If you assembled a Republican primary candidate in a laboratory, it would be hard to build a more breathtakingly conservative specimen than Rick Perry.
Social Security is unconstitutional? Check. Evolution is suspect? Check. Being gay is a choice, like being an alcoholic? Check.
But wait—bzzt! There’s one malfunction here. Perry opposes illegal immigration, to be sure, but believes the children of such immigrants—often brought here at a young age—ought to get in-state tuition breaks so they can go to college and not be a burden on society.
And with that, he has flunked the Purity Test.
It is a test being imposed on everyone who wants the GOP nomination, and it has never been more stringent or located farther to the right—a sign of the stranglehold the Tea Party has on the process.
Never mind that a position was perfectly acceptable for a Republican in 2008; if it fails the Purity Test now, it must be explained away, preferably with an apology. George W. Bush and John McCain would be laughed off the stage these days for the positions they took on immigration.
No one in the GOP wants to hear about “compassionate conservatism,” not when debate audiences are booing a gay soldier and cheering the death of a hypothetical emergency-room patient without insurance. Obamacare is so thoroughly loathed that nobody bothers to ask these candidates what they would do about the 50 million uninsured Americans if it were repealed—including young people under 26 who are now covered by their parents’ policies.
Occasionally Republican candidates choose to defend their apostasies, as Perry has with the passage of the Texas DREAM Act (doubling down by saying those who oppose it “don’t have a heart”). But mostly, they cut and run. They deeply regret it. They have evolved. They screwed up but promise not to do it again.
Thus we have the curious spectacle of Perry and Mitt Romney quoting from each other’s books, trying to get the other to disavow some past position now deemed toxic to the primary electorate—and thus implicitly admitting the charge of flip-flopping.
Romney has the longest list of offenses, of course, having once been in favor of abortion rights, gay rights, and an activist approach to health care, as evidenced by the Massachusetts plan he now labors to distinguish from Obamacare. That was then, this is now.
When Newt Gingrich, on Meet the Press, acknowledged his support for a health-care mandate and dismissed the GOP plan to turn Medicare into a voucher program as “right-wing social engineering,” it took him all of one day to furiously backtrack.
Tim Pawlenty, before he was driven from the race, routinely said it was a “mistake” for him to have backed the “cap and trade” approach to pollution as governor—one that was also embraced by Jon Huntsman.
Governors generally have the hardest time with the Purity Test because they have to live in the messy world of legislative compromise, where budgets by law must be balanced, taxes must occasionally be raised, and deals must be cut with Democrats. Perry governs in a border state with large numbers of immigrants, so for him the issue is not a cheap applause line; he actually had to figure out what to do with untold thousands of Mexican kids whose parents came here illegally.
The Purity Test is so unyielding that we have the amazing sight of all the candidates raising their hands to affirm that they wouldn’t accept a dollar in tax increases even in exchange for 10 dollars of spending cuts—no matter how good a deal that might seem to a fiscally conservative lawmaker not running for president. Michele Bachmann went a step further in last week’s Fox News debate, saying taxpayers should be able to keep every dollar they earn. “When people make money, it’s their money,” she said, before allowing that we might have to contribute something to keep the government’s lights on.
The Democratic Party has its purity tests as well. In 2008, every candidate who initially supported the Iraq War had to explain why that was a grevious error based on Bush’s dissembling. Hillary Clinton regularly slammed Barack Obama for not supporting as strict a mandate for compulsory health insurance as she did.
But the Republicans have taken the purity concept to new heights in the 2012 cycle, forcing the candidates, whatever their previous records, to pledge allegiance to the new orthodoxy.
At the moment the conservative media establishment has soured on Perry, with Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol calling Perry’s Fox debate performance “almost disqualifying.” Kristol, like many other Republicans, yearns for Chris Christie, and has already come up with a slogan for the weight-challenged New Jersey governor: “A big man for a big job.”
But if Christie actually jumped into the race—that is, if he could explain why he spent so many months insisting he’s not “ready” to be president—he, too, would fail the Purity Test. He believes, for instance, that “climate change is real” and “human activity plays a role in these changes.” And when critics savaged him for nominating as a judge a Muslim who defended suspects after the 9/11 attacks—they were later cleared—Christie said he was “tired of dealing with the crazies” and that “this Sharia law business is crap.”
For a Republican to take a stance that breaks with party orthodoxy—whether toward illegal immigrants, uninsured patients, or Muslims—could attract swing voters in a general election. But first the candidate has to win the nomination, and in that arena, being impure remains a cardinal offense.