Rick Perry and the Politics of Treating ’em Ugly

Rick Perry and the Politics of Treating ’em Ugly August 17, 2011

Even conservatives are coming down on brand-new presidential candidate Rick Perry for accusing Ben Bernanke of treason and declaring that Texans would treat the Federal Reserve chairman “pretty ugly.” “That is not…a presidential statement,” Karl Rove told Fox News.

In Tuesday’s column, Ross Douthat called Perry “the conservative id made flesh.” It’s a brilliant turn of phrase, and nails Perry between the eyes. Douthat errs, however, in using it as a criticism. In this upcoming election, iditude — unbridled passion, rhetorical overkill — will prove to be a wash at worst, and quite possibly a selling point.

In 2008, Americans were asked to choose between Obama, an apparently cool customer whose operating principle, according to his friends, was “no drama,” and a logorrhaeic bomb thrower, in the person of Sarah Palin. (Frank Rich correctly notes that John McCain occupied the top half of the GOP ticket in name only.) They picked the guy who sounded saner, and on the whole have lived to regret it.

What’s killed Obama isn’t so much the policies he pushed — those didn’t alienate anyone who wasn’t alienated to begin with — as his inability to push back. To his base, the man seems to have compromise in his blood, and it shows in his speech. As early as 2009, Maureen Dowd tried to nag him into being “Less Spocky, More Rocky.” At the height of the debt-ceiling controversy, Salon’s Steve Almond listed every teachable moment Obama missed. No, by now, polish and poltroonery are indissolubly linked in the American imagination, at least for the foreseeable future.

Papal elections are often said to follow a principle of passotempo, according to which the College of Cardinals will go out of its way to choose a pope who embodies all the qualities predecessor lacked. Comparing Carter to Reagan, or Bush 41 to Clinton, or Bush 43 to Obama, it becomes apparent that the American electorate isn’t so different. There’s as much contrast between personal styles as there is between policy preferences; voters sometimes see the first as a shorthand for the second. This would partly explain the surprise expressed by members of Obama’s base when the 44th president maintained Bush’s hawkish approach to the War on Terror. Obama simply didn’t look or sound like a man who would increase drone attacks on targets in Pakistan, even if he said he would.

The new preference for pushy ideologues over reflective pragmatists can be seen in last year’s sweeping Tea Party victories. The only question remaining is whether Perry is pushy and ideology-driven in more electable ways than Michele Bachmann. He might in fact be — just yesterday, Politico reported that Perry excelled both Bachmann and Mitt Romney in a “passion poll.” That is, Perry “had a net ‘positive intensity’ rating of 23 among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who recognize his name.” Bachmann’s positive intensity rating was only 20.

Perhaps the numbers reflect the fact — which Tim Pawlenty pointed out, for all the good it did him –that Bachmann lacks executive experience. Perry might also owe his numbers to his job-creation record, which is frankly impressive: under Perry’s governorship, Texas accounted fr 37% of all jobs created over the past three years. But passion, whatever its ultimate source, has a life of its own — one I’d like to explore in particular detail.

In 2004, Jonathan Chait published an essay titled “Mad About You,” in which he explored and explained the intensity of the hatred Democrats felt toward George W. Bush. He noted — correctly, I think — that it neatly matched the hatred felt by many Republicans toward Bill Clinton. What he didn’t note, because it hadn’t happened yet, was that Bush, like Clinton, went on to win a second term. I would argue that both men’s hateabilty ratings had a hand in their success. Both, recall, played muse to a host of conspiracy theorists — Vince Foster deathers on one hand, 9/11 Truthers on the other. Though John Kerry and Bob Dole both put a comfortable distance between themselves and the wing nuts in their parties, neither could entirely escape guilt by association.

So in a sense, Rove and Douthat are right — swing voters are generally loath to enlist in the party of the rabid, even on an ad hoc basis. Under normal circumstances, Obama might be expected to benefit from this. But as we’ve seen, whatever positive passion he once generated has by now burned itself out; his own base won’t go to the mattresses for him. Perry’s bluster, then, could end up working for him in two related ways. First, it’ll rev up his own party’s faithful. Second, it could inspire enough hysteria in the enemy camp as to make the Democrats look even crazier — in undecided eyes — than the Tea Party.

At this strange point in history, treating people ugly might be an ideal career move.

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