The race for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination heated up this weekend as Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann won the Iowa straw poll and Texas Gov. Rick Perry formally announced his candidacy. Bachmann led the Iowa contest with more than 4,800 votes out of almost 17,000 votes cast, and Texas Rep. Ron Paul placed a close second. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty placed a distant third, and on Sunday he announced he was leaving the presidential race. We speak with Sarah Posner, senior editor of Religion Dispatches, who spent the weekend covering the poll in Iowa for The Nation magazine. "Bachmann is, much more than the rest of them, going to use the language, the sort of rhetoric and ideology that she learned at Oral Roberts [University] to meld the fiscal conservatism, small government message with her religious message," Posner says.
Sarah Posner, senior editor of Religion Dispatches, contributor to The Nation magazine, and author of the book God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters.
Amy Goodman: The race for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination heated up this weekend as Minnesota Congress Member Michele Bachmann won the Iowa straw poll and Texas Governor Rick Perry formally announced his candidacy. Bachmann was on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday, after winning the Iowa straw poll Saturday, the first big test of the 2012 Republican presidential campaign.
Rep. Michele Bachmann: I’m grateful that we won the straw poll, but we see this as just the very first step in a very long race, because we of course have the caucuses here coming up after Christmas, and then there’s South Carolina, New Hampshire, and onward and upward. There’s a lot of work to be done.
Amy Goodman: Bachmann led the Iowa straw poll with more than 4,800 votes out of almost 17,000 votes cast. She was the first woman to win the event. Texas Congress Member Ron Paul placed a close second with his emphasis on the costs of war. Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty placed a distant third, and on Sunday Pawlenty announced he’s leaving the presidential race.
Tim Pawlenty: I’m announcing this morning on your show that I’m going to be ending my campaign for president, but I’m very, very grateful for the people of Iowa, the people of this country, who I had a chance to make my case to, and for my supporters and staff and friends who have been so loyal and helpful. I really appreciate all of them. I wish it would have been different, but obviously the pathway forward for me doesn’t really exist. And so, we’re going to end the campaign.
Amy Goodman: Meanwhile, on Saturday, Texas Governor Rick Perry announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination for president at a gathering in Charleston, South Carolina.
Gov. Rick Perry: It is time to get America working again, and that’s why, with the support of my family and unwavering belief in the goodness of America, I declare to you today as a candidate for president of the United States.
Amy Goodman: For more on the Iowa straw poll and the Republican presidential candidates, we go to Washington, D.C., to talk to Sarah Posner, who spent the weekend covering the poll in Iowa, senior editor of Religion Dispatches, contributor to The Nation magazine, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters.
Sarah Posner, first talk about the significance of the straw poll.
Sarah Posner: Well, the straw poll, in and of itself, is neither a predictor of who’s going to win the nomination or an indicator of, nationwide, which candidate is the front-runner. But it does give the winner of the straw poll momentum, because it demonstrates to the base that these voters in the heartland, in Iowa, picked this person as the winner of this unofficial—unofficial event that, like I said, doesn’t have any meaning in terms of winning the nomination ultimately.
Amy Goodman: Now, while more people voted in this straw poll than they did in the last Republican presidential straw poll four years ago—I think it was something like 16,000-something versus 14,000—it’s way down from George Bush, when he first ran for president, when there was something like 23,000 people who voted.
Sarah Posner: Right. I don’t know what the explanation for that is. I do know that around that time in 2000, or in 1999, there was a lot of energy around Bush. There was sort of a coalescing of the base around Bush. Right now, there’s not a coalescing of the base around a single candidate, especially with Perry jumping into the race now. So that might explain the lower turnout, that people are basically undecided, and so we’re not enthused enough about a single candidate to go and vote. But I will say, having been there on Saturday and for several days before Saturday, there was a lot, a lot of energy around Bachmann and Paul. And the people who were out to vote for them, and even the people who were out to vote for Rick Santorum, who came in fourth, the people were very, very enthused and very motivated.
Amy Goodman: Start off by talking about Michele Bachmann, what this means for her. She was born in Iowa. She was born in Waterloo. What does this straw poll mean? And, of course, a fellow Minnesotan, Tim Pawlenty, who she has now edged out, the Congress member edging out the governor.
