Earlier this week a Great Falls Tribune reporter found something startling in his inbox: a shockingly racist and misogynistic email forwarded from the most powerful federal judge in Montana, which "joked" that the president of the United States was the product of his mother having sex with a dog. The story soon became national news, with groups like ours calling on Judge Richard Cebull to resign. Cebull quickly apologized to the president and submitted himself to a formal ethics review, somewhat quelling the story. But the story is about more than one judge doing something wildly inappropriate and deeply disturbing. It's about a conservative movement in which the bile and animosity directed at the president -- and even his family -- are so poisonous that even someone who should know better easily confuses political criticism and sick personal attack. Come on: going after the president's late mother? Attempting to explain his email forward, Judge Cebull told the reporter, John S. Adams,
The only reason I can explain it to you is I am not a fan of our president, but this goes beyond not being a fan. I didn't send it as racist, although that's what it is. Is sent it out because it's anti-Obama.
Judge Cebull is hardly alone in using the old "I'm not racist, but..." line. In fact, his email was the result of an entire movement built on "I'm not racist, but..." logic that equates disagreement with and dislike of the president with broad-based, racially charged smears. These smears, tacitly embraced by the GOP establishment, are more than personal shots at the president -- they're attacks on the millions of Americans who make up our growing and changing country. Mainstream conservatives have genuine objections to President Obama's priorities and policies. But since he started running for president, a parallel movement has sprung up trying to paint Obama as an outsider and an imposter -- in unmistakably racially charged terms. Too often, the two movements have intersected. The effort to paint Obama as a threatening foreigner sprung up around the right-wing fringe in the run-up to the 2008 election with the typically muddled conspiracy theory that painted him as both a secret Muslim and a member of an America-hating church. They soon coalesced in the birther movement, which even today is championed by a strong coalition of state legislators and a certain bombastic Arizona sheriff. But the birther movement, the "secret Muslim" meme and the idea that the president of the United States somehow hates his own country are no longer confined to the less visible right-wing fringe. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, until recently a frontrunner in the GOP presidential race, continually hammers on the president's otherness, most notably criticizing his "Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior." Rick Santorum flatly claims that Obama does not have the Christian faith that he professes, and eagerly courted the endorsement of birther leader Sheriff Joe Arpaio. And before they dropped out, Rick Perry and Herman Cain couldn't resist flirting with birtherism. But perhaps more than either of these fringe-candidates-turned-frontrunners, Mitt Romney has been catering to the strain of conservatism that deliberately confuses policy disagreements with racially-charged personal animosity. Romney went in front of TV cameras to smilingly accept the endorsement of Donald Trump, whose own failed presidential campaign was based on demanding the president's readily available birth certificate. And Gov. Romney continually attacks Obama -- falsely -- for going around the world "apologizing for America." Judge Cebull needs to take responsibility for his own actions. And if the GOP has any aspirations of providing real leadership to this country, it needs to jettison the deeply personal vitriol being direct against Barack Obama and start talking about real issues. When a federal judge has seen so much racially-charged propaganda against the president of the United States that he can claim not to know the difference between genuine disagreement and offensive personal smears, something in our discourse has gone terribly awry.
Former Senator Rick Santorum formally launched his bid for the White House today. Given that Santorum's last run for reelection resulted in a crushing 17-point defeat, and given that his poll numbers are still in the low single digits in spite of his having been running a de facto campaign for the past year and a half, it would seem that Santorum's race is mostly a sign of the self-deceiving wishful thinking that overtakes people who believe they are meant to be president -- or in Santorum's case, who believe God truly wants them to be president.
Indeed, Santorum's campaign has already won him enough mockery that Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Tony Norman recently dubbed him "the Rodney Dangerfield of American politics," saying he gets "as little respect as support."
