Dog-whistle politics probably date back at least to Cato the Elder, but in our time the practice was perfected by George W. Bush. Tossing a scriptural reference into a public utterance that would go unnoticed by us heathens but would reassure the touched was a trademark of Bush and his talented speechwriter Michael Gerson. Well, we’re now in a new era. Rick Perry has traded in his dog whistle for an air-raid siren. He wants everyone to hear, loud and clear. His is the most right-wing presidential candidacy by a “serious” contender since I don’t know when (Warren Harding? But he pardoned Eugene Debs!). Have we really reached the point where reveling in conservative hatreds and revenge fantasies can get a man elected president?
Bush—and it leaves me speechless that he’s starting to look reasonable by comparison with the current crop of GOP presidential hopefuls—was hardly apologetic about his political views. But he and Karl Rove did have the sense to know when they were throwing gasoline on the domestic fire, and they did it in smallish doses. You might be able to Google up the odd careless quote from Bush about something like global warming, but in general, and especially on the occasions when he knew his words were being very closely watched, he steered well clear of extremism.
Remember “Clear Skies,” the Bush environmental initiative from 2002? It ended up being laughable, but hey, at least it was an environmental speech. To read it today is astonishing. He acknowledged the importance of protecting the environment. He recognized the existence of global warming. He came out in favor of—ready?—a cap-and-trade plan for reducing emissions. Yes, he spoke those very words, even elaborating: “This approach enjoys widespread support, with both Democrats and Republicans, because we know it works. You see, since 1995 we have used a cap-and-trade program for sulphur dioxide pollution.” The dog-whistle part came in the sentences that proclaimed the science “uncertain,” and in his refusal to acknowledge straight up a human role in global warming.
Now fast-forward to Perry. During his maiden week on the hustings, when he knew every word would be carefully tracked, Perry declared that global warming is a hoax perpetrated by scientists greedy for grant money. This earned him a rare Four Pinocchios from The Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” column, which in PerryWorld is, of course, merely proof about how right he is.
Nearly every day has brought forth a new gem. On Thursday, he told a New Hampshire school-age child that he’s “not sure anybody actually knows completely and absolutely” how old the Earth is. He preceded these with a remark about Barack Obama not being respected by the military. And, of course, there was the infamous statement that Ben Bernanke would be committing “treason” by priming the economy. Not bad—nail the black guy and the Jew in your very first week on the trail!
Michele Bachmann aspires to be the right-wing It Girl. Perry wants to be the movement’s Id Boy. He’ll speak the words that the others won’t quite. Given this assemblage, that is really saying something, but consider: Even Bachmann has stuck largely to an economic script so far. Perry will home in on the darkest corners of the Tea Party mind and work relentlessly to activate the demons that lurk there. It will all be right out in the open. The questions are whether it can succeed, and whether Obama has the backbone to respond. It was, as usual, profoundly discouraging to see Obama’s flaccid response to Perry’s Bernanke remarks. Perry needs to be “a little more careful” with his words? That’s the best the guy could do? And then he remained silent on Perry’s military slam. Yes, I know all the reasons why: Don’t elevate him and so on. But please. That above-the-fray strategy has helped guide the president to his lofty 40 percent approval rating.
Perry may lose the nomination for other reasons, but I think we can be reasonably certain that GOP primary voters will not punish him for expressing extreme views in the language of prideful ignorance, nor for speaking disparagingly of the president. So if he does become the nominee, Obama is going to have to mix it up. He’ll need to do so with any GOP candidate, but this is especially so with Perry, because he will say anything, and he will make it personal. Every few weeks, or days even, something happens that makes me ask myself how much more right-wing this party can get. As long as Perry is in the race, we’re going to keep finding out.