The remaining Republican candidates are gearing up for the March 6th Super Tuesday primary elections, with Mitt Romney carrying forward his momentum from wins in Arizona and Michigan over competitors Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul. As the primary season progresses and the race increasingly turns into a close one between Romney and Santorum, it’s worth reflecting on just how reactionary this bunch of misfits has become, and what’s at stake as their proposals are taken seriously by the American public.
This primary season has increasingly degenerated into a shootout between candidates seeking to prove they are the true heir to Reagan’s conservative legacy. No matter that these candidates are significantly further to the right than the tax-hiking Reagan. The myth of Ronald Reagan has become far more potent than the actual Reagan – and Republican candidates have exploited that myth to push some of the most noxious policies imaginable. A review of their statements is enlightening – and disturbing.
Mitt Romney’s Attacks on the “Entitlement Society”
As the most “respectable” and “mainstream” of this Republican clique, Romney’s positions are nothing to write home about. He has gone on record lambasting America’s “entitlement society,” a blatant stab at widely popular social programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. These programs, despite being supported by a strong majority of Americans, are becoming cannon fodder for a bi-partisan system increasingly dedicated to dismantling the safety net for the masses of working, middle class, and poor Americans. Romney’s anger is targeted at an Obama administration that “has been replacing our merit-based society” with one increasingly reliant on federal welfare benefits. To prove his point, Romney cites evidence that federal payments to individual Americans increased by nearly $600 billion since 2009. He also cites census data suggesting that nearly half of Americans (a five percent increase since 2008) rely on at least one federal program such as Social Security, food stamps, worker’s compensation, some sort of housing subsidy, or unemployment benefits. Why such increased reliance should be surprising in a terrible economy is not discussed in Romney’s diatribes. His attempts to eliminate these programs are symptomatic of just how out of touch Republicans are with distressed Americans.
Romney’s attacks are not merely rhetorical. He went on record in December of 2011 supporting Republican Representative Paul Ryan’s plan for Medicare reform, which proposed to privatize and transform it into a program in which seniors are required to purchase their health insurance from private providers. The Ryan plan was widely condemned for threatening to end Medicare as we know it, with the vouchers being wholly inadequate to cover rising private health care costs. As the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities reported, the Ryan plan would decrease Medicare coverage by increasing the age of eligibility for Medicare from 65 to 67, while contributing to growing costs. Federal voucher subsidies for private health insurance would grow at only the rate of inflation, which has increased at a slower rate than the growth of health care costs in the last few decades. By relying on a voucher system, the federal government would redirect a massive amount of taxpayer money to private health insurers, while reducing access and quality of care for the elderly. As the Congressional Budget Office estimates, by 2022 (the first year a voucher system would be implemented), a 65 year old voucher recipient’s costs would more than double from $6,150 to $12,500.
Newt Gingrich’s War on Teachers and Children
Not to be outdone by Romney’s reactionary politics, Newt Gingrich has done the unthinkable by suggesting that Americans return to the good old Dickensian days when children enjoyed the human “right” to engage in child labor, rather than remain in repressive public schools dominated by “nearly criminal” teachers unions. Condemning child labor laws as “stupid,” Gingrich has offered a “radical” proposal that public schools be allowed to fire their union janitors and empower children to take their place: “Most of these schools ought to get rid of unionized janitors, have one master janitor and pay local students to take care of the school. The kids would actually do work, they would have cash, they would have pride in the schools, they’d begin the process of rising.”
Gingrich has also condemned union teachers, accusing them (specifically the city of Los Angeles’ teacher union) of “protecting bad teachers” and for “almost criminal” behavior – presumably suggesting that there is some positive (albeit undocumented) correlation between unionization of schools and poor student performance. For the record, there is no evidence suggesting that unionization is correlated with lower student performance, nor is there evidence that unionized public school teachers are overpaid when compared to those of equal education in the private sector, or that private charters schools (which conservatives claim are the solution to underperformance in public schools) perform any better than public ones. Incendiary language, however, speaks louder than facts or data in the Republican primaries. It’s far easier to scream at public school teachers and condemn them as lazy. It’s easier to condescendingly advise Occupy Wall Street protesters (as Gingrich does) to “take a bath” and “get a job” than it is to propose effective solutions for improving education of for creating jobs at a time when reports indicate (as recently as mid 2011) that there are five workers for every available job in the U.S. economy.
Newt has also renewed George W. Bush’s dead-on-arrival plan to privatize Social Security. One would have hoped that this proposal would never again see the light of day, especially after the 2008 economic collapse demonstrated the tremendous dangers of casino style gambling with worker’s retirement funds. Privatization schemes represent a boon for Wall Street, but a massive risk for Main Street. These risks alone should be enough to give us pause, not to mention the tremendous costs of privatization to the federal government – considering that taxpayers would have to find a way to fund not only current retirees’ checks, but also investment accounts for those still working today. That privatization schemes represent a major expansion of federal spending and responsibility, however, are an afterthought of a Gingrich candidacy more interested in looting Social Security for private gain.
