Strolling through the pageant of unhealthful food and unsound ideology that is the Iowa straw poll, amid the good-natured Republicans who swept Michele Bachmann to an impressive victory, I couldn’t help but reflect that this quadrennial exercise is one crazy way to pick a major-party candidate for president.
You’ll note that I used the words “Michele Bachmann” and “president” in the same sentence. That someone with views as extreme as Bachmann’s could win — and that Ron Paul, who seems to inhabit his own little reality, could finish second — would seem to rob the straw poll of all but comic value, making it analogous to the opening joke a speaker might tell to warm up a stone-faced audience. But the ritual is serious business, as poor Tim Pawlenty found out. Less than 24 hours after he finished a distant third in the straw poll, “former candidate” became his new honorific.
Long before the results were tallied, it seemed clear that Pawlenty was in trouble. Like the other candidates who participated Saturday, he had a big tent on the grounds of the Iowa State University coliseum where voters could enjoy free food and entertainment. People were happy to line up for the Famous Dave’s barbecue that Pawlenty was serving, but they didn’t stay long — and when they walked away, they weren’t wearing the green Pawlenty T-shirts that signaled support. By mid-afternoon, volunteers were glum.
There were plenty of orange Bachmann T-shirts, though, and an even longer line at her tent, despite the fact that she was serving inferior food: giant corn dogs and trompe l’oeil “beef sundaes” that consisted of a scoop of mashed potatoes topped with chunks of beef, a ladle of gravy and a cherry tomato.
Near the Bachmann tent, I ran into a couple of guys wearing “Veterans for Rick Perry” shirts. There was no Perry tent — this was just hours after the Texas governor had announced his candidacy — but that didn’t keep Dan Shelley and John Burkhardt from working the crowd, even if they had no goodies to offer.
“I’ve known Rick since 1987,” said Shelley, an Austin lawyer who served in the Texas Legislature with Perry. “He had a reputation as a bulldog fiscal conservative, and that has never changed.”
Despite not competing in the straw poll, Perry got more votes than Mitt Romney, who also did not participate but has spent months establishing himself as the front-runner for the Republican nomination.
Perhaps Romney still holds that distinction, but things just got a lot more complicated. And President Obama — who, by the way, really ought to reconsider that Martha’s Vineyard vacation he’s planning and focus instead on the economy — may have caught a lucky break.
Post-Iowa, it looks as if the GOP field has three top-tier candidates. Romney has been targeted for a barrage of attacks from Obama’s political team, largely because he is seen as the potential Republican opponent who could best appeal to independent voters — and thus pose the most serious threat.
Romney has tried to walk a delicate line, moving far enough to the right to satisfy the party’s activist base, including the Tea Party wing, but leaving himself a path back to the center in the general election. It’s a smart strategy — but first he has to win the nomination, and he will be hard-pressed to throw red meat to the GOP primary electorate the way Bachmann and Perry can.
Bachmann, the staunchest of social conservatives, is also establishing herself as the most extreme of fiscal hawks; her position on the debt ceiling, for example, is that it should not have been raised by one cent, no matter what financial havoc might ensue. Perry, whose career has been built on antipathy toward government spending, showed his chops as a social conservative this month by staging a day-long televised prayer meeting in Houston.
The emergence of Bachmann and Perry as Romney’s chief rivals has shifted the GOP contest sharply to the right. This may fire up the Republican base, but it may also turn off independents who have made clear their distaste for uncompromising partisanship.
The Republican establishment, or what’s left of it, is nervous about this dynamic. But the establishment isn’t running the party anymore. The 16,892 Iowans who voted in the straw poll certainly didn’t intend to brighten Obama’s prospects of reelection, but that’s just what they might have accomplished.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney last Wednesday caught my eye when he talked about members of Congress, currently vocal about the deficit, who were on Capitol Hill over the past decade and voted for unpaid large tax cuts but “put two wars on the credit card without paying for them.”
That last phrase reflected words used in 2007 by several House Democrats who wanted to institute a war surtax to pay for the then-increasing costs of U.S. activities in Iraq and Afghanistan.
These days, one of them, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), believes such a levy should be on the agenda of the debt-reduction “supercommittee.”
“These wars ought to be paid for and not put on a credit card so that our kids will have to pay for this in the future,” McGovern said in a recent telephone interview. It’s morally wrong for members [of Congress] to call for support of our soldiers and then not ask the rest of us to pay for it . . . or have it left to the poor and middle-income and seniors to bear the sacrifice along with our soldiers and their families. That’s wrong.”
