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."
Romney's flip-flop was even swifter. In June, at the start of his campaign, he declared, "I believe that humans contribute" to warming through "our emissions of greenhouse gases." By October, he had fully embraced climate denial, insisting that "we don't know what's causing climate change." His jobs plan, meanwhile, casts the industries driving the climate crisis as victims of "the Obama administration's war on carbon dioxide." Like every other top Republican in the race, Romney also insists that the EPA be effectively barred from enforcing the Clean Air Act, calling the hallmark environmental legislation "outdated" and insisting that it must be "streamlined" to benefit coal plants by "removing carbon dioxide from its purview."
To date, Romney has received $300,000 in oil and gas contributions. That's a pittance in comparison to Perry, who has pocketed $740,000 from the same industries. Perry is a shameless climate denier who maintains – against all evidence – that "we have been experiencing a global cooling trend" and that climate change is "all one contrived phony mess" cooked up by Gore, that "false prophet of a secular carbon cult." The Texas governor insists that all new rules designed to curb the deadly emissions of coal plants or the toxic chemicals used in the fracking of natural gas should be put on hold.
Other GOP candidates go even further. Bachmann insists that under her presidency, the EPA will have its "doors locked and lights turned off." Gingrich blasts the agency – created by Richard Nixon – as "a tool of ideologues to push an anti-jobs agenda." Outdoing them all, Cain advocates that the EPA be overhauled by a commission staffed by "the people closest to the problem" – the "problem," in his view, being federal curbs on pollution, and the "people" being big-energy CEOs. "If you've been abused by the EPA like Shell Oil," Cain said this fall, "I'm going to ask the CEO of Shell Oil would he like to be on this commission, and give me some recommendations."
The leading GOP candidates also want to roll back new regulations introduced by the Obama administration to prevent industrial boilers, cement plants and coal smokestacks from pumping poisons into the atmosphere that cause tens of thousands of premature deaths each year. Even Republican veterans are appalled by such a blatant rejection of the party's storied history of conservation, dating back to Teddy Roosevelt. "These rules are grounded in the best available science," noted William Reilly, who served as EPA chief under George H.W. Bush. "But for some of the most prominent leaders of the Republican Party, science has left the building."
So extreme is the agenda of the GOP candidates, in fact, that it even trashes the laissez-faire legacy of Goldwater. "While I am a great believer in the free-enterprise system," the Arizona senator said in 1970, "I am an even stronger believer in the right of our people to live in a clean, pollution-free environment."
UNLEASH WALL STREET
The GOP candidates are not just seeking to roll back regulations on Big Carbon – they also want to gut a wide range of safeguards designed to protect consumers and workers. Perry has called for a "moratorium" on all pending regulations. Bachmann wants an end to "this red-tape rampage." Romney, in a fit of technocratic nonsense, is calling for a cap on regulatory costs, whereby the economic impact of any new regulation must be offset by repealing an established rule. Under his bizarre plan, a Romney administration might pay for new rules against contaminated meat by eliminating the current ban on lead paint in children's toys.
Above all, the GOP candidates are unanimous in their desire to kill the new post-crash rules crafted to end reckless speculation by big banks and Wall Street firms. Gingrich has gone so far as to call for the Democratic authors of the law, Chris Dodd and Barney Frank, to be jailed for "killing small banks, crippling small businesses, driving down the value of housing and creating corrupting Washington controls over the biggest banks." Repeal of Dodd-Frank would allow Wall Street firms like Goldman Sachs to return to the days of secretly trading trillions in derivatives contracts and betting against their own clients. It would also kill off the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the agency set up by Elizabeth Warren to prevent average Americans from being suckered into subprime mortgages and credit cards with usurious interest rates.
When the GOP candidates talk about these essential curbs on the abuses of big banks, it's as though they live in an alternate universe – one where Wall Street never drove the world's economy off a cliff. Cain insists that Dodd-Frank "does little to shield Main Street from the alleged risks of Wall Street," while Perry adds that the law should be replaced by "market-oriented" measures – but only if such controls should prove "necessary." The GOP front-runners are so committed to a Wall Street free-for-all that they even want to gut Sarbanes-Oxley, the accounting reforms passed under George W. Bush to bar corporate America from the kinds of bookkeeping fraud pioneered by Tyco, WorldCom and Enron.
Such deregulatory radicalism puts the GOP candidates at direct odds with Paul Volcker, the former chair of the Federal Reserve who helped steer the nation out of a crippling recession during the Reagan administration. Volcker, too, is critical of Dodd-Frank – but he believes the law doesn't go far enough. "I think Dodd-Frank was close to as good as we could get," Volcker said this fall. "But it's nowhere near what we need."
DESTROY THE SAFETY NET
The Republican candidates are uniformly committed to repealing the president's health care reform – what Perry, with characteristic subtlety, calls a "man-made disaster of epic proportions." Under the GOP plans, nearly 1 million young adults would once again be denied coverage, seniors would be forced to shell out billions more for prescription medicines, and insurers could return to hiking premiums while denying coverage to Americans with pre-existing conditions. For these and other reasons, Romney insists, "Obamacare is bad for America's families."
