Perry and Romney: Candidates from Very Different Republican Parties

Who won the debate depends on which of the two GOPs is running the show, says Paul Begala.

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What a contrast. Mitt Romney was cool; Rick Perry was hot. Mitt was professional; Rick was angry. Romney reeled off statistics; Perry just made stuff up, but looked certain sayin’ it. Mitt used the measured, modulated tone of an investment banker, Rick had the PO’d swagger of a Tea Party activist.

Who won? That may be the wrong question. The one I’m pondering is: Which party? If this is the Republican Party of the country club and the corporate suites, Mitt Romney won going away. But what if there’s been a hostile takeover? What if the pitchfork crowd has charged the manicured greens and taken over the clubhouse?

If in fact that revolution has occurred, Rick Perry won tonight’s debate. He is a heat-seeking missile for the heart of the right-wing base. He not only wants to end Social Security, he wishes it had never been created in the first place, opening up an argument with FDR that Ronald Reagan would have never tolerated.

On TV, it seemed like it was Perry’s crowd and Perry’s party. And he knows how to appeal to the Tea Partiers. Facts be damned, full-bore attack on Washington. He blithely stated that “it’s a $17 trillion hole we have in our budget.” Huh? The deficit is about $1.5 trillion. Maybe he’s talking about the ten-year projected deficit. Or maybe he’s just pulling it out of his, umm, hip pocket. I’m bettin’ on the latter.

Later Perry said the 2009 stimulus act “created zero jobs.” Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of that law, it can’t be that it created zero jobs. In fact, the nonpartisan budget scorekeepers at the Congressional Budget Office recently reported (PDF) the law created up to 2.9 million jobs.

No one was impolite enough to point out, for example, that, as CNN reported back in January: “Turns out Texas was the state that depended the most on those very stimulus funds to plug nearly 97 percent of its shortfall for fiscal 2010, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.”

I suspect none of those factual falsehoods or rhetorical stumbles will derail the Perry Express. But Michele Bachmann, who has been a wallflower of late, may point the way to a more efficacious line of attack: crony capitalism. She implied that Rick Perry mandated the HPV vaccine in his state because of his close connection to the Austin lobbyist for the pharmaceutical corporation that makes that vaccine.

Bachmann may be on to something. The HPV issue does not make sense outside of that context. Why would an antigovernment purist like Rick Perry suddenly support a health-care mandate? Why would a profoundly committed Christian conservative—one who led a massive Christian prayer rally in a Houston football stadium—require girls to be vaccinated against a sexually transmitted disease?

Too many, myself included, are distracted by Perry’s remarkably modest intellect, or his speech and mannerisms, which are reminiscent of Will Ferrell doing George W. Bush. If Mitt and the rest of the establishment want to stop Perry, they may have to follow the lead of the queen of the Tea Party.