September 14, 2011

The Republican establishment is said to have grave qualms about Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s presidential campaign. Here’s the problem: There is no Republican establishment. It squandered its authority by building up the Tea Party’s brigades and then fearing them too much to do anything to check their power.

Worse for those who think Perry would be a general-election disaster is the growing confidence among conservatives that President Obama will be easy to beat. This feeling will be bolstered by Tuesday’s special election that sent a Republican to Congress from New York’s 9th District for the first time since 1923. If Obama is going to lose anyway, many conservatives reason, why not go with their hearts?

No, if Perry is to be defeated, he will have to do the job himself. And the week’s most important political news is that he might do just that.

His vulnerabilities were certainly on display at this week’s CNN/Tea Party Express debate. Perry still hasn’t disentangled himself from his past suggestions that Social Security is unconstitutional. He will also be hurt by his humane position on immigration. He should be praised for it, but it will only bring him scorn among GOP primary voters.

His biggest problem, however, is his executive order requiring preteen girls in Texas to be immunized against a disease that causes cervical cancer, a decision that the religious right didn’t like and that Perry now says was a mistake. The dangerous charge here is influence-peddling.

He issued the order after he was lobbied by his former chief of staff, who went to work for Merck, the drug company that makes the vaccine. It turns out Perry has received almost $30,000 in contributions from Merck over the years (not just the $5,000 he mentioned in the debate), and his ties to Merck have been documented to run deeper than that.

Perry’s response to the pay-for-play intimation from Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) was one of the worst of its sort ever offered by a politician. “The company was Merck, and it was a $5,000 contribution that I had received from them,” Perry declared. “I raise about $30 million. And if you’re saying that I can be bought for $5,000, I’m offended.” The question this raised in a listener’s mind was: So how much can you be bought for? That question will linger.

This helps Mitt Romney. It also cheers most Republicans who pass for the establishment these days and who worry that the Tea Party crowd will get Perry nominated. Yet these Republicans have only themselves to blame for abdicating to the far right.

Business lobbies, once a moderating force, are largely out for themselves, concentrating their energies on how much they can secure in tax and regulatory benefits.

Moderate politicians have been drummed out of the party or silenced as its leaders have played ball with the extremists throughout Obama’s term, rarely calling out their most outlandish and mendacious attacks. The theory was that anything that weakened Obama was good for the GOP. When Tea Party commentators proffered conspiracy theories straight out of the old John Birch Society playbook, Republican officials either stayed mum or nodded sagely as if their new allies were referencing Edmund Burke or Milton Friedman.

The Republican triumph in a New York City district that uses a lovely stretch of water to connect white ethnic neighborhoods in Queens and Brooklyn will aggravate the party’s overconfidence and prevent a showdown with the Tea Party.

Republican Bob Turner’s victory with 54 percent of the vote in what had been Anthony Weiner’s district is certainly alarming for Democrats. The White House will be tamping down panic by pointing to local factors, but its supporters in Congress are paying heed to the ill winds that blew in from Jamaica Bay.

Still, this area was greatly affected by the politics of 9/11, and its Democratic presidential vote has dropped steadily since the 2000 election. Obama won 55 percent in 2008, only two points more than his national share. The swing against the Democrats on Tuesday thus roughly matched Obama’s drop in the national polls. The result tells us what we already knew, not more.

Yet if conservatives see New York’s 9th as further evidence that Obama is a pushover, Rick Perry — if he doesn’t self-destruct — will be able to tell them he is the guy who can destroy the Great Society, the New Deal and the Progressive Era with one decisive blow. And no establishment will be there to stop him.

ejdionne@washpost.com