A good litmus test of how far right a politician is leaning is the question of President Obama's place of birth.
Yes, this is still an issue. A recent survey of 400 Republican primary voters nationwide by Public Policy Polling found that 51 percent either believed that the president wasn't born in the United States or weren't sure.
Here's what one prominent Republican figure said on the so-called birther issue: "It's distracting. It gets annoying, and let's just stick with what really matters."
A second important Republican, asked to stand up to birther ignorance, responded, "It's not my job to tell the American people what to think." And, on the canard that Obama is secretly a Muslim: "The president says he's a Christian. I accept him at his word." (Taking the president "at his word" is code to tea partiers. It means, "He's a liar but there's nothing I can do about it.")
Here's what is interesting. The first quote — the more reasonable, if we're grading on a curve — happens to be from Sarah Palin, the person we normally think of as holding the pole position in the Republicans' daily race to the outer edge of our political galaxy. The latter quotes are from House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, on NBC's "Meet the Press."
Lapping Palin is one way Boehner can prove himself to his House freshmen. The insider of insiders, Boehner smoked, drank and wept his way to his gavel. Now the man who once handed out campaign checks from the tobacco industry on the House floor finds that his old unsubtle ways don't win quite as many friends.
Boehner is being pulled in different directions by his freshmen, by the larger Republican Party and by his own nature.
Republicans can't win the presidency in 2012 by ceaselessly pandering to the tea party, a lesson even Palin has absorbed — as shown by her slight retreat on Obama's citizenship. To win, Republicans must appeal to moderates and independents, many of whom are partial to clean water and Pell Grants.
Already the cutters have shown Boehner who's boss. His $35 billion in pledged budget cuts quickly morphed into their $100 billion. Where he would trim, they would slash, even if it means being penny-wise and pound-foolish.
Cut home-heating-oil assistance and you risk sending more people to emergency rooms and seeing homes flooded by burst pipes. Demolish neighborhood block grants and you get more homeless people evicted because there's no one to negotiate rent payments with landlords. Cut food inspections and you get more E. coli.
More than Ross Perot, the tea party has focused the country on the crazy aunt in the attic — the deficit — so that fighting it trumps concerns over unemployment, failing schools, crumbling infrastructure and health care. As long as the supposedly adult conversation we're having remains childishly vague, it's easy to turn those complaining about cuts into welfare queens who should toughen up.
Even worse is how some supposed budget hawks, on the eve of battle, made deficits even worse with tax cuts for the haves, then used mounting deficit projections to justify cuts to discretionary programs that mostly hurt the have-nots. So much for spreading the pain.
The new austerity-chic is playing out in Wisconsin, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker gave tax cuts to businesses while demanding givebacks from public employees. He also wants to strip most public workers of their collective bargaining rights to make sure they don't ever get their sweet packages again.
Analysts say that public pay in Wisconsin is in line with private pay for similar work. State workers have agreed to contribute more for their benefits. Walker, refusing to take "yes" for an answer, prefers to use the issue as a pretext to cripple organized labor.
What an odd chapter in American history we're living through. Suggesting that the financial elite might be responsible for the economic mess we're in brings cries of "class warfare." Meanwhile, congressmen and governors, under cover of cutting deficits created by congressmen and governors, wage real class warfare on janitors and on parents trying to pay their mortgage or send their kids to college.
Blaming nurse's aides and prison guards for the death grip this economy has on the middle class is to indulge a fantasy on par with the fairy tale of an American president born in Kenya and secretly Muslim.