Part of Santorum's problem is simply that he comes across to many people as annoyingly self-righteous. Norman writes, "His biggest problem is that he reminds everyone, including Republicans, of the annoying kid in Sunday school who memorizes all 66 books of the Bible so he can recite them in reverse order for the old ladies at church." In 2009, as Santorum's plans to run were becoming more apparent, journalist Matthew Cooper wrote, "My favorite Santorum anecdote actually comes from Bob Kerrey. After Santorum denounced Sen. Mark Hatfield, the Oregon Republican, for his opposition to the balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, the Nebraska Democrat was asked what he thought. 'Santorum, that's Latin for a--hole.'"
Fans on the Far Right
In spite of Santorum's huge negatives, he has his cheerleaders among right-wing activists and pundits who think he could still emerge from the unimpressive GOP pack.
Last month, right-wing Catholic activist Keith Fournier published a column that was essentially a mash note, declaring Santorum the winner of the South Carolina debate, calling his demeanor "Kennedy-esque," and gushing that Santorum's "courage to lead" is "what this Nation needs."
In February, columnist George Will praised Santorum as a "relentless ethicist" and said the GOP needs someone who can energize social conservatives who "are feeling neglected and are looking for someone like Santorum." To those who thought his loss would make him unelectable, Will asks, "Well, was Richard Nixon defunct after losing the California gubernatorial race in 1962?" I wonder if Santorum welcomed that comparison.
In January, when Santorum was criticized for slamming Obama's support for abortion in racial terms -- saying, "I find it almost remarkable for a black man to say 'now we are going to decide who are people and who are not people'" -- The National Review's Kathryn Jean Lopez praised Santorum for raising the issue of abortion in the black community.
Love him or hate him, let's be clear about Rick Santorum. He doesn't hold back. He doesn't mince words and conservative Christians and Catholics find this quality to be his best attribute. If and when he dives into the 2012 GOP mosh pit, he's going to be the guy that won't hold back and in the process he'll put some of these other 2012 contenders on the spot by bringing up issues that everybody whispers about but rarely talks about in public.
Hard Right Record
Santorum's far-right rhetoric and policy positions are what keep hope alive among some of his supporters. He is campaigning as a hard-right candidate who can appeal to every stripe of conservative. And he certainly has the record to back up that claim.
Speaking to a Tea Party gathering in February, Santorum embraced an extreme view of the constitutional separation of powers and the role of the federal judiciary, reportedly saying that Congress has the power and the right to declare what is constitutional or not. He said Congress has the power to disband the federal courts and that "I would sign a bill tomorrow to eliminate the 9th Circuit [Court of Appeals]. That court is rogue. It's a pox on the western part of our country." He told the Conservative Political Action Conference in February that "America belongs to God" and the judiciary has no right to "redefine" life or marriage.
He's a fierce critic of federal health care reform legislation, saying it will "destroy the country," portraying it as the equivalent of drug dealing and telling a group of Christians that getting hooked on health care would make them "less than what God created you to be." He has said that "if Obamacare is actually implemented," then "America as we know it will be no more."
Today, after he announced his candidacy, Santorum declared that American troops at D-Day had been fighting for Rep. Paul Ryan's plan to effectively end Medicare. "Those Americans risked everything so they could make that decision on their health care plan," he said.
He pushes the Tea Party's small-government ideology, saying the problems in the housing industry will be resolved by "getting regulators to back off" and letting the markets work their magic. Similarly, he says the answer to creating jobs is to get rid of all the government intervention that he believes is strangling businesses -- health care reform, financial regulation, the Environmental Protection Agency, and more.
In a bid to salvage his sinking 2006 reelection campaign, Santorum turned to bashing immigration reform and "amnesty" for illegal immigrants.
Santorum has a social issues record to make the Religious Right cheer. He made a name for himself on the national scene with his attacks on gay rights, most notably in a 2003 interview comparing gay relationships with "man-on-dog" sex. (In the same interview he argued that the Constitution does not protect a right to privacy. Recently he said that allowing loving gay couples to adopt children is "trying to defy nature" and should be illegal, as should gay marriage. He says that the Obama administration's decision to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act in federal court meant that the "free exercise of religion will be eviscerated."
