KUHNER: How the media are dividing Republicans

Debates provoke Republican hopefuls’ conflicts with each other rather than with Obama

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The liberal media are President Obama’s last hope. His popularity is plummeting. The economy is in crisis. Global recovery has stalled. The Middle East is drifting toward chaos. Even many Democrats concede that Mr. Obama’s re-election is in serious jeopardy. Hence, he has only one chance left: Provoke the GOP presidential candidates to tear each other apart.

And that is exactly what they are doing. The administration and its Democratic media allies have laid a trap - and the Republican nominees are rushing headlong into it. This started with the Sept. 7 debate hosted by NBC and Politico, which focused on the supposed differences on Social Security between Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

In reality, both men rightly understand that the entitlement program is going broke. Unless it is profoundly reformed, the pension system is financially unsustainable. The demographics - the shrinking ratio of workers who pay into the system and the coming wave of baby-boomer retirees who are scheduled to receive benefits - cannot be altered. The choice is clear: Either the program is revamped or it collapses.

The establishment media, however, are obsessed with Mr. Perry having characterized the program as a “Ponzi scheme.” Mr. Perry’s only “mistake” was he said something that Washington potentates consider controversial: the truth. Social Security is a form of inter-generational theft. Today’s average beneficiary gets much more than he puts in, leaving future generations to pay the mounting tab. If a private business ran its finances the same way, the owners would rightly be sent to prison. It has been a massive fraud perpetrated upon the American people.

Yet Social Security is the crown jewel of the New Deal. For liberals, it is the political Holy Grail. This is why they despise Mr. Perry. His call for the program to be partially privatized and devolved to the states strikes at the heart of welfare liberalism. Democrats have become ideological reactionaries, resisting any attempts to modernize entitlement programs through market-based reforms. They are now smearing Mr. Perry as someone who hates seniors and wants to take away their pension checks. This is a lie. His proposals would not only save and improve Social Security, but are intended only for those under the age of 55. In other words, it will have no impact - zilch, zero, none - on current or soon-to-be retirees.

Many Republicans, however, are taking their cue from the liberal press corps. They are denouncing Mr. Perry for his “language” and “poor choice of words.” Mr. Romney is now running ads that could have been produced by the Democratic National Committee, hoping to scare seniors over Mr. Perry’s ideas. The two GOP front-runners should be waging a frontal assault upon Mr. Obama’s dismal record and showcasing to voters their positions on Social Security, health care reform (besides simply repealing Obamacare), slashing the debt and fostering economic recovery. Instead, they are attacking - and undermining - each other. Mr. Obama must be laughing in the White House.

Monday’s CNN debate was another case in point. Moderator Wolf Blitzer, consistently asked questions that aimed to create fissures among the candidates on Social Security, illegal immigration and Mr. Perry’s 2007 decision to vaccinate Texas schoolgirls against human papillomavirus (HPV) - a common sexually transmitted disease that can lead to cervical cancer. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota excoriated him for mandating the HPV vaccination. She also went a step further, accusing Mr. Perry of corruption. She charged that his former top aide, Mike Toomey, a chief lobbyist at Merck & Co., the pharmaceutical giant that produces the Gardasil vaccine, received special favors in return for lucrative campaign donations.

Mr. Perry’s executive order was wrong. It violated family autonomy and personal responsibility. Mr. Perry has admitted it was a mistake, he has apologized for it and the order was eventually overturned by the Texas legislature. The HPV vaccination was not Watergate. Mrs. Bachmann, however, refuses to back away from her accusations of influence-peddling. Even Sarah Palin is jumping on the bandwagon, decrying Mr. Perry’s “crony capitalism.” This may be true. But so far, there is one problem: evidence - or rather the lack of it. Making a charge is not the same thing as proving it.

The result is that the GOP is slowly descending into a civil war. Candidates are now turning their guns on one another instead of attacking the real enemy: Mr. Obama. What is remarkable about the recent debates is how little the moderators asked about America’s swift decline during the past three years. The record deficits, the historic credit downgrade, high unemployment, creeping inflation, economic sclerosis, soaring poverty rates, more than 45 million Americans on food stamps, the pervasive opposition to Obamacare, the abandonment of Israel, Iran’s impending acquisition of a nuclear bomb, the rise of radical Islam in Egypt and Libya - all of this is a direct result of Mr. Obama’s transnational hard-left policies. Yet hardly a question has been asked about any of these issues. Like in 2008, the liberal media is trying to prop him up.

Primaries are supposed to be combative - a chance for voters to assess where candidates stand on the issues and to evaluate their records. Debating policy is one thing, mud-slinging and demagoguery is quite another - especially when the incumbent president is systematically dismantling America. Almost any of the Republican challengers - Mr. Perry, Mr. Romney, Mrs. Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Rep. Ron Paul, Herman Cain - would be infinitely better than Mr. Obama. And any of them could probably beat him in 2012 - unless, they so badly bleed each other that the eventual nominee is too weak and tarnished to win. This is what the establishment media is counting on.

Jeffrey T. Kuhner is a columnist at The Washington Times and president of the Edmund Burke Institute.

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