The new Republican reality: no policy is too right-wing

Conservative pipedreams are suddenly part of America's mainstream. Andrew Gumbel reports from Los Angeles
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Where should the United States invade next? Iran, Syria, or Cuba? Will George Bush merely slash taxes on the rich even further in his second term, or will he have the courage to abolish income tax altogether? Will gay marriage simply be outlawed state by state, or will a much-threatened constitutional amendment come into being?

Where should the United States invade next? Iran, Syria, or Cuba? Will George Bush merely slash taxes on the rich even further in his second term, or will he have the courage to abolish income tax altogether? Will gay marriage simply be outlawed state by state, or will a much-threatened constitutional amendment come into being?

These might once have been idle questions for conservative Washington think-tanks. But now, with President Bush safely re-elected for another four years and increased Republican majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives, such radical right-wing notions are no longer pipedreams. They are the active stuff of policy discussion.

Grass-roots conservatives, many of them religious fundamentalists who paved the way for President Bush's victory in the suburbs and the rural heartland, are positively salivating at the prospect of having their efforts rewarded.

"I don't know if we're going to abolish the prescription drug benefit [for senior citizens], but we'd like to. It's just an expansion of government," the Republican strategist and direct-mail guru Richard Viguerie said over the weekend. "We'd like to see oil and gas exploration increased in the continental United States. We want a constitutional amendment on marriage. We want the culture of life expanded."

This wish list and others like it now face little or no opposition in Congress, in the White House or - as the federal bench is increasingly filled with ideological conservatives - the courts. The rest of the world may have thought the first four years of Mr Bush's presidency were quite radical enough, but they could turn out to be just the hors d'oeuvre to a radical-right beanfeast.

The New York Times reported yesterday that Vice-President Dick Cheney was supporting the idea of abolishing income tax and replacing it with a flat national sales tax - a highly regressive notion that would effectively shift the tax burden drastically away from the rich to the dwindling middle class and the working poor.

In Cuban exile circles in Miami, meanwhile, hardline anti-Castro leaders are getting very excited by a pledge President Bush made in one of his last campaign appearances in Florida to liberate their homeland. Career diplomats at the State Department are getting concerned this might be an indication that military intervention - the first since President Kennedy's disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 - might be seriously contemplated.

State Department stalwarts are getting equally alarmed at the prospect - yet to be confirmed - that Colin Powell will depart his post as Secretary of State and open the door to a neo-conservative takeover of foreign and national security policy.

A senior State Department official, writing anonymously in the online magazine Salon.com last month, laid out a stark future for US policy in the Middle East in a second Bush term, the first part of which appears to be close to fruition already. "The neo-cons, working in tandem with a similar staff in the office of Prime Minister Sharon of Israel, have a three-part agenda for the first part of Bush's second term," he wrote. "First, oust Yasser Arafat; second, overthrow the secular Baathist al-Assad dictatorship in Syria; and, third, eliminate, one way or another, Iran's nuclear facilities."

The Republicans' domestic agenda is likely to contemplate the further delegation of social services to religious charities, the further concentration of media ownership in a few corporate, largely pro-Republican hands, further moves to restrict or even outlaw abortion, restrictions on the civil rights of gay couples (for example, their right to bequeath property to each other) and increasing challenges to Darwinian evolution in school classrooms.

Some of the new faces in the Senate gave a flavour of the kind of politics we can expect out of Washington in the next political cycle. Tom Coburn, newly elected Senator from Oklahoma, is on record saying he thinks doctors who perform abortions should be executed. (So much for the "culture of life" behind the anti-abortion movement.) Jim DeMint of South Carolina said during his campaign that homosexuals and unmarried pregnant women should not be allowed to teach in public schools.

Democrats and many Independents are appalled at the prospects ahead. Since moderation seems unlikely in the immediate future, some of them are left hoping the Republicans will overreach so drastically that it will create a large political backlash.

California: Three strikes and jail for life

Petty criminals who steal a slice of pizza or a pack of batteries are still liable to be sentenced to 25 years to life under a notoriously draconian piece of legislation known as California's Three Strikes law. First introduced in 1994, it was sold to the public as a way of ensuring that violent repeat offenders are kept out of harm's way. But it rapidly became clear that the law applied to offenders of almost any kind. As a result, thousands of shoplifters, welfare frauds and other small-time offenders found themselves on the receiving end of a judicial sledgehammer.

A modest proposal to amend the law and exempt the pizza-stealers was well on its way to success at the polls last Tuesday until a coalition of prosecutors and prison guards managed to talk Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and four former governors into campaigning to defeat the measure. The airwaves were bombarded with adverts falsely claiming that thousands of violent offenders would be released if the ballot initiative passed. Result: Three Strikes will stand unamended for the foreseeable future.

Arizona: Immigration

Arizona voters resoundingly endorsed a ballot initiative requiring immigrants to show proof of citizenship when seeking government benefits - potentially barring all foreigners from the public schools and health programmes.

Quite what the initiative known as Proposition 200 means is not clear because its language is vague, but already it has spooked the state's large Latino population, most of whom did not vote. Attendance at public pre-schools in Phoenix has already dropped - numbers at one visited by a reporter dropped from 20 to just 2 at the end of last week.

Supporters of Prop. 200 say it is time to crack down on illegal immigration. (This is a state where ranchers take pot shots at Mexicans sneaking across the border.) Statistics show undocumented workers pay more into the system in taxes than they take out of it. Opponents hope they can strike the measure down in court before it spreads to other states. A slightly less draconian measure was passed in 1994 in California but later deemed unconstitutional.