Sarah Posner: Right. Well, Bachmann, I think, was not seen as a serious candidate before, and this propels her into the front-runner status. She’s up there with Romney and Perry. And she, I think, before was seen as a long shot. Her campaign was seen as somewhat quixotic. And now she’s seen by the base and by the press as a serious candidate.
Amy Goodman: I wanted to turn to the debate that took place, the Republican debate on Thursday night. It was the portion where they talked about taxes. This is the debate moderator Bret Baier of Fox News.
Bret Baier: I’m going to ask a question to everyone here on the stage. Say you had a deal, a real spending cuts deal, 10 to one, as Byron said, spending cuts to tax increases. Speaker, you’re already shaking your head. But who on this stage would walk away from that deal? Will you raise your hand, if you’d feel so strongly about not raising taxes, you’d walk away on the 10-to-one deal? Just making sure everyone at home and everyone here knows that they all raised their hands. They’re all saying that they feel so strongly about not raising taxes, that a 10-to-one deal, they would walk away from, confirming that.
Amy Goodman: That was Bret Baier of Fox News. All eight Republican candidates raised their hands. Sarah Posner, the significance of this? And talk overall about Michele Bachmann’s economic position.
Sarah Posner: Well, the clip you played from the debate just demonstrates the extremes to which the presidential—all eight presidential—or now seven presidential candidates are going to appease the base, which has really been primed by the Tea Party and by the religious right to have this antipathy towards paying taxes to a government that they portray as this greedy monster that’s stealing their money. I mean, with this weekend in Iowa, the number of times that I heard candidates refer to the government and taxes in terms of it being a "money-eating machine" — that’s a term that Bachmann used — or theft—you know, the idea that the government is this big behemoth that takes your money for no reason but to oppress you is really the heart of what the Republican economic message is right now. And that’s why all the candidates felt compelled to say that even that amount of spending cuts versus tax increases would not be adequate for them; they want all cuts and no taxes.
So, Michele Bachmann’s economic message is very much focused on this same thing, that government is something that—the federal government is something that oppresses you, that it takes your money. Like I said, she called—on the stump, she called it a "money-eating machine." And she pledged—the things that she pledged to do were repeal Obamacare—she said, "I will not rest" — this is in her stump speech — "I will not rest until Obamacare is repealed." She wants to repeal the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform bill. She wants to basically get rid of all EPA regulations. So, any federal regulations that protect consumers from environmental harm or from predatory lenders, things like that, she’s opposed to that. So that’s why she wants to cut taxes, that’s why she wants to eliminate the government and eliminate regulations.
And this is not just a Tea Party message, and she is not just a Tea Party candidate. This is a message that resonates with the religious right, because they believe that the government—that God grants three different spheres of society different types of authority. And they think that God granted the government very limited authority, and if the government, in their mind, exceeds that, through promulgating regulations, then they consider that tyranny and enslavement. And so, this is why her message resonates both with fiscal conservatives, who are very anti-tax, anti-government, sort of what—traditionally what people think of as Tea Party types, but also with the religious right. And this is the coalition that came together to give her this victory in Iowa.
Amy Goodman: Sarah Posner, though she says she’s for smaller government, in fact, talk about her history. She went to Oral Roberts University and then went on to work at the IRS and benefited tremendously, she and her husband, from Medicare, from Medicaid, from tax subsidies. Talk about this history.
Sarah Posner: Well, Bachmann went to the law school at Oral Roberts University, which, later, after she graduated, got absorbed into Regent University, the university founded by Pat Robertson in Virginia Beach. But I did a story last month about Oral Roberts and the type of legal education that she got there, and it was very much along the lines of what I just described before with this view of constitutional law, that God grants certain authority to government, the Church and the family, and that your rights are granted by God, and if the government infringes on those rights by exceeding the authority that it was granted by God, then that’s tyranny. The whole aim of Oral—founding Oral Roberts University was to, in the mind of the founders, reinstitute biblical law over man’s law in jurisprudence and in politics, and to train lawyers and future leaders, just like Michele Bachmann, to rise to the level of leadership that she has risen to.
So, as you point out, the irony in all of this is that she went on to become a tax lawyer and worked for the IRS, the very agency that Tea Partiers and many people in the religious right see as this oppressive beast, and that, even though she wants to cut federal spending and cut the social safety net, she and her husband, in their Christian counseling business that she often touts on the campaign trail as being a—you know, she’s a small business owner and she’s a job creator, that they benefited from Medicare reimbursements.
