Did you enjoy the first big televised debate among the Republican presidential candidates? I skipped it, figuring I could probably become more enlightened by watching Keeping Up with the Kardashians. But then NPR, The New York Times and other news outlets suggested that the star of the show was, of all people, Michelle Bachmann. The same Michelle Bachmann who warned that “The Lion King” was gay propaganda because the music was written by Elton John. The one who said, “Carbon dioxide is portrayed as harmful, but there isn’t even one study that can be produced that shows that carbon dioxide is a harmful gas.” Who has called global warming “voodoo.” The same Michelle Bachmann who, at a 2005 campaign event, called the cops after two lesbians attempted to talk to her in the bathroom.
No matter: The Times reported that Bachmann came across as a “competent, knowledgeable insider,” and USA Today said she was “lively, confident and personable” and the “the breakout star” of the GOP race, which was a line NPR, skittish about Congress cutting off its federal funding, also took. So, I thought I’d better have a look at the transcript of the June 13 event. Among other things, in the wake of killer tornados, floods and wildfires ravaging various parts of the country, Bachmann argued for the elimination of the EPA, saying it “should really be renamed the Job-Killing Organization of America,” a bona fide wing-nut comment NPR failed to mention. She also claimed the Congressional Budget Office had ascertained that “Obamacare will kill 800,000 jobs,” which is not true. But presumably because she didn’t repeat idiocies like her assertion that the founding fathers worked “tirelessly” on the constitution “until slavery was no more in the United States,” she defied expectations for Twitter-worthy gaffes and became a credible presidential contender.
Mitt Romney, for his part, insisted that the federal government should get out of disaster relief altogether and leave it to the states, or even better, “the private sector.” I can just see Goldman Sachs pitching in to help New Orleans recover from Katrina, can’t you? Romney actually said that the government can’t afford services like disaster relief because it “jeopardizes the future of our kids.” Why wasn’t this whopper headline news, in, say, Joplin, Mo., or the entire states of Alabama and Arizona?
As you can gather, the main theme of the debate was the importance of reducing, if not eliminating, the role of the federal government in pretty much everything.The key word here – and one that Democrats better start attacking more forcefully – is “entitlements.” This word was used repeatedly, including by moderator John King, as in: “Let’s continue the conversation about entitlements.” We all know what this now refers to, and it’s not just welfare: it’s Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. As the astute linguist and analyst of political rhetoric George Lakoff notes, entitlements “are seen as money given to, or spent on, people who have not earned it and therefore don’t deserve it – in other words, money not merely wasted, but spent badly.”
Now, a quick scan at your paycheck will reveal that people actually contribute to Medicare and Social Security. Many of us don’t pay as much as we should into these accounts, which could be remedied. And certainly some people – Warren Buffett, Oprah – don’t need and shouldn’t get either. But these are, in fact, earned benefits. Which is how most Americans seem to see them: A recent Kaiser Foundation poll found 62 percent oppose any reductions in spending on Social Security, 57 percent oppose any cuts to Medicare and 50 percent would not be willing to accept any cuts in Medicaid spending.
So what is an entitlement? How about General Electric being entitled to not pay any taxes? The top 1 percent of rich people feeling entitled to take in nearly 25 percent of the nation’s income and hogging 40 percent of the wealth in this country? It is long overdue for the frame around “entitlements” to be refocused – like a laser beam – on who the real freeloaders are.
But back to Bachmann. Anyone who believes that eliminating the minimum wage would eradicate unemployment and that the biggest problem facing the country is homosexuality is delusional. Such a person is not remotely qualified to be president. Any journalist who suggests otherwise should be ridiculed off the public stage.
Correction: This story originally referred to the June 13 GOP presidential debate as the first debate among candidates. In fact, it was the second, but it was the first to feature all major candidates and be widely televised.
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Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.