Oklahoma: Death penalty for abortion doctors

Widely seen as the kookiest candidate in the recent election, Oklahoma's new Senator-elect Tom Coburn is so conservative it actually pains him to request federal money for his home state - usually the number one job of any elected representative in Washington.

On his campaign, he advocated the death penalty for abortionists and "other people who take life" - not, presumably, executioners or US military personnel in Iraq. He loves guns so much that after the Columbine High School shootings in 1999 - when he was a Congressman - he said he saw nothing wrong with people having access to bazookas and using them "in a limited way". And he loathes homosexuals. "The gay community has infiltrated the very centres of power in every area across this country, and they wield extreme power," he said. "That agenda is the greatest threat to our freedom we face today. Why do you think we see the rationalisation for abortion and multiple sexual partners? That's a gay agenda." Interestingly, Coburn is a doctor - an obstetrician, to be exact, who once admitted sterilising a 20-year-old woman without her written consent.

Kentucky: The terrorists are out to get me

The republican Senator Jim Bunning achieved re-election by a hair, but not before spooking many of his constituents into thinking he had lost his marbles.

He insists that all rumours about Alzheimer's or another degenerative disease are nonsense. One can be forgiven, though, for thinking him a touch paranoid for insisting on a massive security detail in the less than high-profile Bluegrass State. ("There may be strangers among us," he said a few months ago, hinting that al-Qa'ida was out to get him.)

Ditto his assertion - entirely unsupported by the facts - that campaigners loyal to his Democratic rival beat up his wife until she was "black and blue". The Washington rumour mill suggests that, having won re-election, Senator Bunning - a former baseball star - may now quietly retire.

Nationwide: Replace income tax with a levy on sales

Extreme policy ideas begin in the White House itself. Dick Cheney, the Vice-President, was reported yesterday to favour the kind of tax reforms that would make even the most radical fiscal wonk blush.

Mr Cheney is said to be among a powerful lobby with the President's ear whose recommendations include the abolition of income tax, the cornerstone of a progressive tax policy. In its place would come a national sales tax, in effect replacing a tax on income with a levy on consumption.

The idea that a Bush administration would use the tax system to favour the rich is hardly an outlandish one. Much pre-election debate centred on tax cuts implemented during his first term, which were heavily weighted towards the better-off.

Nor would he be the first leader to try to tip the balance of taxation from direct to indirect levies: Margaret Thatcher cut income tax and raised value-added tax.

But the latest proposals would be something else entirely, and a sign that the election victory has given Mr Bush the mandate to rip up the rule book and start again when raising revenue.

Mr Cheney's is not, however, the only voice advising the President on this subject.

Creationists rule in Kansas, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania

The last time there was a conservative majority on the Kansas state school board in 1999, they voted to change the science curriculum and present Darwinian evolution as just one theory among many to account for the bio-diversity of the planet.

Back then, the move provoked national ridicule, led to a defeat for the conservatives at the next school board election and eventually caused their ruling to be reversed.

That, though, was before the conservative tidal wave heralded by the re-election of President George Bush. Now the creationists are back in the majority in Kansas and have every intention of re-opening the debate sometime in the next nine months, according to local newspapers.

And Charles "it's only a theory!" Darwin appears to be under siege in other parts of the country too.

In the small town of Grantsburg, Wisconsin, the school board just voted to introduce a very similar change in biology teaching. The local schools superintendnent, Joni Burgin, argues the science curriculum "should not be totally inclusive of just one scientific theory".

More than 300 biology and religious studies teachers have written to the board to protest, so far without result.

In Dover, Pennsylvania, the school board last week approved the teaching of a newish twist on creationism called "intelligent design" - a theory that does not entirely reject Darwin but says the process of evolution and natural selection is too complex and too wondrous to have occurred without the guiding hand of a divine force.

The evolution debate has never entirely gone away in the American heartland, but until very recently, it was deemed too ludicrous to make its way into public school rooms.

The notorious Scopes monkey trial in 1925 turned the United States into a global laughing-stock that has haunted public administrators ever since.

Two things have now changed, however. First, religious fundamentalists are succeeding in making their influence felt on school boards across the nation - everywhere from Colorado Springs in Colorado, to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to the rural Midwest (not only Wisconsin but also Ohio).

Secondly, hardline creationists are now taking a back seat to the proponents of "intelligent design", or ID, which can be seen as a paradoxical form of evolution within the creationist movement.

Unlike the cruder, God-made-the-world-in-six-days brigade, ID proponents are trained scientists with degrees from respectable universities. They do not so much challenge Darwin as chip away at him piece by piece.

South Carolina: Ban gay teachers homosexuals

South Carolina's new senator-elect, Jim DeMint, runs only a short distance behind Tom Coburn when it comes to extreme positions.

"If a person is a practising homosexual, they should not be teaching in our schools," he said during a televised campaign debate a month before the election. Two days later, he told a newspaper reporter he didn't think pregnant single women who live with their boyfriends should be allowed to teach either.

The comments created a furore and led to Republican aides begging him to tone down his rhetoric. DeMint agreed not to repeat them and told subsequent interviewers that the issue was one for local school boards, not the US Senate. But he refused to retract his remarks, much less apologise.

He is also an advocate of a flat sales tax in place of income tax, something that might endear him to certain fiscal radicals in the new Bush administration.

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