Here are some scattered thoughts on the last Republican debate before Super Tuesday:
Mitt came out swinging with some serious misrepresentations of moderates and liberals. It's the kind of thing that may play well in the Republican primary, but it's the reason why independents and Democrats should watch these contests: to get an idea of the candidates' true characters. For instance, Romney bewailed the progressive sexual education movement in this country (one that had huge support among Americans even six years ago) as opposition to teaching kids about abstinence. In reality, very few people oppose schools mentioning abstinence and teaching about its benefits — even my public school in a very liberal town encouraged abstinence in its health classes. What everyone except the radical extremist right (well represented among Republican politicians) opposes is abstinence-only education: the idea that by pretending pre-marital sex doesn't exist, we'll improve health outcomes for young children.
Mitt also had some bewildering statements about religion, including the proposition that religious institutions should be able to unilaterally declare a position 'ministerial' and thus escape all labor law regulation. Even the Supreme Court didn't go that far in Hosanna-Tabor. And he characterized the recent kerfuffle over birth control coverage as among the most serious threats to religious liberty in this nation's history. Maybe Newt can give him a history lesson?
- Permoli v. Municipality No. 1 of New Orleans, regarding a law that forbade open casket funerals in Catholic churches.
- Minersville School District v. Gobitis, in which the Supreme Court held that people could be required to say the Pledge of Allegiance in violation of their religious beliefs.
- Kedroff v. St. Nicholas Cathedral, a case involving a New York law which purported to decide who controlled a religious organization.
- Welsh v. United States, a case in which the government tried to restrict conscientious objector status to those who hold specifically religious beliefs.
And those are just a few that I found flipping through the table of contents of my copy of First Amendment Stories (which I really should read some day). So we can talk about the religious liberty issues surrounding an insurance mandate to cover contraceptives. But let's not pretend that the luxury to even have that discussion represents anything other than a markedly better position for religious institutions than in the past.
Santorum brought some disguised religious crazy to the party. He (and the others somewhat, but mostly he) argued that there was a huge disadvantage to children born out of wedlock. That sounds innocuous enough: it's generally preferable for children to be raised in two parent households. But combine it with the Republican (especially Santorumite) opposition to marriage equality, and you're left with an opposition to same-sex couples raising children. Republicans need to decide what marriage is: is it a sacred religious institution which the government shouldn't be involved in, or is it a social apparatus that helps enable a solid economic foundation for raising a family? Their words belie their...other words.
Santorum also seems to think he's running in 2004. When criticized for a vote for NCLB, he defended his actions with "it was a top priority of President Bush. Politics is a team sport, folks." Granted, that's an attitude that's worked remarkably well for the Congressional Republicans in the last few years. I'm not sure there's ever been such a successful obstructionist team effort in the history of Congress. But it's not what Americans want out of politics. It's the exact opposite of the message that carried President Obama to a resounding victory in 2008, even if he hasn't lived up to that promise. For Santorum to proudly spew his support of old-style team politics is revealing about the kind of presidency he would run were he to be elected.
Newt had some revealing statements when he moved past the canned 20-second bits. For instance, he spent some time talking about how we live in an "era of total warfare" in which "we're all more at risk than we ever have been." We need to take national security risks seriously, but we can't let them consume us the way they did in the fall of 2001 and the years following. That type of rhetoric leads to precisely the state of fear and the attitude towards war that erodes — no, destroys — our civil liberties.
Congressman Paul had a strong debate overall, but he did have a moment that betrayed the holes in the radical "free"-market ideology he espouses. In the midst of talking about how it's the role of government to "support" contracts, not to "regulate" them, he expressed support for the bankruptcy system. That's reasonable enough, since there's no one crazy enough to suggest that we should do away with bankruptcy protections.
But bankruptcy is the epitome of government regulation of (and interference with) contracts. Government power is used to sever the obligatory power of contracts, and people don't get what they originally contracted to get. Is there a free market solution? Of course. Theoretically speaking, if we didn't have bankruptcy law we'd have a more "efficient" allocation of debt responsibilities. People could negotiate quasi-bankruptcy provisions into all their contracts. They'd get the protections that were worth it to them given the costs.
But bankruptcy law, like so much of the rest of important government regulation of the "free"-market system, recognizes an important fact: the "free" market, when left to its own devices, does bad things. Individuals wouldn't be able to understand or negotiate meaningful bankruptcy protections with large corporations. Cognitive biases would lead people to think they needed less protection than they actually did. There wouldn't be an effective way to balance the interests of all of an individual's (or a business's) creditors, because there wouldn't be a good way for them to organize. And the inevitable end result is a perpetual lower class stuck in debt-slavery because there's no legal way to get out from under constantly mounting debt.
Not an encouraging night for any, like me, who were hoping that the looming general election would encourage some of the demagoguing candidates to shift center. We may be in for 7 more months of the kind of ridiculously skewed political discourse that only America can have.