The GOP's Crackpot Agenda

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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 For Romney, whose net worth is estimated at $200 million, the issue is personal: With the estate tax repealed, he could pass on an extra $90 million to his children, tax-free – including his son Tagg, currently scraping by as a managing partner at a private equity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."


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.

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