The One Percent Won This GOP Debate

Terrance Heath

Make it stop. Please, just make it stop. That’s the short version of my reaction to GOP primary debate #20. Maybe it was too soon. Maybe I need more time to recover from my two days at CPAC. (After the debate, I felt the same odd sensation that I swear I felt after finally fleeing CPAC — that tingling sensation one usually feels when an arm or leg that’s “fallen asleep” wakes up. Except it was it was my brain coming back to life, after going numb.)

As a progressive, it really shouldn’t bother me. After all, in many ways the biggest winner of the Republican debates is President Obama, while the biggest losers are (a) the candidates and (b) the Republican party. Plus, the debates have supplied an entertaining string of awkward moments. This one had its moments, too. But it’s getting painful to watch and listen to these guys. It’s like watching someone run headfirst into a brick wall, at full speed, then back up and do it again. And again. And again.

That’s basically what this debate was. The Republican candidates — the last men standing, so to speak — covered pretty much the same ground. No wonder Republicans are underwhelmed, and even depressed. It’s getting late in the primary season, and they’re stuck with four guys who are each likely to lose their home state primaries.

What they didn’t talk about is more telling, in some ways than what they did talk about. WaPo’s Felicia Sonmez noted that the word “jobs” was uttered just ten times over the two hours this debate (Did I mention it’s the 20th?) lasted, and by just three of the candidates. (Ron Paul and Gingrich said it four times, Romney only twice, and Santorum never even mentioned jobs. )

Just for fun, I put a transcript of the debate through Wordle. Can you find “jobs” in the resulting word cloud?

Instead, they attacked each other (Romney rightly slammed Santorum on earmarks), attacked government (Gingrich called it a “disaster”), and brought it on home with the usual attacks on president Obama (his citizenship, his faith, etc.). This debate also included the same factual inaccuracies, logical errors and bogus statements we’ve heard before, plus a couple of new one

After the discussion turned towards social issues, Santorum pitched a kind of hissy fit that’s become standard for conservatives when journalists ask them about … well … things they’ve said in the media. And Santorum’s said some real doozies.

I’m not sure why Santorum’s feeling so sensitive — unless he’s unaware of just how successful his culture warrior candidacy has been, or afraid people will start to catch on. After all, some people declared Romney the winner of this debate, and credited him with beating Santorum in this round. But some noticed that Romney’s victory came at the price of positioning himself to the right of Rick Santorum.

As David Sirota pointed out, the danger of the endless Republican primary is that it pushes the whole debate further to the right. That, David says, is better for conservatives than it is for progressives. I think he’s right, in more ways than one.

Chris Christie was maybe half-right (uh-oh, I’m getting that weird brain-tingling feeling I got at CPAC again) when he said that Santorum’s social agenda was a distraction for conservatives. It is a distraction, I think, but not for social conservatives. Or not just for social conservatives.

After CPAC, I had some trouble reconciling the relationship between social conservatives and fiscal conservatives. But I’m starting to suspect, as one Republican columnist/blogger pointed out, it’s all the same culture war.

As I’ve argued before, the line between culture and economics is disappearing. Santorum has muddied this picture somewhat with rhetoric aimed at blue-collar voters to the effect that he doesn’t believe that if we just cut taxes, “everything will be fine.”

But such rhetoric, while interesting, is hollow; his economic agenda is full of tax cuts, and I see nothing in it that’s affirmatively different from Republican orthodoxy.

…Make no mistake. Such has been the animating spirit of the Tea Party all along. That’s what is fueling the Santorum “insurgency” right now. Culture war is the big picture. Fail to see it, you won’t fully understand the 2012 presidential campaign.

The same is true of all the GOP candidates’ economic agendas. They’re loaded with tax cuts, and will blow the deficit sky high.

The culture war rhetoric flowing from Romney, and the fiscal conservatism that is the “devil in the details” of Santorum’s economic agenda makes it clear who “won” this Republican debate, and the whole GOP primary thus far — the one percent. The billionaires backing the GOP’s super PAC’s may have placed their bets more wisely than anyone else knows.

In that sense, we also know who lost — the rest of us, the 99 percent.

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