Michele Bachmann began battling Rick Perry for the Republican Party’s right wing this week. But beyond the superficial — gender, twang, regional affiliation — what’s the difference between the two Tea Party favorites? There’s at least one: Perry has had to run a state and actually make policy. Bachmann has been a far-right GOP backbencher who could remain ideologically pure with few practical consequences.
The going assumption is that a governor’s mansion is the best place from which to launch a presidential campaign. Unlike leaders in Congress, executives can say that they ran something on their own — and they don’t have to take as many messy votes on possibly controversial bills. Bachmann’s candidacy is an argument that the best position from which to run for president is irrelevance in Congress, because you can easily pander to the base when the stakes — you’re only one of 535 votes — are so low. You can rant away about not raising the debt limit when your colleagues won’t let that happen.
So, with a sterling Tea Party voting record — and almost no real accomplishments to show for it — Bachmann has slammed Perry for two policy decisions — on public health and on immigration — that fall under the category of “obvious choices you would make if you were running the State of Texas.”
Perry, for example, signed an executive order mandating that Texas school girls get vaccinated against HPV, which causes cervical cancer. Bachmann says this is statist meddling, without also giving it credit for being glaringly rational. No matter how it’s passed on, HPV spreads among students at high rates. Broad inoculation would arrest that spread, and drastically reduce the incidence of cervical cancer. Perry chose to err on the side of public health rather than misplaced concerns about government overreach. Bachmann never had to decide whether to sign that executive order — which is not as easy as condemning it during a debate.
Bachmann must run against what others have done. She’s against mandatory inoculation. She’s against Dodd-Frank. She’s against raising the debt limit. At the top of her list of “accomplishments” is being the “tip of the spear” of opposition to the Democrats’ health-care law (and she wasn’t even that). Her standby throwaway line for months has been about making “Barack Obama a one-term president.”
That’s not to say that Perry is a great exponent of reasonable policy thinking, even by comparison with Bachmann. Despite apparently knowing better, he uses know-nothing tactics similar to Bachmann’s, including disregard for empirical evidence and expert consensus when it’s ideologically convenient — like when he insists that the stimulus created literally “zero” jobs or when he dismisses climate science as a vast international conspiracy . As Jennifer Rubin pointed out on Wednesday, he flaunts ignorance . And he employs a sharp, angry tone that indicts the character of those who disagree with him.
Both candidates’ approaches assume a GOP electorate unwilling to balance real-world tradeoffs against right-wing ideology. Is it better that Perry has shown the capacity to think about those tradeoffs and often doesn’t? Or is it better that Bachmann hasn’t really had to?