I have been tough on Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s shoot-from-the-lip style. My concern is three-fold. First, I have a visceral dislike for trash-talking pols who aspire to the highest office in the country. It demeans them and coarsens our public debate when they hurl epithets at opponents and government itself. Second, it is a substitute, a verbal crutch, for smart discussion. It avoids troublesome questions about how the candidate is going to govern and conveys (as then candidate Barack Obama did) a sort of intellectual simplicity that if we just got rid of the “seedy” and “treacherous” types, we’d have smooth-sailing. And finally, it’s a political loser, especially when it comes with a heavy regional element.
Have I been too tough on Perry? Well, I’ve praised and defended his record and views on immigration, Israel and defense spending, to name a few. But the problem I’ve been writing about is real and significant.
Other conservatives are starting to agree. Jonah Goldberg writes today: “Conservatism is starting to have an identity-politics problem all its own. I think conservatism needs to spend less time defending candidates for who they are, and more time supporting candidates for what they intend to do. . . . Mississippi governor Haley Barbour can talk seriously and colorfully at the same time. But this time around, folksiness isn’t a substitute for seriousness, and I have very little patience for those who pretend otherwise.” Jonah is referring to the Texas shtick and the anti-intellectual pretense, but the trash talking, of course, exaggerates this problem. Perry doesn’t sound very smart when he’s wielding a 2 x 4 at opponents and the entire federal government.
Peggy Noonan calls it Perry’s “popping off” problem.” She writes about his slam at Fed chairman Ben Bernanke, his cracks about Texas secession (“We’ve got a great union. There’s absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that.”) and his snide remarks about Obama’s love of country (“I dunno, you need to ask him.”):
Why does this kind of thing matter? Because presidential temperament has never been more important. We can’t escape presidents now, they’re all over every screen, and they set a tone.
And the nation is roiling and restive. After Mr. Obama was elected, the right became angry, feisty, and created a new and needed party, the tea party. The right was on fire. The next time a Republican wins, and that could be next year, it will be the left that shows real anger, with unemployment high and no jobs available and government spending and services likely to be cut. The left will be on fire. The only thing leashing them now is the fact of Mr. Obama.
So there will be plenty of new angers out there. It probably won’t be helpful if the next president is someone likely to add to the drama with a hot temperament or carelessness.
And it won’t help get him elected either.
The danger for Perry is that he takes false comfort in relatively meaningless national polls and concludes that what he is doing is “working.” But it takes a while for voters to soak up what they see and hear. What sounds like candor the first time becomes grating after weeks or months. And soon they conclude that there’s not much beyond the invectives.
Moreover, Perry hasn’t said very much as yet about what he actually wants to do should he make it to the Oval Office. What does he want to do on taxes, the debt, spending, entitlement reform, immigration reform and the rest? I dunno. I hope we find out and learn that behind that bravado there is a forceful intellect, a yen for reform and a steady temperament. But we won’t find out unless he cuts out the political equivalent of Don Rickles. (For those who don’t know, Rickles is a comedian famous for obnoxious insults.) If nothing else, Perry should take a look at Sarah Palin’s disapproval rating with Republicans; the lesson there: Republicans can love your act and abhor the idea of your being president.