Rick Santorum, Hero of the Right-Wing Fringe
Pick the issue, and Rick Santorum is far to the right of the American people – and even rank-and-file members of the Republican Party. Voting record analyses from citizens groups such as Americans for Democratic Action suggest that Santorum was among the most reactionary of Republicans in terms of his voting record in the U.S. Senate. It’s not hard to see why after looking at his 2012 campaign rhetoric. Santorum opposes the entire Medicare system, and favors Paul Ryan’s privatization plan, arguing that “we should not have a government-run health care system on Medicare or anything else, because it completely distorts the market. It’s top down. It’s not the way America works best.” Of course, government also would remain intimately involved in Medicare under the Ryan plan, with taxpayer dollars being redirected from a government funded and paid insurance system to a government-funded, privately profitable system. The only difference between Ryan’s plan and the current system is that government would no longer pay for seniors’ insurance by themselves, but would funnel that money through private insurance middlemen, who could charge radically more for the same service. This would allow costs for insurance to rise, while doing nothing to “get government out of Medicare.” Quite the contrary, government debt obligations would likely increase as seniors (most of which are on fixed incomes) would be unable to pay their insurance premiums. This prescription, then, is yet another plan for increasing government spending subsidies for the private sector, under the guise of promoting “small government” and privatization.
Santorum has also called for deep and immediate cuts to Social Security. He was a strong supporter of Bush’s 2005 effort to privatize Social Security, a red flag if there ever was one for those wondering about his long term “vision” for the program. Similar to other Republican candidates, Santorum also supports extremist positions on education that suggest a total lack of interest in increasing educational opportunity for the poor and disadvantaged. Among the most controversial of Santorum’s claims was his labeling Obama a “snob” for promoting the idea that all Americans deserve access to higher ed. As Santorum argued: “there are a lot of people in this country that have no desire or no aspiration to go to college, because they have a different set of skills and desires and dreams that don’t include college.” Santorum’s comment is all the more perverse (aside from his contempt for adult access to higher ed) in light of the fact that Obama has done little to deliver the $12 billion he promised community colleges in 2009. This failure is all the more tragic at a time when four year college and university funding has approximately doubled over the last decade, and as higher learning becomes a luxury under a system that only the upper middle and upper class can afford.
The current crop of Republican primary contenders has done little more than expound upon the most extreme rhetoric embraced by past contenders. Former frontrunners Rick Perry and Herman Cain gained notoriety respectively for attacking Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme” and blaming the victims (the unemployed) for their failure (and alleged unwillingness) to find work during tough economic times. These candidates (past and present) are impervious to data that challenge the foundations of their ideology. Why let evidence get in the way of a good argument?
This is clearly Mitt Romney’s rationale as he attacks Obama’s “entitlement society,” and forecasts that over the next few years “we will have created a society that contains a sizable contingent of long-term jobless, dependent on government benefits for survival…government dependency can only foster passivity and sloth.” Dismissal of inconvenient facts is clearly a motivation of Rick Santorum’s when he claims that the “reach of government” spending is “systematically destroying the work ethic” of America. Such propaganda from Romney and Santorum has little to do with observable reality. In the real world, federal “welfare” spending on programs such as supplemental nutritional assistance (food stamps) amounted to a meager two percent (or $78 billion in spending of the $3.834 trillion 2011 federal budget. Temporary Assistance to Needy Families spending (formerly Aid to Families with Dependent Children) accounted for just less than one percent of the federal budget. Why even focus so much energy on demonizing these programs, when they make up such a miniscule portion of the budget, the cutting of which can’t possibly be effective in trimming the $1.56 trillion in federal deficit spending for 2011? Why direct so much anger at the millions of Americans reliant on welfare spending more generally, considering that (as a recent study from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows), 90 percent of welfare entitlement benefits go to the elderly, the disabled, or working families, rather than those who are “too lazy to work” and “don’t want a job?” To those interested in improving the state of Main Street, attacks on the poor are a red herring – a distraction from the real economic problems we face today. Unfortunately, however, such demonization fits the ideology of a bi-partisan system which has declared war on the poor, and views the state as a weapon of class war to be used against the poor and in favor of redistributing wealth from the masses to the wealthiest ten to twenty percent of Americans (who have captured most all of the income gains in the U.S. over the last thirty years).
The contemporary party system has moved greatly to the right. The Democrats are the modern day equivalent of Eisenhower Republicans, talking regularly about smaller government, budget cuts, and reducing the size of the welfare state and safety net. Modern day Republicans would be unrecognizable in their extremism to liberal Republicans of the Eisenhower or Nixon variety. None of those leaders were running on platforms to gut what’s left of the American welfare state, and they certainly knew better than to anger such a powerful voting bloc as seniors, who rightly take attacks on Medicare and Social Security quite seriously. Sadly, the party system’s drift to the right appears to show no sign of abating this election season, with Republicans all seeking to outflank each other in their embrace of reactionary politics. It will take a major rebuking of the party at the polls to beat back this most recent assault on the American safety net.
Anthony DiMaggio holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Illinois, Chicago. He is the author of numerous books, including (most recently) The Rise of the Tea Party (Monthly Review Press, 2011), and Crashing the Tea Party (2011), When Media Goes to War (2010), and Mass Media, Mass Propaganda (2008). He has taught American and Global Politics at numerous colleges and universities, and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org