Amy Goodman: I wanted to turn to the man who’s now just entered the race, the Texas governor, Perry. This was Perry on Fox News before he entered the presidential race Saturday, where he describes himself as a prophet. His comment came in response to a question from the Fox host Neil Cavuto.
Neil Cavuto: Reading the press within your fine state and then outside, you have kind of like the Chris Christie phenomenon: very popular outside your state; still popular, but not nearly as popular, within your state. And there are even Tea Party groups within your state who like you but don’t love you, who say that when it comes to things like not spending a rainy day fund, an idea you came up with—
Gov. Rick Perry: Right.
Neil Cavuto: —you say one thing and do another. What do you say?
Gov. Rick Perry: I say that a prophet is generally not loved in their home town. That’s both biblical and practical.
Amy Goodman: That was Governor Rick Perry. Sarah Posner, quick comments on Governor Perry.
Sarah Posner: Well, this is very reflective of his reaching out to a certain element of the religious right, the people that he worked with to do his prayer rally in Houston last Saturday, the very week before the straw poll in Iowa and the week before he announced in South Carolina. And these people consider themselves to be modern-day apostles and prophets who are out to engage in spiritual warfare with the forces of Satan. And so, when he is describing himself as prophet, he’s dog-whistling that base by saying that, you know, "Hey, look, I do these things because God is telling me to. And if maybe you don’t like some of them, well, you know, if you look at the Bible, not all the prophets were completely popular in their time either, but they turned out to be prophetic."
Amy Goodman: Where do you see the whole issue of religion, smaller government, social conservatism going now? I mean, Iowa is not necessarily representative of the whole country, and where Ron Paul, who also had a strong showing—granted, in a small poll—he did come in number two, only — what was it? — 200 votes behind Congress Member Bachmann, and Ron Paul, this very strong antiwar message, a libertarian.
Sarah Posner: Well, he’s not exactly a libertarian. I think his antiwar message resonates with people who aren’t conservative who are against the war, but he also has the very strong message against the power of the federal government that I was describing before that Michele Bachmann has, viewing it as a tyrant that’s coming to take your gun away or to, in his words at the straw poll—in his last speech before the voting ended, he talked about armed IRS agents coming to take the money of pro-life people to pay for other people’s abortions. So he is not beyond trying to reach out to the religious right part of the base. In fact, he’s hired the same evangelical outreach adviser that was used by both Presidents Bush. So he’s clearly trying to connect with that part of the base, even though many of the, say, the homeschoolers—Bachmann has a lot of support from homeschoolers, but her support from homeschoolers is generally from Christian homeschoolers. There are others, other homeschoolers that call themselves liberty-minded, that are less focused on the religious aspect of it, that are very much behind Paul. But he’s also—he’s not reaching the very same part of the religious right base that Bachmann is, but he is using—using some of the same rhetoric to attract those same voters. And he’s very anti-abortion, just like she is. He’s anti-gay marriage, just like she is.
But all three of the front-runner candidates—Romney, Bachmann and Perry—to varying degrees, are going to use religion and social issues in the race. They’re going to use this small government message. I think that Bachmann is, much more than the rest of them, going to use the language, the sort of rhetoric and ideology that she learned at Oral Roberts to meld the fiscal conservatism, small government message with her religious message.
Amy Goodman: Finally, Romney, who has been talked about as the front-runner, did not pay much attention to this straw poll, did not put a lot of work into Iowa right now. But what does—
Sarah Posner: Right.
Amy Goodman: —the fact that he was so far behind mean?
Sarah Posner: Well, he can always say that he wasn’t really competing in Iowa, and that’s why—that’s why he didn’t make a good showing there, and he’s been focused on New Hampshire and South Carolina. But I think that he, as much as he tried—I saw him speak at the State Fair last week, where he infamously now said that corporations are people, and he’s trying very hard to reach the base with his, you know, small government message, his pro-corporate message, but I don’t think that he is speaking the radical, anti-government message that the base seems to want to hear and that Perry and Bachmann seem more attuned to speaking.
Amy Goodman: We’re going to leave it there, Sarah Posner, senior editor of Religion Dispatches, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters.