Extremism laid bare

    Rick Perry’s extremism had already been laid bare last night, and his credibility as an electable candidate had already been undercut, by the time he was asked to tackle the topic of man-made global warming. His response, at the latest Republican presidential debate, was the event’s piece de resistance – and a gift to his chief pursuer, Mitt Romney.Let us first set the stage. On a recent campaign foray, Perry declared himself unimpressed with the virtual scientific consensus about the human role in climate change (according to the National Academy of Scientists, roughly 97 percent of scientists agree). Perry then asserted: “I think there are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects. I think we’re seeing it almost weekly or even daily, scientists who are coming forward and questioning the original idea that man-made global warming is what is causing the climate to change.”Late in the debate last night, Perry was naturally asked to substantiate the claim that such dissenters are popping up “almost weekly or daily.” Could he perhaps name one of those dissenting scientists? Someone whose opinion he particularly respects? Perry stared quizzically at the questioner, looking eerily like Will Farrell doing George W. Bush. Then he said this, verbatim:”Well, I do agree that there is (pause, shrug) the science is not settled on this. The idea that we would put America’s economy in jeopardy based on scientific theory that’s not, uh, settled yet – to me it’s just, it is nonsense. I mean, and I told somebody, that just because you have a group of scientists that have stood up and said ‘here is the fact, Galileo got outvoted for a spell,’ but the fact is, to put America’s economic future in jeopardy, asking us to cut back in areas that would have monstrous economic impact in this country, is not good economics and I will suggest to you is not necessarily good science. Find out what the science truly is before you start putting the American economy in jeopardy.”Granted, politicians often meander when they speak. And granted, maybe Perry was making some kind of valid point about Galileo, although I suspect many viewers of the debate were probably as befuddled as I was. What matters here is that Perry didn’t come within three light years of answering the question. He had smeared scientists by claiming they were mercenaries for hire, he had stated that dissenters were surfacing “weekly or daily” – yet when challenged to explain himself last night, he resorted to incoherent evasion and content-free assertion.Which prompts me to wonder whether Republicans are truly willing to roll the dice in 2012 with a nominee who disses science. That ‘tude might play well with the party base, but I suspect it wouldn’t charm swing voters.Actually, his rambling riff on global warming “theory” was just the clincher. He had already demonstrated his extremism much earlier in the debate, when he repeatedly denounced Social Security, arguably the most popular safety-net program of the last seven decades, as a “Ponzi scheme.” That’s the kind of inflammatory language that can destroy a candidate’s electability; moreover, the characterization of Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme” isn’t even accurate. Charles Ponzi was a ’20s swindler who conned his investors out of millions of dollars by promising 100 percent returns within three months – whereas Social Security, by law, is obligated to pay out benefits to America’s retirees. And those of us who are subject to the payroll tax know full well where the money is going (unlike the suckers who signed on to Ponzi’s scheme). Perry’s attempt to equate the two is demagoguery; worse yet, he defended it last night, saying: “Maybe it’s time to have some provocative language in this country.”Which prompts me to wonder whether Republicans are truly willing to roll the dice with a guy who dismisses Social Security as an exercise in fraud.And this was the point in the debate when Mitt Romney enjoyed his best moment. As I mentioned here yesterday, it was time for Mitt to saddle up against Perry. He did – most notably, when he cited a key passage in Perry’s recent book:”In the book ‘Fed Up!’, governor, you say that ‘by any measure, Social Security is a failure.’ You can’t say that to tens of millions of Americans who live on Social Security, and those who have lived on it….Our nominee has to be someone who isn’t committed to abolishing Social Security, but is committed to saving Social Security. We have always had, at the heart of our party, a recognition that we want to care for those in need….And under no circumstances would I ever say that ‘by any measure’ Social Security is a failure. It is working, for millions of Americans.”And what did Perry say, by way of rebuttal? Nothing. Instead, he returned to assertion mode – declaring again that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme. By failing to rebut Romney, he essentially stood by his published belief that Social Security is a total failure. That’s great ammo for Romney, as he seeks to tout his electability at Perry’s expense.On the other hand, it’s worth noting that the predominantly Republican audience members applauded Perry even during his looniest moments – including his anti-science meander. Perry stirred their juices when he heaved red meat, like when he suggested that President Obama was “an abject liar.” As evidenced by his debate debut, he’s clearly best when on offense, selling his two-fisted assertiveness, and many in the Republican base hunger for that trait. But his extremism hurt him last night, at least with the broader American audience, and I suspect that Mitt Romney will dress for work today with a bit more traction on his shoes.——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal