Much of that bluster is likely to play well, at least in the Republican primary. Perry’s alpha male, Lone Star cowboy image will make him the perfect foil to President Obama’s level-headed, cool intellectual. His farm-boy roots and all-day prayer sessions will give him an edge over Mitt Romney’s wealth and Mormon faith when it comes to rural Republicans and Christian conservatives. And his more than 10 years as governor of the second largest state in the nation make Michelle Bachmann look like the less experienced representative that she is.
But all that cowboy strutting can easily go too far. Exhibit A: Rick Perry said in Iowa Monday that if Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke “prints more money between now and the election, I don't know what y'all would do to him in Iowa, but we would treat him pretty ugly down in Texas.” He went on to say that Bernanke’s doing so would be “almost treasonous.”
Reaction to the comments has been swift in some corners. Ezra Klein and National Review’s Ranesh Ponnuru question the economics behind the statement. NYU professor and economist Nouriel Roubini had some choice words for the candidate. And former George W. Bush deputy press secretary Tony Fratto called his remarks “inappropriate and unpresidential.”
Of Fratto’s assessment, at least, I couldn’t agree more. The implied violence against Ben Bernanke is far more provocative language than most Americans—or at least the independent voters who decide general elections—expect to hear from potential presidents. Call it early primary campaign stop strutting all you want, but it’s uncivil, it’s dangerous and it’s uncalled for from someone running for the highest office in the world. ”We would treat him pretty ugly down in Texas” sounds a lot like an implied threat that easily crosses the line from macho swagger to risky ranting.
There’s little doubt that Perry’s brand of rough and tumble rhetoric is going to be appealing to many people. In difficult times, people look for strength, fortitude and vigor from their leaders. But there’s a fine line between backbone and brute force, and the sort of language Perry is putting to work has me fearing another year and a half of demagoguery, battlefield vernacular and calls not to retreat, but reload. That may be the red meat that primary voters look for. But when it comes to electing a president, we should expect and deserve more.
More from On Leadership:
Paul O’Neill: Only the president can restart America’s engine
Evan Thomas: Mr. President, want to save your approval rating?
Jena McGregor: Warren Buffett’s leader pulpit