The Progressive Fix

Wingnut Watch: Perry’s Tightrope

Rick PerryWith the end of the brief, Weekly Standard-driven boomlet for a Paul Ryan presidential candidacy, it’s increasingly certain that the 2012 GOP presidential field is set. Yes, there are still some observers who believe (with hope or fear) that Sarah Palin is going to announce a 2012 bid in Iowa at a big Tea Party rally over the Labor Day weekend. But Team Palin’s abrasive push back against a Karl Rove prediction that this would happen is a pretty clear indicator that it won’t, unless St. Joan of the Tundra really enjoys misdirection.

So there are by most accounts three viable candidates—Perry, Romney and Bachmann—with Ron Paul formidable enough to wreak some occasional havoc, and perhaps someone else—most likely Rick Santorum, possibly Herman Cain—having enough juice in Iowa to affect other candidates’ performances at the margins. Perry is the “it” candidate of the moment, and fans of Bachmann are praying that her candidacy can survive his current surge in the national and early-state polls.

Meanwhile, Perry himself is negotiating a pretty interesting tightrope that shows both the power and perils of wingnuttery. On the one hand, it’s important that he provide a credible challenge to Bachmann for the support of serious Tea Party and Christian Right activists; perhaps his camp even thinks they can drive her from the race before voting begins by pushing down her poll numbers and drying up her money sources. This would explain the savagely carnivorous nature of his early speeches, and certain other maneuvers like his decision to sign onto the Susan B. Anthony List’s highly prescriptive anti-abortion pledge, which Mitt Romney declined to do. That pledge, it should be noted, would prohibit Perry from appointing his 2008 presidential favorite, Rudy Giuliani, to any cabinet post with an influence on abortion policy.

But at the same time, Perry is having some problems generated by wingnut-pleasing passages in his 2010 book, Fed Up, most notably an expression of interest in repealing the Sixteenth Amendment (which made possible the establishment of a federal income tax), and exceedingly hostile remarks about the constitutionality and morality of Social Security. Indeed, he’s already back-peddling pretty fast on Social Security, as reported by the Wall Street Journal:

His communications director, Ray Sullivan, said [last] Thursday that he had “never heard” the governor suggest the program was unconstitutional. Not only that, Mr. Sullivan said, but “Fed Up!” is not meant to reflect the governor’s current views on how to fix the program.

Perry is also drawing unfriendly mainstream media attention for more conventional (among today’s conservatives, at least) sentiments denying man-made global climate change and treating evolution as a mere egghead theory. But one Perry controversy also shows how thoroughly previously unconventional views have become common among GOP elites. His attack on Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernancke made some Republican opinion-leaders nervous on grounds that a potential POTUS should not be assaulting the independence of the Fed. Hardly anyone questioned the underlying policy stance Perry embraced, suggesting a Ron-Paul-style deflationary monetary policy in the midst of a deep recession.

As Perry’s audition as a possible chief executive continues, the broader question is whether the specific views of Republicans matter a whole lot to anyone outside the hothouse atmosphere of conservative activists. A new Gallup survey testing the incumbent against Romney, Perry, Paul and Bachmann among registered voters showed remarkably little variation. Romney, predictably, did best, edging Obama 48-46. But Gallup also showed Perry tied with Obama at 47-47, with Paul only trailing by two points (47-45) and Bachmann only trailing by four (48-44).

Those who wonder why the Obama re-election team is reportedly planning a scorched-earth campaign criticizing the eventual Republican nominee should stare at those numbers a while. A “comparative” campaign is not simply essential in order to prevent the election from becoming a referendum on life in the Obama Era at a time when “wrong-track” sentiments are extraordinarily high. Perry, Paul and Bachmann, at least, offer a treasure trove of oppo research opportunities that any Democratic candidate would be foolish not to exploit.

But it’s equally interesting to wonder if findings like Gallup’s will convince conservative activists there is no electoral risk attached to their own choice of a candidate. If so—if, in other words, “electability” is not really a factor in so polarized an electorate–you can expect them to indulge themselves ideologically without much in the way of inhibition.

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

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