprised I expected to hear a lot of fulminating against marriage equality at CPAC, and I became inured to it in advance. I heard little, compared to the the nearly constant anti-contraception rhetoric. What little I did hear, I let wash over me.

Then Mitt Romney took to the stage. After he finished promising to restore the Mexico City policy, cut off money for the United Nations Population Fund, de-fund Planned Parenthood, and reverse every Obama policy on contraception, Mitt brought it on home.

And in doing so he brought home the reality that nothing wins a candidate right-wing love like queer bashing. Romney delivered the longest, loudest screed against the 9th circuit ruling on California’s Proposition 8 that I’ve heard during my entire time at CPAC. When he finished there, launched in the a recitation of his opposition to same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, and all he did to stop it. He sounded for all the world like a job applicant reciting his resume.

Romney ended that screed by tell the audience, “I was a severely conservative Republican governor.” Point made?

How well that will work remains to be seen. If it doesn’t, if will be in part because Romney’s sudden hard right on “culture war” issues won’t sway evangelicals who are still having trouble with his Mormon heritage. Or, it may fail because it’s a transparently poltical move to win the Republican nomination.

Sarah Palin may have actually been on the right track when she said Romney’s conservatism is “evolving.” If so, it’s because Santorum’s surge in Missouri, Minnesota, Colorado — and now polls ahead of Romney in Michigan — forced Romney to what we call a “come to Jesus moment” in the south. Thus Romney realized that if he wants to win the nomination, he’s got to throw some red meat to the base (in the form of my family and others).

Between Santorum’s sincerity and Romney’s cynical opportunism on “culture war issues,” it’s pretty clear who wears the pants in this unhappy marriage. (Witness Grover Nordquist promising that if elected Romney will do as he’s told.) Santorum may not care this positioning may be disastrous for the GOP, because it stems from deeply held beliefs on his part. Romney may know how disastrous this is and not care, because it stems from his deeply held desire to be president — whatever it takes.

Cocktails With Fiscal Conservatives

After asorbing as much culture war rhetoric as I could stand, I thought maybe it would be a good idea to detox with CPAC’s fiscal conservatives. So, I dropped by the cocktail party hosted by gay Republican presidential candidate Fred Karger, who has filed a delightful discrimination complaint against the American Conservative Union, which hosts CPAC, for denying him a booth in CPAC’s exhibit hall after not inviting him to speak alongside the other candidates. I met Karger at last year’s CPAC, and found him very likable. But on the issues, the absence of “culture war” positions only highlighted the economic issues where I parted ways with fiscal conservatives.

The candidates who were invited to speak at CPAC were as bad on fiscal policy as economic policy. Santorums nighmarish “culture warrior” vision of America is rivaled only by his nightmarish economic policies.

On the economic side of the ledger, Rick Santorum takes a slash-and-burn approach.

1. There should be a $5 trillion cut in the federal budget (but defense spending would be held at present levels). In order to realize this, Santorum would do away with, greatly reduce or freeze the Environmental Protection Agency, healthcare reform and Medicaid, subsidies for housing, food stamps, job training, energy and education. He would “reform” Medicare and Social Security in draconian fashion and pass a balanced budget amendment.

One might agree that the present U.S. federal deficit verges on the insane and still find Santorum’s cure equally crazy. For instance, just about holding exempt defense and “security” spending — when combined they make up 20 percent of the budget and are notorious for waste, redundancy and corruption — makes no sense.

2. According to Santorum, there should be an elimination of financial and other regulatory laws. This is true insanity. Regulation is the only thing that makes capitalism an enduring system. Eliminate it and you have financial crashes, dangerous sweatshop working conditions, falling wages and benefits, runaway corruption and theft and, ultimately, depression. That Santorum cannot understand this suggests that he has substituted a discredited free-market ideology for history.

3. Santorum says that as a nation Americans should “live within our means” and if we do so “future generations will have a brighter future unburdened by oppressive debt and high taxation.” These are fine slogans, but in practice they probably spell eventual revolution in the streets.

If you reduce the debt by slashing expenditures Santorum-style while refusing to increase taxes, you will eliminate almost all of society’s safety nets. That means increasing poverty and all its attendant miseries. You will also make infrastructure maintenance much more difficult.

…If Santorum was to get his way the nation would not have his predicted “brighter future.” More likely it would be a future of more poor and more pot holes. That might well lead to disillusionment with the capitalist system among both the lower- and middle-classes. (Personally, I have no objection to such growing disillusionment. I would, however, like to minimize the suffering and violence that surely goes along with it.)

Romney’s “extremely conservative” positions on “culture was” issues is exceeded only by his “extremely conservative” budget promises.

Romney has, essentially, made four significant fiscal promises: He has pledged to cap federal spending at 20 percent of GDP. He has pledged to cut taxes to about 17 percent of GDP. He has pledged to a floor on defense spending at 4 percent of GDP. And he has pledged to balance the budget.

So let’s add it all up: Romney has to cut federal spending down to 17 percent of GDP. Federal spending is currently at 24 percent of GDP, and the Congressional Budget Office predicts that it will be around 22 percent for the next decade. For comparison’s sake, Paul Ryan’s budget would keep spending above 20 percent of GDP for at least the next 20 years.

That’s a lot of numbers, so here’s the bottom line: Romney is proposing to cut more than twice as much from the budget as Ryan. And Ryan’s budget, as you’ll remember, was already quite austere.

Romney is clearer in his goals for the federal budget than he is in how he’ll achieve them. But he has offered enough detail that we can estimate the cuts required to meet his targets. In that spirit, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities tried to run the numbers on Romney’s proposals. The results were so outlandish that they actually ran them two ways to make Romney look better.

At the post-CPAC conctail party, I chatted with a young fiscal conservatives — a tea partier who told me he didn’t really care about social issues. When I mentioned that my husband and I was save a lot in taxes if we could file joint federal tax returns, that was his opening. He took a kind of soft-sell approach to convincing me that given my situation I really should be one of them. If I was truly liberal (read: classically liberal) then I belong among them — the mostly young, fiscally conservative, social liberal young CPACers who seemed as glad to get away from the culture warriors as I was.

The soft-sell fell flat. It was no more convincing that his next topic of conversation.

The young fiscal conservative then turned to getting shed of the “culture warrior” faction. He half-jokingly suggested that all the fiscal conservatives throw their support behind Santorum, and ensure that he gets the nomination. There was a method to the madness. Santorum, he said, “go down in flames” in the general election, taking the “culture warriors” with him, leaving the Republican party to the fiscal conservatives.

I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the two halves of that bad marriage (a) are stuck with each other, and (b) probably deserve each other. The rest of America has seen enough to know it doesn’t really want or deserve to be stuck with either.

After all, why spoil the party, when both sides are doing a pretty good job of it on their own?

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