Dana Milbank
Opinion writer September 7, 2011

SIMI VALLEY, Calif.

“Maybe it’s time to have some provocative language in this country,” Rick Perry proposed midway through Wednesday night’s debate.

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

And Perry, the Texas governor, did more than propose. Debating for the first time with his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination, he was on a one-man campaign to spread provocative language.

The querulous candidate, in his debut, fought with everybody and every thing.

Social Security, he declared anew, is “a monstrous lie” and a “Ponzi scheme.”

Making economic decisions because of climate-change science is “nonsense,” he announced, likening scientists who believe in global warming to flat-earthers. “Galileo got outvoted for a spell,” he said.

Perry berated President Obama, saying he either “has some of the poorest intel of a president in the history of this country, or he was an abject liar to the American people.”

The governor quarreled with his own former political adviser, Karl Rove: “Karl has been over the top for  a long time in some of his remarks, so, you know, I’m not responsible for Karl anymore.”

He criticized former President George W. Bush: “I don’t think America needs to be in the business of adventurism.”

He dismissed former Vice President Dick Cheney, who had disagreed with Perry:  “I don’t care what anyone says.”

Perry bickered with the moderator, saying a question was “incorrect” and “hypocritical.”

He even mixed it up with the gadfly Ron Paul, reminding the also-ran candidate that he once “wrote to Ronald Reagan saying I’m going to quit the party because of the things you believe in.”

And, naturally, Perry bickered with Mitt Romney, his leading opponent for the nomination. “Michael Dukakis created jobs three times faster than you did, Mitt,” Perry charged.

Romney, who had declined to draw first blood, replied: “Well, as a matter of fact, George Bush and his predecessor created jobs at a faster rate than you did, Governor.”

“That’s not correct,” Perry retorted.

“Yeah, it is correct,” the former Massachusetts governor said evenly.

“That’s not correct,” Perry taunted with a grin.

Actually, Romney was correct.  The rate of nonfarm payroll growth under Perry, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, was 1 percent annually, compared to 3.2 percent for Bush.

But being wrong was no obstacle for the pugnacious Perry.

When moderator Brian Williams of NBC pointed out that a large number of the jobs created during Perry’s tenure were low-wage jobs, Perry disputed that claim. But it’s true.

When the other moderator, Politico’s John Harris, pointed out that Texas ranks dead last in the number of people who lack health insurance, Perry claimed that it was because the federal government “for years” hadn’t granted the Medicaid changes he requested. PolitiFact has rated that a “pants on fire” falsehood.

Whether or not Perry’s pants were smoking, his temper was hot. The man who has flirted with secession and suggested that the Federal Reserve chairman was guilty of treason was determined to deliver more of the same.

Before the debate, he bounded onto the stage and began making salutes to the crowd. He took several deep breaths, licked his lips liberally, and, when the lights came up, he let fly. After Romney, invited by the moderators to criticize Perry’s lack of private-sector experience, declined to pick a fight, Perry decided to strike first. “We created more jobs in the last three months in Texas than he created in four years in Massachusetts,” the Texan claimed.

When the moderators solicited thoughts from the other candidates on Romneycare, Perry again pressed the attack. “It was a great opportunity for us as a people to see what will not work,” he said. When moderator Harris pointed out Texas’s worst-in-the-nation health coverage, Perry let it be known that Texans “don’t want a health-care plan like what Governor Romney put in place.”

The Texan was an active finger pointer. Asked about the vast wealth imbalance between white and black households, Perry’s answer was that people “can best take care of their family, not government.” Asked about Texas’s worst-in-the-nation school graduation rates and his education-funding cuts, Perry blamed immigrants. After Paul ranted about Perry’s attempt to impose mandatory vaccines for girls to protect against the sexually transmitted HPV virus, Perry complained, “I kind of feel like the pinata here at the party.”

Far more often, though, Perry wielded the stick. Romney watched this display of prodigious anger with calm detachment, occasionally offering a gentle admonishment such as, “our nominee has to be someone who isn’t committed to abolishing Social Security.” But this only caused Perry to blurt out “Ponzi scheme” again.

Perry’s anger proved contagious. When he defended the record-high number of executions he has allowed, the audience applauded. “What do you make of that dynamic that just happened here, the mention of the execution of 234 people drew applause?” moderator Williams asked.

Perry, who vetoed legislation that would have banned executions of the mentally disabled, replied: “I think Americans understand justice.”

Here’s another explanation: When you rile up a crowd to the point where they applaud death, your language doesn’t need to be any more provocative.

danamilbank@washpost.com