Here we go again. With the economy showing faint signs of life and their positions on the social issues alienating most moderates, the leading Republican candidates, with the exception of Ron Paul, have returned to the elixir of warmongering to once again sway the gullible masses. The race to the bottom has been set by Newt Gingrich, the most desperate of the lot, who on Tuesday charged that “The president wants to unilaterally weaken the United States,” because his administration has dared question the wisdom of Israel attacking Iran and proposes a slight reduction in the bloated defense budget.
Let the good times roll with a beefed-up military budget justified by plans to invade yet another Muslim country. As Paul warned during the South Carolina primary debate as his presidential rivals threatened war with Iran: “I’m afraid what’s going on right now is similar to the war propaganda that went on against Iraq.” Indeed, the shouting match over which of the other GOP candidates most wants a war with Iran is in sync with the last Republican president’s 2003 invasion.
It was an invasion that removed Saddam Hussein, once the U.S. ally in confronting Iran, from power and replaced him with a Shiite leadership long beholden to the ayatollahs of Iran. Of course, as Bush lied, this was not about nation-building aimed at imposing a democracy in our image, but rather, as is the claim now, about preventing radical Muslims from getting their hands on a nuclear weapon. In a Where’s Waldo moment, it turned out that the dreaded nukes were not in Iraq, and the leading Republican presidential candidates are convinced that Iran now has such weapons and they need to be taken out.
Not so, say CIA and Pentagon experts in these matters, who insist that Iran is some distance from developing a nuclear weapon, even if that is its intention. In a CNN interview Sunday, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated that Iran had not yet decided whether to build a nuclear weapon. He also said the U.S. had told Israel that any Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities would be “destabilizing.”
But such facts are not troubling to the GOP contenders, who seem not to have realized that there is one Muslim country already in possession of scores of such weapons. That would be Pakistan, the country Bush didn’t invade despite its avid support for the Taliban sponsors of al-Qaida. Instead, after 9/11, Bush dropped the sanctions his predecessor, Bill Clinton, had imposed on Pakistan as punishment for its developing a nuclear arsenal. Nor did Bush and his fellow Republican hawks get overly exercised by the revelation that Pakistan was giving nuclear weapons technology to North Korea, Libya and, yes, Iran. It was also the hiding place for Osama bin Laden when Barack Obama made good on Bush’s pledge to run the al-Qaida leader to ground.If Bush had taken out bin Laden, the Republicans would have by now had W’s head chiseled into Mount Rushmore, but since it is Obama’s success, they are driven mad by this turn of events. On Tuesday, Gingrich came totally unglued, telling a student audience at Oral Roberts University that defeating Obama is “a duty of national security” because the president “is incapable of defending the United States.” Why? Simple. Obama has accepted the eminently sensible proposal endorsed by the Pentagon brass to trim $32 billion from the $655 billion defense budget in 2013. That small cut from a Cold War-style budget that accounts for 45 percent of world spending on the military despite there being no sophisticated military enemy now in sight for the U.S. was judged by Gingrich to render the president “willfully dishonest.”
The idea of Newt Gingrich calling anyone else dishonest is an affront to reason, but, with the exception of Rep. Paul, those vying with the former House speaker for the nomination have been quick to indicate they are in full accord with the accusation. Gingrich’s rabid support for the U.S. lining up behind an Israeli attack, even a nuclear one, may be explained by his campaign being kept afloat by a Nevada gambling billionaire who contributed $10 million to a pro-Gingrich super PAC and whose prime cause is the Israeli far right. Rick Santorum offers biblical bromides for his support of Israeli militarism, and for Mitt Romney, the thirst for war just seems a natural extension of his innate say-anything opportunism. What a disreputable crew.
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The right’s ideology police were, predictably, aghast; the Club for Growth quickly denounced the statement as showing that Mr. Romney is “not a limited-government conservative.” On the contrary, insisted the club, “If we balanced the budget tomorrow on spending cuts alone, it would be fantastic for the economy.” And a Romney spokesman tried to walk back the remark, claiming, “The governor’s point was that simply slashing the budget, with no affirmative pro-growth policies, is insufficient to get the economy turned around.”
But that’s not what the candidate said, and it’s very unlikely that it’s what he meant. Almost surely, he is, in fact, a closet Keynesian.
How do we know this? Well, for one thing, Mr. Romney is not a stupid man. And while his grasp of world affairs does sometimes seem shaky, he has to be aware of the havoc austerity policies are wreaking in Greece, Ireland and elsewhere.
Beyond that, we know who he turns to for economic advice; heading the list are Glenn Hubbard of Columbia University and N. Gregory Mankiw of Harvard. While both men are loyal Republican spear-carriers — each served for a time as chairman of George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers — both also have long track records as professional economists. And what these track records suggest is that neither of them believes any of the propositions that have become litmus tests for would-be G.O.P. presidential candidates.
Consider Mr. Mankiw, in particular. Modern Republicans detest Keynes; Mr. Mankiw is the editor of a collection of papers titled “New Keynesian Economics.” In an early edition of his best-selling textbook, he dismissed supply-side economics — the doctrine embraced by the sainted Ronald Reagan — as the creation of “charlatans and cranks.” And, in 2009, he called for higher inflation as a solution to the economic crisis, a position anathema to Republicans like Representative Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, who warn ominously about the evil of “debasing” our currency.
Given his advisers, then, it seems safe to assume that what Mr. Romney blurted out Tuesday reflected his real economic beliefs — as opposed to the nonsense he pretends to believe, because it’s what the Republican base wants to hear.
And therein lies the reason Mr. Romney acts the way he does, why he is running a campaign of almost pathological dishonesty.
For he is. Every one of the Romney campaign’s major themes, from the attacks on President Obama for going around the world apologizing for America (he didn’t), to the insistence that Romneycare and Obamacare are very different (they’re virtually identical), to the claim that Mr. Obama has lost millions of jobs (which is only true if you count the first few months of his administration, before any of his policies had taken effect), is either an outright falsehood or deeply deceptive. Why the nonstop mendacity?
As I see it, it comes down to the cynicism underlying the whole enterprise. Once you’ve decided to hide your beliefs and say whatever you think will get you the nomination, to pretend to agree with people you privately believe are fools, why worry at all about truth?
What this diagnosis implies, of course, is that the many people on the right who don’t trust Mr. Romney, who don’t believe that he’s truly committed to their political faith, are correct in their suspicions. He’s playing a role, and it’s anyone’s guess what lies beneath the mask.
So should those who don’t share the right’s faith be comforted by the evidence that Mr. Romney doesn’t believe anything he’s saying? Should we, in particular, assume that, once elected, he would actually follow sensible economic policies? Alas, no.
For the cynicism and lack of moral courage that have been so evident in the campaign wouldn’t suddenly vanish once Mr. Romney entered the Oval Office. If he doesn’t dare disagree with economic nonsense now, why imagine that he would become willing to challenge that nonsense later? And bear in mind that if elected, he would be watched like a hawk for signs of apostasy by the very people he’s trying so desperately to appease right now.
The truth is that Mr. Romney is so deeply committed to insincerity that neither side can trust him to do what it considers to be the right thing.