Ponzi Schemes, Treason, and Cervixes

I wasn’t expecting tonight’s CNN debate, co-hosted with the Tea Party Express, to have a lot of religion. Amy Kremer, Tea Party Express chairman, has rejected calls to bring more religious talk into the Tea Party, even while other Tea Party activists push for it. Still, though, there was one issue that came up that is clearly driven by religion. And money. That issue is the mandatory HPV vaccine Rick Perry authorized in Texas. 

When I was in Iowa last month, I met an activist, a long-time Bachmann supporter, who claimed to know exactly one fact about Perry’s record: that he had issued an executive order requiring girls to be vaccinated against HPV. From talking to her, it was clear that this piece of information about Perry — who otherwise has a largely impeccable, in the eyes of anti-choice activists, record curtailing reproductive rights — was making the rounds in the media that these activists consume.

Tonight, Bachmann hit hard back at Perry, not only over the intrusion of a government-ordered vaccine for “innocent little 12 year-old girls,” but because Perry had done the bidding of pharmaceutical industry cronies who had contributed to his campaign and profited from the sale of the vaccine.

This was one of Bachmann’s best debate moments, where she could simultaneously look like she was (1)  defending “parental rights,” a big issue for her Christian right base which claims that the government should tell them how to take care of their kids, (2) pushing back against “big government” that was at once intruding on family’s privacy and promoting promiscuity, and (3) nailing Perry on crony capitalism.

Perry has tried hard to backtrack from his order requiring that the vaccine be mandatory, a claim PolitiFact rated “mostly false.” Tonight he said the mandate was a mistake, and that he fixed it with an opt-out provision, not a particuarly convincing line of defense for his critics like Bachmann. When accused by Bachmann of having been bought off by his pharmaceutical industry donors who profited from the Gardisil vaccine, Perry said he was insulted because that campaign contributor had only given $5,000. [UPDATE 9/13/11: The Times reports that the contribution was actually $30,000.] Perry raised $30 million, the Texas governor pointedly reminded Bachmann; $5,000 is chump change and not enough to turn his head. I read something more into that statement, though: he was trying to intimidate the little woman with his fundraising prowess.

The other big fireworks was the Romney v. Perry showdown over whether Social Security should be called a “Ponzi scheme.” As I wrote this morning, it’s not out of the realm of Republican discourse. Perry tried to walk it back and reassure current retirees, in an effort to soften the position he dug his heels in on just at last week’s debate.

Tonight’s debate served as a snapshot of the priorities of the Tea Party: it included a back-and-forth on whether Ben Bernanke has committed treason; whether one of the most cherished social programs is unconstitutional or even a criminal enterprise; whether a seriously injured person without health insurance should be left to his own devices; and whether undocumented immigrants should have drivers licenses and their children offered in-state tuition at public colleges and universities. Perry got booed for his support for a Texas law that does the latter, another bit of heresy to the Tea Party that puts a dent in the Perry armor.

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