Thursday, September 8, 2011

What Message is Perry Sending?

Watching last night’s Republican presidential debate, I couldn’t manage to sustain much interest in any candidate besides Rick Perry and Mitt Romney—except to wonder whether Jon Huntsman can really be as insufferable as he came across and whether the same MSNBC stylist who does Al Sharpton’s hair did Michele Bachmann's. Nor could I be bothered forming an opinion about whether Romney or Perry “won” because, like Jonathan Bernstein, I don’t think it matters much at this point. I tuned in last night, like a lot of people, to get a bead on the material differences between the Perry and Romney presidential candidacies.

If there are any noteworthy programmatic differences, I didn’t catch them. Perry and Romney talked a lot about their respective resumes, but when it came to what they propose to do in the White House, they read from the same Republican hymnal: keeping taxes low, capping federal spending, repealing ObamaCare, getting a handle on unfunded entitlements, etc. What mattered was not so much what they said, but the cultural signals they were trying to transmit by the way they said it.   It sounds, for example, like a Perry administration and a Romney administration would address the projected insolvency of Social Security in similar ways. But Perry wanted to make sure you heard that he wasn’t backing off calling it a “Ponzi scheme” as presently constituted, and Romney wanted to make sure you knew that he’d never say anything that crass.

Of the debate commentary I’ve seen, Jonathan Chait’s is the most attuned to the cultural signaling that was going on last night. To hear him tell it, Romney was there to demonstrate his intellectual mastery of issues while Perry was there to give the Republican base a heady whiff of testosterone:
"Romney approaches every question as if he is in an actual debate, trying to provide the most intellectually compelling answer available, within the bounds of political expediency. Perry treats questions as interruptions. . . . Perry eerily apes the style of George W. Bush, who was also mocked for his intellectually vapid debating style, but who succeeded in rallying Republicans behind him. I don’t think it’s a coincidence. . . . I suspect the Bush-Perry debating style broadcasts a subliminal message of strong leadership. Romney feels compelled to bind himself to the parameters of the question before him. Perry ignores them. It is, in a sense, an alpha male move. I am not going to lower myself to your premise about scientists. I am going to declare my principles.”
I can see Chait’s point about Romney. He was letting us know that, while he can hold his own in the marketplace or a town hall stacked with angry Tea Partiers, he’d be perfectly at home discussing the nuances of policy at the Kennedy School or the Council on Foreign Relations. Romney’s demeanor in the debate was designed to let us know that his staunch conservatism doesn’t mean that his standards of intellectual mastery are much different from those of people like Chait.

What's more, I agree with Chait that Perry knew exactly what he was doing.  Yet the strained comparison between Perry and Bush suggests to me that Chait hasn't quite picked up on what Perry’s signaling. I submit that it’s virtually impossible to imagine W calling a sitting president from the other party an “abject liar” or writing a book like Perry’s Fed Up in the run-up to a presidential campaign.  If Bush had forgotten that such things aren't done he had Karl Rove there to remind him.

Granted, after 9/11 Bush was always happy to contrast his steadfastness in the War on Terror with his opponents’ inconstancy. But “provocative language” casting doubt on an opponent’s integrity or being visibly "fed up" were never his style. And Bush usually made a point of keeping his testosterone between Laura and himself. On the few occasions when he didn’t—think of him strutting his stuff in a flight suit in front of that “Mission Accomplished” banner—he came quickly to regret it.

When Perry makes a spectacle of himself not backing off calling Social Security a “Ponzi scheme” and a “monstrous lie," then, he isn’t channeling Bush. Moreover, testosterone can’t have much to do with it because it’s a technique he probably picked up from Sarah Palin. After John McCain chose her as his running mate, highly credentialed elites took one look at her resume and concluded that she was patently unqualified for high office. The normal response of a politician in her place (think of Dan Quayle in 1988) would have been a conscientious effort to impersonate a qualified office-holder according to the standards of the scribbling classes.

Palin decided that's a mug's game for a conservative politician who'd never win elite approval except (like McCain in 2000 and maybe Romney now) for the purpose of disparaging a more conservative politician. So she stood her cultural ground by dropping her “Gs” more insistently and saying things (e.g., that Obama was “palling around with terrorists”) calculated to make liberal heads explode. For a lot of people in the Republican base who were tired of being condescended to, Palin’s determined effort to keep speaking their language even if it made her unpresentable in the eyes of the Council on Foreign Relations crowd made supporting her into an act of elemental self-respect.

My guess is that Perry's playing the same game.  He wrote Fed Up when he had to be plotting his presidential candidacy precisely to create an occasion for Palinesque defiance down the road. There will be plenty of time before the general election, when independent voters start paying attention, to issue an innocuous four-point plan for shoring up Social Security that will take the edge off calling it a "monstrous lie" now. But by then, he figures, the Republican base will have gotten the message that the most dogged enemy of its own cultural enemies is its best friend.

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