Rick Perry doesn't believe in climate change.
Newt Gingrich doesn't believe in the existence of Palestinians. Ron Paul doesn't believe in evolution. Michele Bachmann doesn't believe in the minimum wage. Rick Santorum doesn't believe waterboarding is torture. Jon Huntsman doesn't believe in corporate taxes. Mitt Romney doesn't believe, it seems, in being inflexible about the things he might, or might not, believe.
The candidates for the Republican Party's nomination as presidential candidate hold a multitude of other views, of course. The effort to differentiate yourself from six other people demands it. Some of those views would strike most Europeans as hailing from the far side of eccentric. But with the Iowa caucus due on January 3, and the New Hampshire primary set for January 10, the race to win the right to take on Barack Obama has a settled appearance.
These are conservative people: that is, as they say, a given. But they are conservative in a manner that suggests their party has learned nothing from its defeat in 2008. If anything, the candidates sound like hostages, willing or not, to a right-wing constituency that refuses to learn and refuses to change. If America is not as they would wish it to be, that's America's fault, the fault of liberals, the "mainstream media", or godlessness. More precisely, it's Obama's doing.
At least three of the runners – Mr Perry, Ms Bachmann and Mr Paul – are, for example, explicit creationists. Mr Santorum was joined by Ms Bachmann, the Minnesota governor, and the now-disgraced Herman Cain, in seeing no problem with waterboarding. Gay marriage, like abortion, will push any of the buttons on this list, but not in a favourable way. Health reform, "Obamacare", is anathema to each, even to Mr Romney, who introduced a near-identical plan in Massachusetts. All the candidates identify God's will with the American way: that's standard issue.
So it goes on. The candidates, like their party, blame Mr Obama alone for America's $15 trillion debt. George Bush had nothing to do with it. Each candidate would cut the US debt and budget deficit instantly and sharply, but only by an assault on spending, especially on welfare spending. They fear (the libertarian Mr Paul may be an exception) to touch defence. Above all, they oppose tax increases for those best able to pay, the very richest in the country, as a matter of principle. They barely mention banking reform.
All of these people swear loyalty to Israel – hence Mr Gingrich's view that Palestinians are not "truly" a people – and fear the rise of China. Ms Bachmann, for one, seems to hold that America should play no part in the global economy lest those foreigners make inconvenient decisions. All the candidates are very firm as to the eternal terrorist threat, though less able to name its present status or source. All are opposed, it almost goes without saying, to any hint of gun control.
Crazy, then. Or rather, if we're being polite, these are people who would be on the far fringes in any other Western democracy. Yet in America, in one part of America at least, these are representative figures, people who have taken the Tea Party, Fox News, right-wing radio hosts, conservative Christianity and selected parts of Ronald Reagan's legacy as the authentic voice of the country. They don't believe America is a liberal place.
A world still liable to believe that Mr Obama changed everything still hasn't got the hang of that fact. The first mistake is to imagine, indeed, that Mr Obama has altered the essentials of American political life to any important degree. His record says he has ducked the challenge, time and again.
Among Democrats, the charge is now commonplace: the man in whom so much hope – his word – was invested has pandered to the right. Even when he had control of both houses of Congress he preferred "consensus" over health care or budget reform. Even when his efforts were wrecked by Republicans who made their gut hatreds plain, he failed to respond. This president, it is said, won't fight. But surely he can defeat a figure as disreputable as Mr Gingrich, a former Speaker of the House of Representatives who led his party into a doomed fight with Bill Clinton, a figure dogged by scandal who is best known as the lobbyists' lobbyist? Surely Mr Obama can deal with Mr Romney, the fakes' faker, the Mormon – an issue in its own right – who struggles to keep track of his own, endless policy deviations?
Those two are commonly presented as the front-runners. It is still held, equally, that Mr Obama can beat either. But what was once a sure thing is less certain as 2011 ends. Partly this has to do with the character of a president who has squandered credibility. Partly it has to do with the nature of America's electoral college system in presidential elections. And partly it has to do with the nature of America itself.
In the aftermath of 2008, Mr Obama was unbeatable. He had united the disparate majority tired of war, economic crisis and the fanaticism of the Republicans. Three years on, the US economy is still in dire straits. The people most likely to vote Democrat are hurting most. Yet Mr Obama offers no end in sight, even as he persists with "his" war in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, weirdly, the mud thrown from the right against the secret-Muslim-socialist (did they mention black?) president gains credibility.
He won convincingly in 2008, but he won against a miserable campaign from John McCain and the bizarre Sarah Palin. More importantly, Mr Obama's impressive electoral college tally – 365 to Mr McCain's 173 – was achieved by unprecedented campaign spending and built on some very narrow wins in individual states. He got just under 53% of the popular vote.
Conservative America was not chastened; it was outraged. In all its manifestations it clings to the belief that Mr Obama had no right to become president. You can dismiss that as the frustration of lunatics, certainly as the voice of a minority. But how do you calibrate measurements of mass opinion? Mr McCain was trounced, yet his support from conservatives got him 45.7% of the vote. Mr Obama's real achievement was to convince independents.
Those are, these days, the largest constituency in the US, bigger by far than the core groups of registered Democrats and Republicans. A candidate cannot win without people who have no settled party allegiance. Mr Obama borrowed their support. So are they inherently liberal (as Americans use the term) or conservative? By European standards, they fall firmly in the latter camp. They are the real reason why Mr Obama has governed so timidly.
That fact need not encourage the bag of mixed nuts fighting for the Republican nomination, but it should not reassure Democrats, either. In Iowa, Mr Gingrich is held to lead the pack, yet an ABC/Washington Post poll this week put his "favourable" rating at only 22%. He should be easy meat. But Mr Obama's own equivalent rating was, at 35%, the lowest it has yet been, and this is before Republicans have swung behind a single candidate.
Mr Obama is the one who has less than a year to fix the US economy. For independent voters, success or failure in that endeavour is the only criterion. It is far too early to make predictions, but none among those crazy conservatives is seeking the nomination for fun.
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