Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Perry Freak Out

If you believe Ben Smith and Maggie Haberman, liberals are freaking out at the prospect of Rick Perry in the White House (my emphasis):
“[W]ith the realization that the conservative Texan could conceivably become the 45th president of the United States, a wave of alarm centering around Perry’s drawling, small-town affect and stands on core cultural issues such as women’s rights, gun control, the death penalty, and the separation of church and state.

“The epidemic of lefty angst isn’t just a matter of specific Perry policies though; it goes to the heart of the liberal worldview.”
Smith and Haberman cite enough examples of liberal hyperventilation to give credence to the idea of a “Perry freak-out” in liberal circles. If Mitt Romney ends up being the Republican presidential nominee, Democrats will undoubtedly think up plenty of nasty things to say about him down the road. That’s just run-of-the-mill partisanship. But Romney doesn’t excite the same primal fears within the liberal community that Perry does.

Why not? Take another look at the first italicized passage in the above quote. As far as I can tell, there’s no material difference between Romney’s and Perry’s “stands on core cultural issues such as women’s rights, gun control, the death penalty, and the separation of church and state.” They’re both diligently reciting the now-standard Republican talking points on those issues.

That leaves “Perry’s drawling, small-town affect” as the operative variable provoking "angst" that "goes to the heart of the liberal worldview." When Perry puts his good-old-boy spin on Republican boilerplate he sounds to liberals like he really means it. Perhaps the reassuring thing about Romney is that, despite his best efforts to simulate conviction, he doesn’t sound like he really means much of anything he says (except for the part about wanting to be our next president). The theory floating around at the back of liberal minds might be something like this: if you’re going to have a conservative-sounding president, better that he should be an unprincipled opportunist than a true believer inasmuch as there’s always the chance that, once in office, an unprincipled opportunist won’t govern like an authentic conservative.

When you think about it, however, that shouldn’t be all that reassuring a thought to confirmed liberals. Assume that Perry really is a conviction politician and that Romney’s conservatism really is mostly a cynical affectation. Perry’s worth freaking out over only insofar as liberals are convinced that a politician who wears his conservative convictions on his sleeve can win enough votes to get elected and enough of an electoral mandate to do some real harm in the Oval Office by governing according to his convictions.

Yet if Perry’s conservatism is popular enough to give a Republican politician a clear path to the White House and a governing mandate once he gets there, why wouldn’t a cynical opportunist like President Romney govern pretty much the way an authentically conservative President Perry would? A politician with his finger extended as resolutely into the wind as Romney is unlikely to forget what happened to George H.W. Bush, the last Republican President who got elected pretending to be more conservative than he really was (“Read my lips. No new taxes!”). If Romney is cynical enough to affect conservatism when it comes to campaigning, why wouldn't he be cynical enough to affect it when it comes to governing with an eye toward reelection?

I conclude that, if Romney isn’t scary to liberals, it can only be on the assumption that, despite his best efforts to conceal them, he really has core convictions that aren’t all that conservative. The liberal hope can only be that, once he secures the Republican nomination by sending out the obligatory signals to the yahoos in the cheap seats, Romney will repair to a default position of the sensible centrism he displayed when he was running against Ted Kennedy for the Senate in the early 1990s and signed RomneyCare into law as the governor of Massachusetts.

Maybe so.  Yet, taken by themselves, the facts of Romney’s political career shouldn’t inspire much confidence in the notion that Romney’s really a closet centrist. Judging by his conduct as a politician, the only thing we know about him for sure is that he’s an inveterate panderer. The various political positions he has taken over the years present just as much evidence for the proposition that the old Romney was an authentic conservative pandering to mainstream sentiment in liberal Massachusetts than for the proposition that the new Romney is an authentic centrist pandering to the Republican base in the last two presidential election cycles.  Yes, Romney now sometimes looks like a contortionist trying to reconcile new and old positions on public policy (e.g., RomneyCare was good for Massachusetts even though ObamaCare will be bad for the country at large).  But that might be less an expression of authentic centrism than a way of pandering to the people who are getting sick of his serial pandering.  The thing about Romney is that you can never tell.

That brings us back to to the implied comparison between “Perry’s drawling, small-town affect” and Romney’s Ivy League, high-finance sheen. Perry’s from the Texas back country; Romney’s from Massachusetts. Perry was a cheerleader and indifferent student at Texas A&M; Romney has business and law degrees from Harvard. Perry isn’t embarrassed to say that he doesn’t subscribe to the theories of evolution or anthropocentric global warming; for all his opportunistic pandering, that’s something that Romney can’t quite bring himself to say in polite company.

Those, I suspect, are really the things making liberals freak out about Perry and giving them a newfound appreciation of Romney.  There's a culture war going on about whose thoughts warrant respectful attention, and Perry's on the other side of the barricades, preparing to throw some of the same rocks at Romney that he's been throwing at liberals for years.  Winning that war means a lot to liberals, maybe more than winning the next election.


Mean Voter said...

I was reading the Wall Street Journal opinion page today and say the same quote you had in this post in the Notable & Quotable column.

Is it just a coincidence that you and the Wall Street Journal are quoting the same thing? Or is that Smith and Haberman have really struck a nerve?

Bugsy said...

Bush mostly ignored liberals, Perry goes out of his way to taunt them. Bush dropped the occasional religious reference, Perry leads a public prayer for rain from the Texas statehouse. Bush wanted to partially privatize Social Security, Perry thinks it's unconstitutional. There hasn't been a candidate with a good chance of winning the Republican nomination anywhere near as conservative as Perry since Barry Goldwater--and Goldwater didn't mix conservative politics with fundamentalist religion. No wonder we liberals are freaking out.