More than $1 trillion already has been added to the deficit by expenditures generated by Iraq and Afghanistan, the first wars undertaken by U.S. presidents since the War of 1812 that have not been financed in part by a special tax. There were three taxes instituted to pay for the Civil War.
“Well, I think the one thing we have to do is reject the new normal level of spending under the Obama administration, because President Obama amped up spending to never-seen-before levels. . . . I mean, one example I’ll give you is, we had one employee at the federal Department of Transportation that made $170,000 a year at the beginning of the recession. We had the trillion-dollar stimulus, and 18 months into the recession, we had 1,690 employees making over $170,000. Government has really been growing at — a lot of largesse, but the people in the real world aren’t. And that’s what has to change. Government has no conformity at all with the real world.”
— Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), Aug. 14, 2011
By popular demand, we are going to vet a statement in the column that we had previously discussed in an online chat. We probably did not do it full justice then, and Bachmann continues to say it — including on the Sunday morning TV shows this past weekend. A number of readers sent e-mails curious to know the truth, so we are happy to oblige.
On the surface, the fact appears astonishing — a huge increase in big-paying government jobs under Obama. But this is one of those statements one has to unpack very carefully, because Bachmann uses what is essentially a correct statistic regarding government salaries in a very misleading way.
Note that although the GOP presidential aspirant starts out by talking about the “never-seen-before levels” of spending under Obama and then mentions “the trillion-dollar stimulus,” the example she cites — the number of Transportation Department employees making more than $170,000 — uses the metric of “the beginning of the recession.” There’s a reason for that phrase: The recession started in December 2007, 13 months before Obama became president.
In other words, Bachmann gives the impression that she is talking about something that Obama did, but in fact, the big increase in government pay that she denounces started under Obama’s Republican predecessor, George W. Bush.
In fact, the apparent source of Bachmann’s claim, a 2009 article in USA Today, made it clear that Bush recommended across-the-board raises that, after they got through Congress, resulted in boosts of 3 percent in January 2008 and 3.9 percent in January 2009. By contrast, Obama in 2010 recommended the smallest federal pay raise since 1975 — 2 percent — and then froze salaries in 2011.
USA Today also noted that civil servants are generally prevented from earning more than their agency’s leader, so when the salary of the Federal Aviation Administration chief was raised, nearly 1,700 employees had their salaries lifted as well.
The fact that these salary shifts occurred before Obama became president is easily confirmed by fiddling with the data displayed on the Web site of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. If you check the data before Obama became president, it is clear that the bulk of the new salaries were instituted before he took office.
The Pinocchio Test
Bachmann’s use of the phrase “beginning of the recession” suggests she knows full well that the pay raises did not occur under Obama, and yet she persists in leaving the impression that Obama is directly responsible for boosting the number of employees making more than $170,000.
That makes her statistic, while technically correct, deliberately misleading, especially since Obama has actually frozen federal salaries.
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Texas Gov. Rick Perry turned his rhetorical fire on Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke here Monday night, saying that the chairman would be committing a “treasonous” act by ordering the printing of more money.
Doing so, Perry said, would amount to a political decision to help President Obama win reelection in 2012.
“If this guy prints more money between now and the election, I don’t know what you all would do to him in Iowa, but we would treat him pretty ugly down in Texas,” Perry said of the possibility of another round of so-called quantitative easing in the money supply.
Perry, on his first swing through Iowa after announcing his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination, also had strong words of criticism for the president. He said Obama’s management of the economy has been an experiment that has “gone tragically wrong” and said the American people needed to send a signal of disgust in 2012 by voting him out of office.
President Obama has directed a small team of advisers to develop a proposal that would keep the government playing a major role in the nation’s mortgage market, extending a federal loan subsidy for most home buyers, according to people familiar with the matter.
The decision follows the advice of his senior economic and housing advisers, who favor maintaining the government’s role as an insurer of mortgages for most borrowers. The approach could even preserve Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the mortgage finance giants owned by the government, although under different names and with significant new constraints, said people knowledgeable about the discussions.
A decision to preserve a major government role would mark a big milestone in the effort to craft a new housing policy from the wreckage of the mortgage meltdown and could mean a larger part for Fannie and Freddie than administration officials had signaled.
In a statement, the White House said it is premature to say that senior officials have agreed on any of the three main options outlined earlier this year in an administration white paper on reforming the housing finance system.
I love those who can smile in trouble, who can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection. ‘Tis the business of little minds to shrink, but they whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves their conduct, will pursue their principles unto death. Leonardo da Vinci