Although, while in the Senate, Santorum supported the occasional pro-choice Republican, he calls Roe v. Wade a "monstrosity" and supports criminalization of abortion, which he says is the reason Social Security is in trouble. He backs right-wing attacks on funding for Planned Parenthood's family planning services, actively taking part in the right-wing propaganda campaign against Planned Parenthood. Santorum has slammed the Griswold decision, in which the Supreme Court recognized a constitutional right to privacy and overturned a state ban on contraception, as a "constitutional wrecking ball."
Santorum gave Religious Right activists a powerful tool for pushing religion into public school classrooms when he sponsored an amendment to the "No Child Left Behind" law that encouraged the teaching of intelligent design in science classes. The amendment, written in part by the creationist Discovery Institute, became a force behind creationists' bogus "teach the controversy" strategy. Santorum wrote in 2002 that "Intelligent Design is a legitimate scientific theory that should be taught in science classes." Scientists and courts disagree.
Santorum has been a severe critic of Islam from his perch at the "America's Enemies" program at the right-wing Ethics and Public Policy Center. He says Islam is incompatible with western civilization because Shariah is both a civil code and a religious code. But he also says of Christians that "it is our obligation" to make civil law in America "comport with God's laws."
Santorum has tried to get attention to his desire to be the second Catholic president by slamming the first, saying he was "appalled" by John F. Kennedy's "radical" support for the separation of church and state - a centerpiece of Kennedy's vision of America. Speaking of the Kennedys, Santorum criticized church officials for praising former senator Ted Kennedy at his funeral, saying there was "no excuse" for it and arguing that it was harmful to send the message that it was okay for Catholic politicians to dissent from church teachings.
Although Santorum has been quick to slam progressive Catholics for not hewing closely enough to the doctrine of Church hierarchy, he's shown no compunction in casting aside Church teaching when it conflicts with his extreme ideology, as he did when repeatedly supporting "enhanced interrogation" techniques like waterboarding -- which has been clearly labeled "torture" and "an intrinsic evil" by the Catholic Church.
Santorum blamed the church's sex abuse scandal on the liberal political culture of Boston:
Priests, like all of us, are affected by culture. When the culture is sick, every element in it becomes infected. While it is no excuse for this scandal, it is no surprise that Boston, a seat of academic, political and cultural liberalism in America, lies at the center of the storm.
Obama as Enemy
At least one columnist has suggested that Santorum is angling for a VP spot, where he would serve as the GOP campaign's attack dog. He has repeatedly demonstrated his willingness to savage President Obama in the most extreme terms. Obama he says, does not have "a love of this country and an understanding of the basic values and wants and desires of its people." If Obama is reelected, he says, "Democracy and freedom will disappear." Santorum says Obama's talk about his faith is "phony" because the president, like other liberal Christians, has "abandoned Christendom" and has no "right to claim it." In fact, he says, Obama and "the left" are actively seeking to "destroy the family and destroy the Church" because that is the only way they can "be successful in getting socialism to be accepted in this country and that's what their objective is." During the 2008 campaign, Santorum was declared one of Keith Olbermann's "Worst Persons in the World" for continuing to spread the right-wing lie that Obama "won't wear the American flag pin."
When President Obama criticized cable news, Santorum ridiculously portrayed it as a prelude to tyrannical censorship: "This reminds me of what Hugo Chavez is doing down in Venezuela, trying to shut down the voice of opposition in the media." He says Obama "doesn't believe in the foundational principles that made this country great, which is limited government and free people." He said his own grandfather came from fascist Italy to a country that would allow him to be free: "That's the kind of change we need in Washington, DC."
In an April 28, 2011 foreign policy speech at the National Press Club, Santorum declared that "unlike President Obama I believe we were a great country even before the Great Society Programs of the 1960s." He went on to say, "Freedom has been our watchword, our anchor and our moral guide for nearly every cause both here and abroad. But today we have lost this mission because our president doesn't believe in it." After another (now-GOP-requisite) slam on Obama for not believing in American exceptionalism, Santorum slammed Obama for not doing more to support protesters in Iran: "We sided with evil because our president believes our enemies are legitimately aggrieved and thus we have no standing to intervene." Last year Santorum reportedly told a Pennsylvania crowd "that Obama seeks to make the United States like Europe, a continent whose citizens have turned their backs on faith and grown selfish, and where governments bestow rights upon the citizenry, rather than a place where all are born with God-given rights."