Obamacare, however, is only the top entitlement program on the GOP hit list. Almost all of the Republican candidates want to privatize Medicare, replacing its guaranteed benefits to retirees with a fixed voucher insufficient to cover the soaring costs of private insurance. The GOP front-runners have also endorsed a radical plan to cap the federal contribution to Medicaid – a move that would gut insurance for the poor by as much as 3.5 percent a year and shift $150 billion in annual costs onto cash-strapped states. According to the Congressional Budget Office, states unable to pay the added costs would be forced to either "curtail eligibility" to those in need or "provide less extensive coverage."
When it comes to Social Security, the Republican candidates have all advocated that it be privatized for younger workers – creating a system of personal accounts that would place their retirement security at the mercy of the stock market. The undisputed victor of the GOP plans would be Wall Street, which would profit enormously from collecting management fees over a worker's lifetime. A study by the University of Chicago that analyzed a similar privatization scheme proposed by George W. Bush projected that such fees would hand Wall Street "the largest windfall gain in American financial history" while "reducing the ultimate value of individual accounts by 20 percent."
WRECK THE ECONOMY
While threatening to slash the safety net for millions of Americans, the GOP candidates are also committed to a brutal austerity program that would tip the nation back into recession – if not a full-scale depression. The proposal in question is a constitutional amendment that would require the federal government to pass a balanced budget each year. According to Macroeconomic Advisers, a top economic forecaster, balancing the budget in 2012 alone would throw 15 million Americans out of work, double unemployment to 18 percent and contract the U.S. economy by 17 percent. Going forward, the government would be barred from borrowing money during hard times to provide unemployment benefits, food stamps and other essential aid to those in need. As a result, the analysts report, "recessions would be deeper and longer." Even in times of plenty, a balanced-budget amendment would "retard economic growth" by increasing economic uncertainty – which Republicans have repeatedly blamed as the root of the current lackluster recovery.
WAGE ENDLESS WAR
One portion of the budget that the GOP's austerity agenda doesn't touch is the Pentagon, where the Republican candidates call for the kind of costly investments they refuse to back for America's poor and middle class. While demanding that federal spending be capped at 20 percent of GDP, Romney would mandate that at least one in five federal dollars be spent on defense. "I will not look to the military as a place to balance the budget," he says. Neither will Gingrich, who calls on taxpayers to "recapitalize our military infrastructure," or Perry, who wants to sink billions into missile defense and "modernized fleets of ships and aircraft."
To justify such massive defense spending, the GOP candidates would ensure that America remains entangled in bloody wars in the Middle East. When Obama announced earlier this fall that he would complete the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq – on the timetable negotiated by President Bush – Romney denounced the move as an "astonishing failure." Bachmann called on "our troops to remain there to preserve the peace," and Perry insisted that "we need to finish our mission in Iraq" – which evidently involves occupying the country indefinitely, regardless of the wishes of its democratically elected government.
The GOP candidates have been even more hawkish on Iran, with Perry, Romney, Gingrich and Bachmann all promising to go to war to prevent the regime from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Of the top-tier candidates, only Cain expressed reservations about another war in the Middle East, saying instead that he would surround the country with a mobile missile-defense network and tell Ahmadinejad to "make my day."
"This is nonsense – idiocy! – to contemplate another war in that region right now," says Wilkerson, the former chief of staff to Colin Powell. Obama's remarkable successes in foreign policy, he adds – including the demise of both Osama bin Laden and Muammar Qaddafi – have panicked the GOP field into a reflexive hawkishness. "For the Republicans, that's their mantra," Wilkerson says. "The only thing they know is war, war and more war."
CUT TAXES ON THE RICH
The leading Republican candidates all back a host of sweetheart tax cuts for major corporations, whose income is currently taxed at 35 percent. Romney would reduce the corporate rate to 25 percent, while Perry would drop it to 20 percent and Gingrich would slash it to 12.5 percent. Worse, the GOP candidates also favor a "territorial" tax system that would prohibit Uncle Sam from collecting any revenues on profits stashed overseas. The move, according to tax experts, would spur U.S. corporations to shift millions of jobs and billions in profits offshore.
All of the candidates also want to eliminate or drastically curb taxes on investment income, and allow the children of the rich to pay no taxes on their inheritances. For Romney, whose net worth is estimated at $200 million, the issue is personal: With the estate tax repealed, he could pass on an extra $90 million to his children, tax-free – including his son Tagg, currently scraping by as a managing partner at a private equity firm.
