I don’t have a whole lot to add to what’s already been said about Rick Perry’s (official) entrance into the 2012 GOP primary field. Lots of people have already weighed in on it, and the general consensus strikes me as pretty much correct: Perry is yet another loud, brash, tough talking intellectual lightweight with a folksy accent and manner who will likely suffer somewhat by comparison with the other recent Texas governor who (still) doesn’t have the best public image.
Just a few quick thoughts strike me about Perry’s appeal and his chances, though, after the fold:
Right up front, I hope I don’t need to mention Perry as President would be an outright disaster. Don’t take any of the following to mean I don’t think that first and foremost when I think about Rick Perry. I do. Perry as President would essentially be George W. Bush without all that annoying intellectualism and gravitas.
Interestingly enough, that same former Texan governor/president’s people also don’t appear to like Mr. Perry much. In fact, they seem to have the have long knives out for him. Within hours of Perry’s recent comments about Ben Bernanke getting “treated rough in Texas” (if he were to visit after “printing money” prior to the 2012 election), no less a Bush administration figure than Karl Rove himself went on FOX News to dress Perry down for his remarks.
The reason there’s been so much attention paid to Rick Perry’s entrance into the 2012 GOP primary field (Huntsman never got this kind of ink in a week; for that matter, neither did Gingrich, and he was speaker of the house!) is that politics-watchers all over get the sense that this guy has a particular combination of traits that might make him a real contender. What is this magical combination of traits? You’d expect it to be some uncanny mix of personal background and accomplishments, personal temperament, and political outlook, based on the “buzz” Perry has already generated. The truth is much simpler, though: there has historically been a larger-than-imagined section of America’s voters who, when you get right down to it, simply love nothing more than a rootin’-tootin’ dude (preferably with a Texas drawl) in a pair of cowboy boots.
Gil Scott Heron had this pegged years ago in his song “B Movie” (written about much of the voting public’s affinity for Ronald Reagan:
This country has been surprised by the way the world looks now. They don’t know if they want to be Matt Dillon or Bob Dylan. They don’t know if they want to be diplomats or continue the same policy of nuclear nightmare diplomacy. John Foster Dulles ain’t nothing but the name of an airport now. The idea concerns the fact that this country wants nostalgia. They want to go back as far as they can, even if it’s only as far as last week. Not to face now or tomorrow, but to face backwards. And yesterday was the day of our cinema heroes riding to the rescue at the last possible moment. The day of the man in the white hat or the man on the white horse – or the man who always came to save America at the last moment someone always came to save America at the last moment…especially in B movies. And when America found itself having a hard time facing the future, they looked for people like John Wayne. But since John Wayne was no longer available, they settled for Ronald Ray-gun and it has placed us in a situation that we can only look at like a B movie.
I honestly don’t know what the combination of an ages-old fondness among Americans for tough cowboys with the recent, embarrassing Bush administration debacle means in practice. As I said, one would think that the spectacular failure of George W. Bush across history’s landscape during most of the 2000s would have been enough to rid most sensible people who had been paying attention to current events of this soft spot for Yosemite Sam-like figures as Presidents. However, one would, unfortunately, be wrong, were one to think that. Just have a gander at the tea party: they LOVE them some Perry. Even though the entire concept of the tea party is essentially nothing more than a phoenix-like means for the extreme conservative wing of the GOP to distance themselves from the visible, terrible policy disasters of their last idiot- savant cowboy President without having egg on their own faces for having vigorously supported the turd of a Presidency Bush turned in, they haven’t actaully set aside any of their love for both that style of leadership and, truth be told, from any of the actual policy ideas of the Bush era. Oh, they’ll make pretend noises if cornered about how they were against Bush’s “big spending ways all along,” but they still think invading Iraq and the Patriot Act were bitchin’, and Valerie Plame was a liar who deserved what she got. So, unless any of these “tea party” people who claim they’re not really just plain Bush Republicans actually voted for Ron Paul back before it was cool to do so, you can rest assured they were never truly opposed to much of anything done by the Bush administration. That’s why they take to Rick Perry like an alcoholic takes to the vodka in the shower shampoo bottle: they’ve never really lost the taste or the need.
However, the fondness for the “tough-talkin cowboy” icon is not limited to just the fever-swamps of wingnuttia. It’s a veritable American archetype, and its sway over the culture has been around for decades. What remains to be seen is whether that cultural affinity has worn off in everyone but the extreme conservative wing of the GOP. Everyone else, from liberals to low-information voters to the famed “swing” or “independent” voter had a chance to get a good, long look at the governing-style of the last Texas cowboy, and I’d bet most haven’t forgotten it. Polls right up to today continue to show that the public still blames Bush for the current economic mess, even nearly three years into the Obama administration. Voters may or may not think Obama has done a good job at trying to clean up the mess…but they’re still pretty clear about where the mess came from.
That’s why I think the most important thing said so far by any liberal, Democrat or progressive of note about Rick Perry has been Rachel Maddow’s point that liberals who understand how terrible a President Perry would unquestionably be should refuse the red-meat bait Perry tosses out in the form of tough, folksy quips about hanging the Federal Reserve chairman if he “prints more money” and the like. Maddow led off her August 16th show (between 8:29 and 10:23, for the meat of the clip) with a very detailed fourteen minute-plus segment on Perry and his entry into the race (as well as Obama’s bus tour through Iowa). She covered Perry’s rootin’-tootin’ semi-threat against Ben Bernanke – it was the hot topic of the day in political circles, after all – but did so by saying that if you – mostly the media, but ordinary citizens who aren’t wingnuts, too – react to such things with uproar and outrage, you are probably doing what Rick Perry wants you to do. Perry, Maddow suggested (correctly, in my view), is consciously playing up that stereotype: the “rough talking, shoot-from-the-hip, straight-shooter” kind of guy (the cowboy/gun metaphors could go on nearly ad infinitum). It’s what he wants: controversy and publicity which explicitly links him to a long-standing American meme.
What Rick Perry probably really DOESN’T want so much – if at all – is a close, sober scrutiny of his actual record and his policy ideas. Rick Perry recently wrote a book in which many of these ideas are spelled out in explicit, repeated detail. And there are plenty of them which would fit the true definition of “extremism” far better than some consciously-provocative ad-libbing does. Maddow suggested that if we want the country not to forget what a genuinely extreme leader George W. Bush was as President, and what a similarly-extreme (or even more extreme) one Rick Perry would be, we need to keep the conversation loudly focused on what Perry actually believes and advocates, not the verbal pyrotechnics he tosses off like Gandalf tossing out magic fireworks behind his wagon to delight and distract the hobbit children. I couldn’t agree more: Perry’s record of extremism (also, stupidity and ineptness) is a mile long, and it is that which progressives and Democratic opponents of Rick Perry should focus upon, if they want to overcome the tendency Americans have to love them some cowboy-with-a-big-gun. It’s eminently do-able…we just need to not get distracted.
Matt Yglesias at Think Progress spent a good portion of last weekend and early this week reading Perry’s book, and has much more on both Perry’s genuine extremism and the conservative reaction/backlash to people like him and Maddow pointing it out publicly.
As everyone knows (or should, by now), if conservatives start complaining publicly about Democrats or progressives not “playing fair,” that usually translates as “hey, stop doing those effective things! We expect you to be ineffective campaigners and spokespeople!” We on the progressive side ought to be paying attention to that.