Violating Reagan's 11th Commandment
One reason Santorum might not be very popular in spite of his reliably right-wing record is that he is a habitual violator of Ronald Reagan's 11th Commandment. Santorum seems quite happy to speak ill of his fellow Republicans. He has slammed Romney as "Obama's running mate" (a reference to Romney's support for health care reform in Massachusetts) and criticized Newt Gingrich for criticizing Paul Ryan.
During the 2008 campaign, he repeatedly criticized John McCain. After pledging that he would never support McCain, he tepidly endorsed him after Sarah Palin joined the ticket. Santorum even wrote a snide column after McCain's loss predicting (wrongly) that McCain would seek historical redemption by leading the charge in Congress to help Obama move his agenda.
One of Santorum's less-successful slams on a fellow Republican came when he criticized Sarah Palin for not attending the Conservative Political Action Conference and suggested that her duties as a mom to five kids may have made her too busy. Palin in turn suggested that Santorum might be a "knuckle-dragging Neanderthal."
Santorum sees politics in spiritual terms. He says that government gets bigger and more intrusive without a "moral consensus" to guide society. In 2008 he told faculty and students at right-wing Ave Maria University, "This is not a political war, it is not a cultural war; it's a spiritual war." Santorum suggested that his opponents were agents of Satan: "The Father of Lies has his sights on what you would think the Father of Lies would have his sights on -- a good, decent, powerful, influential country: the United States of America." He warned the students that if they signed up for God's army, "you'll be ridiculed and you'll lose most if not every one of your battles. But you know who's going to win in the end, so you warrior on happily."
The Campaign Limps Along
Last spring, Santorum said he saw "an opening for someone who can unite the various primary factions -- economic libertarians, party establishment types and cultural conservatives," according to CBS News' Marc Ambinder. But after more than a year of campaigning, Santorum is polling at just two percent among Republicans.
Santorum is unfazed, saying that his poor showing in national polls is only because he's focusing on important early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, where he won a GOP straw poll earlier this year. Though to keep that win in perspective, Santorum was the only candidate to show up to the GOP dinner and took 150 votes out of the 408 cast.
Cross posted on The Huffington Post
It's hard to predict what could happen in the GOP primary, but at this point, Santorum's barely-limping-along campaign seems in need of divine intervention.
After more than a dozen years out of office, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich jumped into the GOP presidential campaign this week, rolling out his candidacy via social media and a friendly interview with Fox News Channel's Sean Hannity. Gingrich thinks he's just what is needed to save America from itself and its flirtation with Barack Obama and the rest of the evil of what he calls the "secular-socialist machine."
Much of the media attention of Gingrich's candidacy has centered around his role in the 1995 government shutdown, which Gingrich alone seems to think was a great success for the GOP, and his more recent urging of congressional Republicans not to fear a repeat. The implication seems to be that if you're the kind of voter who wants a more combative conservative willing to take down the federal government in order to bring down deficits, Newt may be your guy. But that kind of discussion -- and the crazily early poll-watching "which tier is he in?" stories -- miss something more important. Let's remind ourselves what kind of person Newt Gingrich is, and what kind of impact he has had on our public life.
Gingrich hasn't exactly been in hiding. In fact, he is at the center of his own machine, a 24/7 festival of self-promotion that includes an emailed "Newt and Callista Weekly Recap" courtesy of Gingrich Productions. If self-promotion were the top trait Americans were looking for in a president, Gingrich would be a shoo-in. But the job requires a bit more than that. People For the American Way's Right Wing Watch, Mother Jones and Media Matters have already posted compilations of Newtonian 'wisdom' from a long and dishonorable career. Once you start to consider characteristics like honesty and integrity, it becomes clear that Gingrich is unfit to lead our country.