All told, the elimination of the estate tax – whose benefits would accrue solely to the top 0.3 percent of taxpayers – would spike the deficit by an estimated $1.3 trillion over the next decade. Yet the GOP candidates continue to insist that the move would somehow benefit the middle class; Gingrich claims that "eliminating the death tax will create more jobs and more revenue for the federal government." Such lunacy enrages the party's few remaining fiscal conservatives. "Republican thinking about fiscal policy is fundamentally wrong, and it has been for quite a while," says Paul O'Neill, who served as Treasury secretary under George W. Bush. "The whole notion that we can cut taxes to the vanishing point and keep raising more money is just crazy. It could even be amusing if it wasn't so dangerous."
ATTACK ABORTION RIGHTS
It's no surprise that the GOP candidates oppose a woman's right to choose. Every candidate but Romney has signed a pledge vowing to permanently defund Planned Parenthood and to appoint only pro-lifers to key federal health positions. But now, rather than simply pushing to repeal Roe v. Wade, they also want to change the Constitution to award full citizenship to a woman's egg the moment it is fertilized. "Personhood begins at conception," insists Gingrich, who wants Congress to pass a law defining embryos as "persons" under the 14th Amendment – a move designed to make abortion unconstitutional. Even Romney, who was elected in Massachusetts as a staunchly pro-choice politician, said on Fox News recently that he "absolutely" would have signed a "personhood" amendment giving constitutional rights to the unborn. An identical measure on the ballot last November – which would have outlawed abortion for victims of rape and incest – was so radical that even Mississippi voters rejected it.
The candidates' positions on immigration are so extreme that they seem to have been dreamed up by the Minutemen militia. Perry vows to militarize the border with "boots on the ground" and Predator drones hunting down illegal border crossers from the skies. Offering few details, Romney says "we gotta have a fence" along the Mexican border, while Bachmann envisions a barrier that's 2,000 miles long and "double-walled." Cain has vowed to erect a "Great Wall... 20 feet high. It's going to have barbed wire on the top. It's going to be electrified. And there's going to be a sign on the other side saying, 'It will kill you – WARNING!'" Gingrich, who touts his "humane" approach to deportation, has nonetheless trashed even legal immigrants, once denouncing Spanish itself as "the language of living in a ghetto."
The GOP's determination to sabotage its appeal among Latinos – America's fastest-growing voting bloc – has many Democrats exulting. "We may just run clips of the Republican debates verbatim," Obama told a gathering of Hispanic journalists in November. "We won't even comment on them – we'll just run those in a loop on Univision and Telemundo, and people can make up their own minds."
Where does this radical new GOP orthodoxy come from? On the economic and regulatory front, at least, a recent interview with Tom Donohue, the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, offers a clue. Donohue outlined the business group's top policy prescriptions – and they are virtually identical to those promoted by the GOP candidates.
Job creation? "The idea with the greatest potential," Donohue said, "is to do a number of things in energy." Environmental protection? Stop giving "wildlife the priority over jobs." Federal regulation? Obama has "exploded the regulatory burden, particularly through health care, Dodd-Frank and the Environmental Protection Agency." Corporate tax rates? "We're the only major country in the world that double-taxes our companies," Donohue said. "That's just plain stupid."
But slavish devotion to the interests of corporate America is only part of the equation underlying the GOP's current extremism. Today, just 28 percent of Americans identify themselves as Republicans – a drop of five points from the Bush years. To be the ringleader in a small-tent party requires adopting positions that are offensive to the broader public – and even to people who once fit comfortably in the GOP coalition. "You've got to address everything from abortion to how many evangelicals can sit on the head of a pin," says Wilkerson. "It's really a problem."
So far, the GOP has gotten away with its sharp turn to the right. In the midterm elections last year, in which Republican hardliners seized control of Congress, conservatives cast 41 percent of all votes. Senior citizens made up a quarter of the electorate, as did voters making more than $100,000 a year. But the general election next fall will attract voters who are younger and less affluent. If Obama can inspire anything resembling the historic turnout he sparked in 2008, the GOP is in for a beat-down. The Hispanic vote, for example, is expected to rise by nearly a quarter next year – and a recent poll found Latino voters swinging to Obama by nearly three-to-one over both Romney and Perry.
What's more, the GOP's appeal to the most extreme elements of its coalition may prompt moderate Republicans to stay home – or even to vote for Obama. As long as the GOP insists on catering to the needs of the ultrarich, Republican veterans warn, it risks alienating the working-class conservatives who ushered in the Age of Reagan. "The Republican Party is just screwed up in its head," says David Stockman, who served as budget director under Reagan. "It's behaving politically in a very irrational way, and policywise in a nonsensical manner."
Mike Lofgren, until recently a top Republican staffer on the Senate Budget Committee, has offered an even more dire assessment of "the whole toxic stew of GOP beliefs." This fall, Lofgren announced he was abandoning his own party – unable to stomach what he called "the headlong rush of Republicans to embrace policies that are deeply damaging to this country's future." Citing the "broad and ever-widening gulf between the traditional Republicanism of an Eisenhower and the quasi-totalitarian cult of a Michele Bachmann," Lofgren summed up the GOP's capitulation to extremism: "The crackpot outliers of two decades ago," he concludes, "have become the vital center today."
This story is from the December 26, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.