Frank Rich on the National Circus: Surprise! 47 Percent Mitt Is As Robotic As Thought

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Photo: Justin Sullivan/2012 Getty Images

Every week, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich talks with contributor Eric Benson about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: the unmasking of the "47 percent" cameraman, Paul Ryan's latest worst budget, and a preview of CPAC.

Last night, the Florida bartender who secretly taped Mitt Romney's infamous "47 percent" comments appeared on The Ed Show to tell his story. What did you think of his appearance? And does his now-unmasked identity add anything to the story of the election?
For starters, true-believing Mormons are the last people in the world who should be patronizing bartenders! God did not take it kindly — a sure indicator that the Romney campaign cut his church out of its customary tithe when pocketing the proceeds of this $50,000 per ticket fund-raiser. The only real tidbit the bartender, Scott Prouty, added to what we knew from the previous release of the video was the unsurprising news that Romney, unlike Bill Clinton or most sentient national politicians, didn’t bother to meet the help in the kitchen but instead implored the staff to speed up the service. Another example of Romney’s ignorance of even the CliffsNotes of Politics 101 — which hardly changes anything about the bipartisan standard take on the 2012 election. But maybe Scott Prouty’s emergence sets up a future contest, Scott the Bartender vs. Joe the Plumber.

The House GOP sounded a characteristically conciliatory note on Tuesday by releasing a budget proposal that called for the repeal of "Obamacare," the transformation of Medicare into a private voucher system, and the balancing of the budget in ten years. Do you agree with the Times editorial board that this is "the worst of the Ryan budgets"? 
The House GOP still doesn’t know that Obama won the election. This includes Paul Ryan, who is like one of those Japanese soldiers who kept on fighting on a remote atoll years after V-J Day, refusing to believe that his army had been defeated. What’s fascinating about the new Ryan budget is that it restates all the planks that failed to move voters when he was on the Republican ticket: repealing Obamacare, vouchering Medicare, cutting taxes for the wealthy, ending the Medicaid expansion (now already being lapped up by Republican as well as Democratic governors), and vowing to close tax loopholes that still remain mysteriously unidentified. Ryan explains this consistency by saying that to compromise on any of this means that he would “surrender our principles.” As I’ve written, the GOP is not going to move to the center after its 2012 defeat any more than it did after Barry Goldwater’s 1964 landslide loss to LBJ. It may even move further right, with each new Ryan budget being “the worst.”

Despite the House Republicans' latest embrace of their "Party of No" mantle, President Obama made a visit to them yesterday for a fiscal discussion (questions from the GOP caucus included such core national issues as why the White House has suspended tours following sequestration). What's the best the president can hope to accomplish from his ongoing "charm offensive"?
The suspension of White House tours struck me too as a rather silly stroke of ostentatious politics, but by raising the point to Obama directly, the GOP gave him the opening to shut down all the carping: The decision, he explained, was made by the Secret Service, not him. End of story. The one thing the party of the NRA does not need is another political skirmish over the president’s Secret Service protection. Hard to imagine what else the president’s “charm offensive” will accomplish beyond burnishing his own public relations and perhaps finally convincing the GOP leaders who spurned the White House invitation to a Lincoln screening last fall to turn up for a screening of Spring Breakers. It’s more their speed anyway. 

Politico published a report yesterday on Eric Cantor's machinations to rebrand himself as a more centrist figure. Could a kinder, gentler Cantor vault Rubio, Ryan, and the rest to become the face of his party, perhaps even in 2016?
Eric Cantor has a 27 percent favorability rating among those who know him best — voters in his home state of Virginia. He is also Jewish, and we are still waiting for the first Jewish solo anchor of a network evening news broadcast, let alone a Jewish president (or vice-president). Cantor isn’t going to be president, and he’s not going to be a plausible centrist either. He has no intention of changing policies that have branded the GOP as a radical right-wing party. His only hope is to somehow change the packaging by incessantly talking about “kids” and “moms” and “dads” and even the “most vulnerable” (a.k.a. the poor) whenever he can — a practice followed by others like Paul Ryan since attending their post-election reeducation camps with political spin artists like Frank Luntz. My favorite Cantor touch is the photos he has now added to his website showing him posing with civil rights leaders after a brief visit to Selma, Alabama — the site of the Martin Luther King Jr. jailing that helped spur the very Voting Rights Act that Cantor’s fellow Republicans are hoping to see gutted by the Supreme Court this term. Cantor’s web display reminds me of nothing so much as “Compassion,” a special section on the Bush-Cheney campaign website of 2004 in which voters could see Bush posing with African-American schoolchildren and any other black faces that could be dragged in front of a camera, including his own secretary of State, Colin Powell. 

The Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) begins its annual Washington conference tomorrow with Donald Trump on the speakers list, Chris Christie off it, and a filibuster-supercharged Rand Paul almost assured of winning the presidential straw poll. What's the best possible way this shakes out for Republicans? And what's the most embarrassing?
It’s hard to know how this turns out well for Republicans. The whole event has Star Wars cantina quality, with all sorts of loose cannons on the program, from Sarah Palin to Dick Morris to Ann Coulter to various Andrew Breitbart acolytes, all poised to draw press attention by being as outrageous as required to reboot their variously fading careers. For added amusement, there’s a presentation by Newt Gingrich (introduced by Callista Gingrich, you'll be happy to hear) and a “Bringing Tolerance Out of the Closet” panel featuring what passes for “moderate” conservatives these days, Jonah Goldberg and the notorious Washington Post Romney-shilling blogger Jennifer Rubin. Perhaps the best thing that can happen for the GOP is that Trump wins the straw poll, celebrates by buying CPAC outright, and repackages it as a reality show for that other struggling national organization where Trump commands star billing, NBC.