The Newt McCarthyism
Gingrich is an enthusiastic participant in the right wing's divisive and destructive McCarthyism, portraying his political opponents as enemies of America's very existence. In To Save America, Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine, he warns, "America as we know it is now facing a mortal threat... The secular-socialist machine represents as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union once did... It's up to those of us who love our country to save America from the destructive, irreversible transformation that the Left have in store for us." In Real Change: The Fight for America's Future, he claims that the Obama administration (that would be the Faith-Based Initiative-continuing, National Prayer Day-celebrating, Easter Breakfast-sponsoring Obama administration) "has shown an unprecedented hostility to Christianity." He promotes ridiculous Religious Right claims about religious persecution in America, saying that Christians are threatened by "gay and secular fascism."
Gingrich spoke this spring at the Texas church led by John Hagee, whose support proved too controversial for John McCain in 2008. Newt combined two of his favorite threats, secularists and Islamists, into one memorable, if intellectually incoherent, sentence, declaring that he feared that his grandchildren could grow up "in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American." He told the Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody, "In a sense, our Judeo-Christian civilization is under attack from two fronts. On one front, you have a secular, atheist, elitism. And on the other front, you have radical Islamists. And both groups would like to eliminate our civilization if they could. For different reasons, but with equal passion."
Newt is also placing himself at the forefront of the concerted conservative campaign to turn "American exceptionalism" into an attack on the patriotism of their political opponents. Candidates like Sen. Marco Rubio made American exceptionalism into a campaign theme in 2010, and hope to continue to smear Democrats as unbelievers in America's divinely-blessed founding and mission in the world. Gingrich has teamed up with Citizens United's David Bossie for a new "documentary" on American exceptionalism, A City Upon a Hill, The Spirit of American Exceptionalism, which features, among others, Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, Allen West, Andrew Breitbart and Phyllis Schlafly.
Gingrich, an old hand at politics-by-smear, is responsible for much of the venomous state of our politics. In the mid-1990s, his GOPAC distributed to Republican lawmakers a memo titled "Language: a Key Mechanism of Control." The memo urged Republicans to use a set of denigrating words to describe their opponents and the Democratic Party: "decay, failure (fail) collapse(ing) deeper, crisis, urgent(cy), destructive, destroy, sick, pathetic, lie, liberal, they/them, unionized bureaucracy, 'compassion' is not enough, betray, consequences, limit(s), shallow, traitors, sensationalists, endanger, coercion, hypocricy, radical, threaten, devour, waste, corruption, incompetent, permissive attitude, destructive, impose, self-serving, greed, ideological, insecure, anti-(issue): flag, family, child, jobs; pessimistic, excuses, intolerant, stagnation, welfare, corrupt, selfish, insensitive, status quo, mandate(s) taxes, spend (ing) shame, disgrace, punish (poor...) bizarre, cynicism, cheat, steal, abuse of power, machine, bosses, obsolete, criminal rights, red tape, patronage."
Religious Liberty: Hypocrisy and Bad History
Gingrich, like other Religious Right political figures, postures as a defender of Americans' religious liberty against a deeply hostile elite, the "secular-socialist machine." Yet he joined with gusto the opponents of the proposed Park51 Islamic community center in Manhattan, which right-wing activists vilified as the "Ground Zero Mosque," saying, "There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia." In his book, Rediscovering God in America, Gingrich declared, "A steadfast commitment to religious freedom is the very cornerstone of American liberty." Regarding the Islamic center in New York, he said, "No mosque. No self-deception. No surrender."
Gingrich, like other Religious Right leaders, justifies his attacks on Islam by suggesting that it is not really a religion, saying radical Islam "is a comprehensive political, economic, and religious movement that seeks to impose sharia -- Islamic law -- upon all aspects of global society... Radical Islamists see politics and religion as inseparable in a way it is difficult for Americans to understand. Radical Islamists assert sharia's supremacy over the freely legislated laws and values of the countries they live in and see it as their sacred duty to achieve this totalitarian supremacy in practice." Yet while Gingrich decries radical Islamists' goal of achieving "totalitarian supremacy," one of his own organizations, Renewing American Leadership, is run by an advocate of the 7 Mountains Mandate, a dominionist theology that argues that Christians are meant to control the levers of power in every aspect of government and society.
