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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Far Afield

Like a lot of political observers, I watched last night’s Fox News/Washington Examiner candidates’ debate mainly with an eye to its impact on the Republican presidential nominating contest (and even more specifically, tomorrow’s Iowa State GOP Straw Poll). By that standard, it made sense to focus on Ron Paul’s outlier views on foreign policy, the dynamics of the Pawlenty/Bachmann tussle, Mitt Romney’s continued ability to avoid conservative flak, and even Rick Santorum’s effort to lift himself past Herman Cain into the hanging-on-by-a-fingernail tier of the field.
But it’s worth paying regular attention to how the entire field is positioning itself for a general election. And by that standard, here are some moments from last night that look different from a different point of view:
1) Tim Pawlenty got good reviews for his little joke about offering to cook dinner or mow the lawn for anyone who could “find” the president’s plans for “reforming” Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. That’s quite a knee-slapper for conservative activists. But significant majorities of the electorate at large don’t want these programs to be “reformed” in any respect other than making their benefits more, not less, adequate (which is obviously not what any Republican in the country is talking about).
2) The candidates jockeyed for the anti-choice vote, with Santorum and Pawlenty supporting a ban on abortions even in the case of rape and incest, and Bachmann going so far as to defend a vote for a tax increase in the Minnesota legislature because it was bundled with an anti-abortion measure. Every time Republican candidates talk about this subject, it reinforces the reality that every one of them wants to eliminate the right to choose in all but a tiny percentage of situations.
3) Similarly, Mitt Romney solidified his conservative credentials by defending a federal constitutional ban on same-sex marriages. Nobody on the stage (even the heretic Jon Huntsman, who favors civil unions) was willing to say same-sex marriage is not a problem requiring some sort of immediate action. This is a position where public opinion is moving very rapidly in the opposite direction from the GOP.
4) Michele Bachmann responded to a question about her past statements of wifely “submission” to her husband with some serious prevarication about the meaning of the word “submit.” She probably won’t get away with brushing it off in the future. But more importantly, this whole line of discussion sounds like crazy-talk to the majority of Americans who do not subscribe to strict conservative evangelical views.
And most of all:
5) The defining moment of the debate was when every single candidate raised a hand in opposition to a hypothetical deficit reduction deal composed of a 10-1 ratio of spending cuts to tax increases. As Ezra Klein pointed out today, this is a position virtually guaranteed to thwart the GOP’s own deficit reduction goals of securing “entitlement reform” and avoiding large defense cuts. It’s also wildly at variance with public opinion favoring bipartisan compromise and a “balanced” approach that includes tax as well as spending measures.
I’m sure I’ve missed some other moments in the debate that illustrated how far afield this field has traveled from mainstream public opinion in its hunger and thirst for “base” support. This dynamic is likely to become even more intense as actual ballots begin to be cast in the nominating process.

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