09.23.11

Rick's Still Beating Mitt

Mitt Romney’s debate 'win' won’t erase his evil socialistic Massachusetts history or make him any more likable—and by November 2012, Rick Perry just might not be too extreme or too Texas, says Michael Tomasky.

The conventional wisdom is dumping hard on Rick Perry. Politico blared Friday, in the wake of his fumbling debate performance, that he might already be “Texas toast.” This tells me now is exactly the time to buy Perry stock. The reasons are simple. First, the likelihood that Perry will iron out the wrinkles and become a better debater and candidate over time is greater, and maybe far greater, than the likelihood that Mitt Romney will become more acceptable to conservatives. Second—well, let me save No. 2 for later.

On point one, go read Redstate.com, the house organ of Wingnutistan, where the headline says it all: “Perry Loses the Debate; Romney Wins but Remains Unacceptable for Conservatives.” That still strikes me as the bottom line here. Perry will study his briefing books and refrain from accusing, however accurately, his core constituents of heartlessness. But Romney can’t undo his evil socialistic Massachusetts history. The Redstate blogger wrote: “I don’t care if Perry is soft on immigration and tried to mandate a vaccination through executive order. Romney is the father of socialized medicine in America!”

The conventional counterargument, of course, is that the establishment will circle the wagons around Romney. This might happen. Even Washington conventional wisdom ends up being correct every once in a while. But I can mount a highly plausible counter-counterargument for why it may not. Nothing has happened in these past two and a half years to suggest that this Republican establishment will buck or stand up to the hard right in any way. All we’ve seen these past two years is establishment Republicans accepting one extreme demand after another.

My case then extends to the question of who will make up the GOP primary electorate. In my last piece in The New York Review of Books, I cited a very interesting article from National Affairs by Henry Olsen of the American Enterprise Institute. Olsen divides GOP primary voters into two camps—“dispositional conservatives” and “ideological conservatives.” The former, as you’d expect, are less extreme and somewhat less likely than the latter to boo a gay soldier. Olsen writes that the GOP has always chosen the “next in line” candidate because most primary voters have been dispositionals, and he thinks that will hold this time. I’m not as sure. The number of ideologicals has surely grown. If Olsen’s right, then Romney, a next-in-liner if ever there was one, is probably the guy. But if he’s wrong, then there’s every reason to think this logic won’t necessarily hold.

Lastly, my case hinges—and here’s the second reason I’m buying Perry stock today—on the plainly observable fact that Mitt Romney is a really uninteresting and unappealing human being. Now, here, I’m really departing from the CW, because it is usually said by pundits that Romney has more crossover appeal than Perry, and polls tend to support this, although the differences so far are fairly marginal in most polls I see. Perry is said to be too extreme and too Texas. All that might be right.

On the other hand, Perry strikes me as more likely to pass—among Republicans—the old “do I want this man in my living room for the next four years?” test than Romney is. Who can possibly really like Romney? He’s like your boss, or the regional supervisor who comes by the office a few times a year. You tolerate him and suck up to him, but the experience is completely phony and awkward. I don’t know him and might have him wrong, but I’d just bet you a dollar that he doesn’t have many real friends. He has partners and associates and a swarm of acolytes who suck up to him because he’s rich. But he comes across as wooden, insincere (in a harmless rather than malevolent way), and totally emotionally unavailable. Perry? Well, I find him repugnant, of course, but I’m an East Coast liberal. I’m trying to look at this through others’ eyes. And I think he’s the kind of person Southerners in particular but conservatives everywhere, except maybe in the Northeast, can take a shine to. At least he seems to have some shards of personality.

Romney is like your boss, or the regional supervisor who comes by the office a few times a year. You tolerate him and suck up to him, but the experience is completely phony and awkward.

Out of curiosity, I just Googled “Barack Obama September 22 2007” to see how things were going for him at a similar juncture. Interestingly, he floated a proposal that day to remove the cap from Social Security payroll taxes (then $97,000, now around $107,000). That obviously went nowhere. Jesse Jackson was attacking him for not being vocal enough. A few days before, he skipped an AARP debate in Iowa, the only Democrat to miss it (undoubtedly a few pundits wrote him off for that one). A poll in Iowa a couple of weeks later showed Obama in third place, behind both Hillary Clinton and John Edwards.

So don’t get carried away. This nomination might not be decided until next May.