Gingrich is ideologically joined at the hip to "Christian nation" pseudo-historian David Barton. In Barton's worldview, the First Amendment is not about protecting religious pluralism, but was only meant to keep the federal government from siding with one group of Christians over another. Barton believes the First Amendment should not apply at all to the states, but that states should be free to pose religious tests for office, and local religious majorities should be free to use public schools for proselytizing prayer. On Barton's radio show, Gingrich promised that if he ran, he would be calling on Barton for help, presumably the way Barton helped turn out evangelical voters for the Republican Party during George W. Bush's reelection campaign. It seems to be a mutual admiration society. When Barton and other right-wing activists were pushing for changes in Texas textbooks, they urged that Cesar Chavez and Thurgood Marshall be dropped, but that Newt be added.
Gingrich shares Barton's view of the federal courts as evil usurpers of the founding fathers' religious intentions. "There is no attack on American culture more destructive and more historically dishonest than the secular Left's relentless effort to drive God out of America's public square," Gingrich wrote in Rediscovering God in America. In a recent speech to the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, Gingrich said the courts have been "especially powerful engines of coerced secularization," and that "From the 1962 school prayer decision on, there has been a decisive break with the essentially religious nature of historic American civilization." While in Congress, Gingrich promoted the Religious Right's false claims that courts had somehow banned students from praying, and repeatedly supported efforts to pass a constitutional amendment to return organized prayer to public schools.
Politics over Principle
In addition to intellectual arrogance, a shameless lack of principle may be Gingrich's most identifying characteristic. When the popular uprisings in the Middle East spread to Libya, Gingrich denounced President Obama for not immediately imposing a no-fly zone: "We don't need to have the United Nations. All we have to say is that we think that slaughtering your own citizens is unacceptable and that we're intervening." Less than two weeks later, when the U.S. joined other nations in imposing a no-fly zone, Gingrich attacked Obama, saying "I would not have intervened" and declaring that "it is impossible to make sense of the standard for intervention in Libya except opportunism and news media publicity." Newt clearly knows a thing or two about opportunism and publicity-seeking; getting some coverage for an attack on Obama was clearly more important to him than questions of U.S. policy in Libya.
For all the far-right's charges that President Obama harbors anti-democratic tendencies -- Gingrich vowed to Hannity that he would abolish all the White House "czar" positions by executive order -- Gingrich's own behavior has made it clear that he sees himself as so superior to others, such an essential treasure for the nation, that the rules he would apply to others should not apply to him. When his second wife asked Newt how he could give a speech about the importance of family values just days after he admitted that he was having an affair, he reportedly told her, "It doesn't matter what I do. People need to hear what I have to say. There's no one else who can say what I can say. It doesn't matter what I live." That is a breathtaking level of hubris, even by presidential candidate standards. And when the CBN's Brody lobbed him the fluffiest of softballs by asking him to talk about his affairs in the context of his experience of God's forgiveness, Newt blew it by blaming his cheating on his love of country: "There's no question at times of my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate."
So Right and So Wrong
Gingrich's policy positions are pretty much standard fare in today's far-right Republican Party, including anti-worker, pro-corporate economic policies and support for criminalizing abortion. He has demonstrated his new-found commitment to the sacred nature of marriage by trying to buy the support of Religious Right activists in presidentially important Iowa, where he funneled about $200,000 into an unfortunately successful campaign to punish and purge three state Supreme Court justices who had voted to end marriage discrimination against same-sex couples in the state.
America is grappling with a set of deeply serious challenges at home and abroad. Americans would benefit from a substantive discussion of those problems and the policy choices that face them. What they're most likely to get from Newt Gingrich is toxic McCarthyism, petty and unprincipled partisanship, and preening self-promotion. Thanks but no thanks.
Cross posted on The Huffington Post