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The GOP's Crackpot Agenda

The top Republican candidates share a single, radical vision: to trash the environment, shred the safety net and aid the rich.

December 7, 2011 8:05 AM ET

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

By all rights, 2012 ought to be a cakewalk for the GOP. Unemployment is pandemic. Riot police are confronting protesters in public squares and on college campuses. In an epic fail of foresight, the Democratic convention will be held in one of the world's banking centers, Charlotte, North Carolina – setting the stage for violent clashes not seen since the streets of Chicago, 1968. "I hope they keep this up," gloated Grover Norquist, one of the Republican Party's most influential strategists. "Hippies elected Nixon. Occupy Wall Street will beat Obama."

But don't go writing the president's political obituary just yet: He may wind up being resurrected by the GOP itself. The Republican Party – dominated by hardliners still cocky after the electoral sweep of 2010 – has backed its entire slate of candidates into far-right corners on everything from the environment and immigration to taxation and economic austerity. Whether the GOP opts for Mitt Romney or an "anti-Mitt" is almost entirely beside the point. On the major policy issues of the day, there's barely a ray of sunshine between any of the viable Republicans, not counting those who have committed the sin of libertarianism (Ron Paul) or moderation (Jon Huntsman). No matter who winds up with the nomination, it appears, Obama will face a candidate to the right of Barry Goldwater.

Take it from one of the most divisive figures in the history of GOP presidential politics: "Those people in the Republican primary have got to lay off," the televangelist Pat Robertson warned recently. "They're forcing their leaders, the front-runners, into positions that will mean they lose the general election." Robertson knows fringe politics: In 1988, he ran for president on a platform that included abolishing the Department of Education and adopting a constitutional amendment to prohibit deficit spending. At the time, Robertson was dismissed as an unelectable candidate of the far right. Today, he would be somewhere to the left of Texas governor Rick Perry. And that way lies ruin: "You'll appeal to the narrow base, and they'll applaud the daylights out of what you're saying," Robertson cautioned. "And then you hit the general election and they say, 'No way!' They've got to stop this!"

But Republican candidates show no signs of moderating their positions. In fact, with the first primary contests rapidly approaching, all of the top contenders are tripping over themselves in a race to the far right. Herman Cain's 9-9-9 plan kicked off a flat-tax bidding war: Perry is calling for an even more regressive rate of 20 percent, while Newt Gingrich advocates a flat tax of just 15 percent. Even Mitt Romney – who once blasted such proposals for enriching "fat cats" – now exclaims, "I love a flat tax!" The candidates have also lined up behind a host of other extremist positions: waging war with Iran, slashing or privatizing benefits like Social Security, extending constitutional rights to zygotes, eliminating restrictions on Big Oil and other deadly polluters, and freeing up Wall Street to return to the lawlessness that buzzsawed the global economy. Individual candidates have embellished this partywide radicalism with wingnuttery all their own: Gingrich calls child labor laws "truly stupid," Perry likens Social Security to "a bad disease," and Romney wants to privatize unemployment insurance.

To many GOP stalwarts, conditions today seem ripe for a repeat, not of the 1968 election of Richard Nixon, but of the setback the party experienced four years earlier, when embattled incumbent Lyndon Johnson won re-election in a landslide over Republican hardliner Goldwater. "I can't imagine that we expect – even with the economic situation the way it is – anything but a Goldwater-like drubbing if we persist with these guys," says Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, who served as chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell. "Even Romney is in many ways unelectable. He's been a hardliner during the primary on key issues – and then he's going to do this dance where he suddenly shifts to the middle and is a centrist in the general election? He can do that – but Obama will trounce him."

PROMOTE DIRTY JOBS

Nowhere is the GOP's lock-step approach to governance more in evidence than on the question of employment. At a moment when 25 million Americans lack full-time jobs, this is obviously going to be the central issue of the 2012 election. Yet the Republican candidates all have the same jobs plan: to put the unemployed to work on behalf of big polluters.

Take the plan proposed by Rick Perry, which calls for boosting employment through "increased domestic energy production" – including renewable power. But every one of the 1.2 million jobs that Perry claims his plan would create involves the extraction of climate-polluting fossil fuels. There are 20,000 jobs from building the Keystone XL pipeline to burn more of Canada's tar sands, 100,000 from oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, 240,000 from drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and off the Carolinas, and 500,000 from "onshore oil and gas development" in the West.

With minor variations, this is the same jobs plan put forth by every GOP candidate. The only true disagreement among them is just how many dirty-energy jobs can be created by allowing Big Oil and other polluters to pillage America's landscape and shorelines. Gingrich pegs it at 1.1 million jobs. Michele Bachmann says it's 1.4 million. Romney, whose plan is predicated on the return to the kind of fast-track permitting that precipitated the BP disaster in the Gulf, promises 1.6 million jobs – including 1.2 million from offshore drilling alone. "The United States is blessed with a cornucopia of carbon-based energy resources," Romney writes in his plan. "We do not even know the extent of our blessings."

TRASH THE ENVIRONMENT

To clear the way for the orgy of drilling, mining and fracking the GOP candidates have proposed, it's first necessary to gut the Environmental Protection Agency, which has been authorized by the Supreme Court to curb climate pollution. Many of the top Republican contenders, in fact, once sounded the alarm on climate change; today, they scoff at its very existence.

In 2008, for example, Gingrich filmed a commercial for Al Gore's Alliance for Climate Protection with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. In the spot, Gingrich gazed into Pelosi's eyes before looking into the camera and declaring, "We do agree: Our country must take action to address climate change." Gingrich vowed to "strongly support" mandatory caps on carbon pollution. But now that the likes of Peabody Energy have pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into his lobbying coffers, Gingrich is singing the polluters' tune. In November, he said he no longer believes climate change is real: "I actually don't know whether global warming is occurring."

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