Texas Gov. Rick Perry has shaken things up, to put it mildly, in the Republicans’ presidential primary. He has scrambled the race and engendered a great deal of foolish talk on the right and the left.
Starting on the left, you have several very silly themes. The first is the “dumb” meme. The problem here is both a lack of finesse and facts — by liberal critics, that is. Acting with a sledgehammer, they leave themselves open to the obvious rebuttals. He’s been elected four times, he speaks well, and he has presided over an economically successful state. Rather than use a scalpel to make a more cogent argument, namely that he is short on policy proposals or his ideas are wacky (e.g., repealing the 16th and 17th amendments), the left’s chain saw hackery has only strengthened his appeal with conservatives.
The next liberal meme is, “Oh my, he’ll get the left all excited!” You see, if the Republicans would only choose a not-very-conservative, non-scary candidate like Jon Huntsman, the left would go to sleep, and the GOP could snatch victory. Gosh, the left is just looking out for the conservative movement. It’s absurd, of course. Conservatives want the most electable conservative and the one best able to stand up to the Obama attack machine.
The final bit of liberal hooey is that Perry’s achievements don’t “count.” Texas already had low taxes, reasonable regulations and a pro-business environment! (Umm. That would be a formula for success, if the left would only acknowledge as much in policy fights and not merely for political convenience.) Well, the response goes, at least he didn’t kill the golden goose, and he is a proponent of the sorts of policies that have made and kept Texas prosperous.
The right, however, is not immune to its own brand of silliness; much of what you see in a the right-leaning blogosphere is defensive if not angry. Don’t listen to the media — it’s a trap! They said Reagan was dumb too! If the left is upset, he must be fantastic!
Some of these conservative voices are clearly Perry boosters. Others have a curious view that goes something like this: “Well, he’s kind of a blowhard, and he really doesn’t know much about foreign policies, and he’s no Paul Ryan but who else is there?” That sort of reasoning is perfectly rational for voters or for the party as a whole, but for the conservative punditocracy it suggests both an intellectual insincerity and an exaggerated confidence that Perry will stand up for conservative principles over political pragmatism once in office.
It is eerily reminiscent of the liberal intelligentsia’s faith in the blank slate of Barack Obama. Obama wound up surrounding himself with Chicago pols and showing timidity rather than boldness when it conflicted with his political objectives (e.g., ducking on entitlement reform). I assume these same voices don’t want the White House run by Texas money men.
Another meme on the right is that Obama is so weak any conservative can beat him. Therefore, whoever the leader of the pack is will be good enough. This, I think, underestimates the brutality of the the Obama campaign attack machine. If there are legitimate, albeit modest issues (e.g., on ethics, on eccentric ideas in his book), they will be magnified and distorted. It behooves the GOP to find the best candidate possible with the fewest liabilities.
And of course there is the matter of governing. Conservatives pining for Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) understood the values of an intellectually rigorous, courageous conservative in the White House. That preference seems to have vanished overnight in many quarters. Now we hear: Who cares what he thinks?
The rally-around-the-nominee phenomenon is nothing new, but in this case, I would suggest, it is premature and dangerous for the right. Perry will need to demonstrate self-discipline (notice that since his comment on the Fed chairman he’s been less prone to shoot from the lip), commitment to reform (not merely destruction) of federal entitlements and budgeting, and appeal to voters outside the South and beyond the social conservative base. Can Perry withstand a grilling on “Meet the Press”? Can he rebuff challenges that his Texas tech funds (that doled out millions to political insiders) are no different than Obama’s failed green jobs initiatives? Is he willing to set aside far-fetched ideas (handing Social Security over to the states) in favor of muscular, serious conservative reforms?
He certainly is capable of doing that, and, if successful, will be the nominee. But for now, the right should demand answers, specifics and reassurance on the range of concerns about his candidacy. Otherwise, it may wind up with an unelectable candidate or an ill-equipped president. The party and the country can’t take that risk.