The New York Times is rolling out the big guns against Michelle Bachmann as her campaign starts to gain traction. Recently columnist Timothy Egan took the lead in what is fast becoming the default argument: "Michelle Bachmann and her family take government money!" Furrowing his brow, Egan writes:
But what is more troubling [than Bachmann's insistence that lowering the minimum wage would increase employment] is the issue raised by taxpayer payments for various Bachmann family enterprises. This is where rigid ideology meets mushy reality. The Bachmann family farm in Wisconsin got $251,000 in federal handouts from 1995 to 2009, according to the invaluable table of subsidies put out annually by the Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based research organization. . . . Her husband, Marcus Bachmann, while farming the government one way through the business of his parents, tills another field of federal money with his mental health clinic in Lake Elmo, Minn., which offers "quality Christian counseling" for the troubled. The clinic has collected Medicaid payments of roughly $137,000 since 2005, NBC News reported this week, on top of $24,000 in state funds to train the clinic's staff.
Although Eagan does not mention it, there is also a widespread rumor that the Bachmann's family uses the U.S. Post Office to deliver their mail.
This is the familiar liberal double-bind. When government programs become so ubiquitous that you can't turn around without falling over one, that only proves we must keep them in place because everybody uses them and anyone who denies it is just being hypocritical. If the Bachmann family turned deliberately down away their $17,000 a year in farm subsidies each year or if Marcus Bachmann refused to take Medicaid patients -- well then maybe that would qualify Bachmann to run for office.
This isn't how things work. Not even Al Gore, who preaches there are too many people in the world, all of them consuming too much, leads by example. In fact he does just the opposite. Candidates do not have to become cult leaders to run for office. Their job is to propose programs by which they themselves will be willing to abide if everyone else does as well. If agricultural subsidies were cut, the Bachmann family surely wouldn't claim an exemption. If Medicaid were replaced by Paul Ryan's block grant program, Marcus Bachmann's clinic would not plead to go back to the old system. The trade-off Bachmann and the Tea Party are proposing is fewer government subsidies and less government regulation in exchange for lower taxes and more personal freedom. If Bachmann were refusing to pay her taxes, would that make Egan praise her consistency?
To see how fatuous Egan's argument is, just turn it around. Suppose Bachmann's in-laws were not eligible for any agricultural subsidies. Suppose Marcus Bachmann's clinic wasn't covered by Medicaid. Would that satisfy Egan? Of course not. He'd just turn around and say, "Of course Bachmann is willing to see federal programs cut for other people - she's not getting any of that money herself!"
This election will be between those people who want lower taxes and less government intervention in the economy and those who want everything run out of Washington. Let's stick to the issues and lay off the ad hominem attacks.
I don't know whether he's going to become a serious contender, but I think Herman Cain's candidacy for the Republican nomination has marvelous potential for healing racial rifts in America. It proves that African-Americans can become completely assimilated to American society and that they have just as much stake in a prosperous and successful country as anyone else.
From the beginning, the civil rights era has been characterized as "us oppressed minorities" against the big bad white establishment - mostly male. When oppressed Southern blacks were standing up to Bull Conner's fire hoses in Birmingham, Alabama this certainly had some validity. But the trope has been carried on and on so that first it was applied to women, then the disabled, then illegal immigrants, then on to homosexuals, until recently when the New Republic announced that transsexuals would be "the next great civil rights battle." "What will it take for America to accept transgender people for who they really are?" proclaimed the new manifesto.
President Obama has played into all this, announcing his constituency as "African-Americans, Latinos, gays, the young" - with white males the conspicuous absentees. Well maybe so, but a lot of people are starting to ask themselves, "Is the cause of transsexuals versus non-transsexuals really the major drama of this country?"
Cain cuts through all this nonsense. He has a mathematical mind and doesn't hesitate to call people who think we can prosper by printing more money "stupid." He's the epitome of a hard-driving CEO - although sometimes he relies too much on that "I'll-call-together-a-team-of-experts" response. What Cain's candidacy proves, however, is that black men have a tremendous amount in common with white men and with white and black women and young people and maybe even a few transsexuals for that matter, and that we're much better looking for that common ground instead of being led around by the nose by people who would divide us by sex and class and race.
I'm frankly not worried that the Republican slate still seems "lackluster" and that there's no clear, charismatic front-runner as yet. The role of front-runners is to be ignominiously dumped. Remember Rudy Giuliani or Ed Muskie or Gary Hart? Then there's always the dark horse who could have the whole thing if they were only willing to jump in the race. Remember Wesley Clark? Or Fred Thompson? These people only seem appealing because they haven't yet stepped out of the shadows and into the spotlight.
The primaries are an evolutionary process. The candidates and the electorate feel each other out. You watch a Howard Dean implode on camera and you know you've seen enough. The test of the presidency is not where they stand on ethanol or whether they can name the prime minister of New Guinea or how they comb their hair. The test is simply this -- how comfortable are you going to be having this person in your living room for the next four years? It's a courtship. It takes time to decide. Several of the Republican candidates seem more than capable of meeting the test right now.
The hoopla and charisma will all come later. Right now we need another Ronald Reagan to rescue the country from an economic migraine that is, if anything, worse than the mess Jimmy Carter had us in in 1980. But remember it took a long while for Reagan to catch on. He was still regarded as something of an empty suit or a TV commercial version of a President right through the last week of the election.
It wasn't until after the debate three days before that the public finally decided it had had enough of Jimmy Carter and was ready for a change. (This is the reason Democrats will be pushing to have people vote as much as a month in advance of the election.) America is still somewhat entranced with Obama and thrilled with the idea that we could defy the world's expectations by electing an African-American President. It won't be until November 2012 that we decide there may be other important things as well.