Will Rick Perry come to play, or will he opt to stay away? The suspense is killing us. What's most interesting, however, is that the Republicans' latest designated 2012 savior seems to be unsettling a fair number of his party brethren. They're not quite sure that voters, even within the Republican ranks, would be comfortable supporting yet another swaggering right-wing Texas governor. Gee, ya think?
Perry is reportedly still pondering whether to join the Republican presidential race - his window of opportunity will soon be closing - but it's noteworthy that some prominent Republicans are already throwing cold water on the idea. They're not even waiting for buyer's remorse; maybe their sentiment can best be described as pre-remorse.
Former Ohio GOP chairman Bob Bennett, a major player and member of the Republican National Committee, told Politico yesterday: "I think there’s Texas fatigue in Ohio. "I’ve mentioned Rick Perry to a bunch of people and he comes up, frankly, a blank. From a grass-roots standpoint in Ohio, I don’t see much. I don’t see much support and I don’t see much excitement about it."
More telling were the comments from Pennsylvania GOP chairman Rob Gleason. He said that Perry faces a potentially high hurdle with "independents and more moderate Republicans." Indeed, "Texas is really far from Pennsylvania, not just geographically. We don’t relate at all."
Translation: Perry's brand of evangelically-tinged social conservatism would not be a good fit for the northern swing states that Republicans need to win in 2012.
And that concern is right on target. George W. Bush twice lost swing-state Pennsylvania in part because socially tolerant swing-voting suburbanites believed he was too close to the religious right...and it just so happens that Perry is more socially conservative than Bush. Bush would never have done what Perry is doing this Saturday: staging a massive Texas prayer rally with the help of fringe preachers who (among other things) have referred to gays as "domestic terrorists," denounced the Statue of Liberty as a "demonic idol," and suggested that Oprah is in cahoots with the Antichrist.
That kind of talk tends to make northern swing voters uncomfortable. And the latest Perry episode - which features an abject surrender to the religious right - would in no way ease their concerns.
It all began on July 22, in Aspen, Colorado, when Perry addressed a gathering of big shot GOP donors. The issue of gay marriage came up, and Perry came off as a state's rights libertarian: "Our friends in New York six weeks ago passed a statute that said marriage can be between two people of the same sex. And you know what? That's New York, and that's their business, and that's fine with me. That is their call. If you believe in the 10th Amendment, stay out of their business."
The donors applauded his tolerant stance, and all seemed well. But, alas, it was not. Word got back to Perry that the powerful intolerant lobby was quite unhappy with what he had said. Apparently his state's rights position on gay marriage was not deemed to be Correct. Apparently he had failed to make clear that, while the state's rights position is indeed a core conservative belief, the belief does not apply to gay people.
So Perry did what any panderer would do. He hastened to make himself Correct.
Six days after his Aspen candor, he sat with Tony Perkins, leader of the anti-gay Family Research Council and an endorser of his Saturday prayer rally. In remarks that were quickly posted on the FRC website, Perry ate so much crow that the feathers were flying:
"Let me just, I probably needed to add a few words after 'that's fine with me.' It's fine with me that the state is using their sovereign right to decide an issue. Obviously gay marriage is not fine with me, my stance had not changed. I believe marriage is a union between one man and one woman."
But wait, Perry had told the party donors that the 10th Amendment gives each state the right to do what it wants, and here again he was telling Perkins that New York had indeed exercised its "sovereign right." So clearly he had to go further in his remarks - which, of course, he did:
"I think marriage and family policy is best dealt with at the state level. But the 10th Amendment — and I am a strong supporter....But when you look at what's happening on marriage, the real fear is that states like New York will change the definition of marriage for Texas. At that point the state's rights argument is lost."
Good boy! Clearly, the Correct position is that, under the 10th Amendment, states should be free to decide issues for themselves - unless the issue in question concerns gays. In other words, New York should not be free to decide the gay marriage issue for itself, because, who knows, it might try to foist its immorality on Texas - a state that is apparently susceptible to New York values. (Really? Where did Perry dream up that one? Has the Texas governor ever been to Texas?)
Anyway, stage three of making himself Correct required that he trump state's rights by endorsing a one-size-fits-all federal constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. As he dutifully explained to Perkins, with all the requisite pejoratives: "To not pass the federal marriage amendment would impinge on Texas, and other states, not to have marriage forced upon us by these activist judges and special interest groups."
And just in case his Perkins interview didn't do the trick, he has since plowed the same ground with CBN, a Christian broadcasting outlet. In an article posted this morning, he invoked the gay exemption to state's rights. He declared "I support the federal marriage amendment" because, in CBN's paraphrase, making it the law of the land is important for the fabric of the nation.
The CBN interviewer also suggested that Perry might be "the second coming of Ronald Reagan," to which Perry replied, "I'm a huge Ronald Reagan fan" - which, in itself, is a howler, because Reagan as president didn't give a fig about the kind of social issues that animate Perry and the religious right. Reagan barely gave lip service to the activists who wanted a constitutional amendment banning abortion, and he and wife Nancy worked and socialized with gay people in Hollywood for decades.
The real Reagan played to swing voters in all regions in part because he skirted the divisive social issues. Perry embraces those issues. His strategists claim that this would not impede his candidacy, and, indeed, some insiders believe he be a top-tier candidate in the Republican race. But could a Texan more conservative than Bush win a general election? Knuckling under to the religious right is no way to build a national brand.
All the major players in the debt ceiling deal have barely said a word about job creation. Which happens to be what Americans most care about. In my Thursday newspaper column, I talk about our new era of austerity, and the lessons of 1937.
Tomorrow, my proximity to an ocean will trump any urge to write. So have a great weekend, and I'll see you on Monday.