Perry and the ‘howling nuts’

    Given the prevailing vibes at the latest Republican presidential debate, staged last night in front of a lily-white tea-partying audience, it was easy to understand why Rick Perry has soared to the top of the heap. He’s frequently at odds with empirical facts, but the grassroots voters he’s seeking to woo care far more about passion than facts.And what an audience this was. It cheered the Perry claim that Fed chairman Ben Bernanke is treasonous (treason, in the federal code, is punishable by death). It showed no mercy for a hypothetical 30-year-old who is critically ill without health coverage (“Yeah! Let him die!”). Mike Murphy, the Republican strategist, was so repulsed during the debate that he tweeted, “Witch-trial audience of howling nuts.”The tea-party crowd is just one branch of the Republican electorate – in Murphy’s tweeted words, it “distorts reality of real GOP primary” – but it has fueled Perry’s swift ascent. And no wonder. He says all kinds of stuff that fails the basic test of truth, but because his fact-free assertions jibe with the tea partyers’ impassioned beliefs, he typically gets a pass. This situation is making the Republican establishment very nervous.And Perry was dutifully indulged last night – until there came a moment, late in the debate, when he said some things that the crowd did not want to hear. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.Early in the debate, Perry essentially declared, as he did in his 2010 book, that Social Security is unconstitutional (“It’s time for us to get back to the Constitution”), and it didn’t matter to this crowd that he never bothered to cite the provisions that supposedly have been violated. Nor was he pressed to explain how Social Security has managed to pass muster with the U.S. Supreme Court these past 75 years, despite the fact that the court has often been dominated by Republican appointees. (Perhaps that’s because Article I Section 8 empowers Congress to “provide for the…general welfare of the United States.”)The tea partyers loved it when he said that his ambition is to “make Washington, D.C., as inconsequential in your life as I can” – without mentioning, of course, that he has personally benefited from a consequential Washington, having reaped $80,000 in federal subsidies as a cotton farmer. The tea partyers also loved it when he boasted of cutting taxes in Texas – without mentioning that, at various times, he has raised cigarette taxes, business taxes, smokeless tobacco taxes, fireworks sales taxes, diesel equipment taxes, and used car sales taxes. (In one of his proposed budget packages, he also wanted a topless bar admissions tax, but the legislature said no. Insert joke here.)The crowd also loved it when he dumped on President Obama’s ’09 economic stimulus law, declaring: “It created zero jobs.” That kind of line squares with the tea-party belief system, even though it’s a lie – in the reality-based world, anyway. From April 1 to June 20 of this year alone, the stimulus created 555,029 jobs, as reported by the primary recipients of stimulus funds. And four independent studies, including one by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, have tallied millions of jobs created and saved by the stimulus. (The CBO says that as many as 3.6 million jobs were saved and created.) The stimulus hasn’t pulled the country out of recession, obviously, but any claim that it created “zero jobs” can’t even pass the laugh test. Except among tea partyers who view facts as just another expression of opinion.So there was Perry, cruising along, buoyed by his credulous listeners…until he reached the 90-minute mark, when all of a sudden, he crossed The Line.Tea-party orthodoxy decrees that no candidate, no matter how beloved, shall ever breach The Line that separates correct and incorrect beliefs. Perry did it, on the topic of illegal immigrants.It just so happens that Perry OK’d a Texas law that gives some illegal immigrant youngsters the chance to receive in-state tuition at Texas universities. This fact in his track record has been out there for awhile; sooner or later, it was bound to put him in a pickle with the Republican base, where orthodoxy dictates that illegals be shown no mercy. Last night, Perry sought to explain:”In the state of Texas, if you’ve been in the state of Texas for three years, if you’re working towards your college degree, and if you are working and pursuing citizenship in the state of Texas, you pay in-state tuition there. And the bottom line is, it doesn’t make any difference what the sound of your last name is. That is the American way. No matter how you got into that state, from the standpoint of your parents brought you there or what have you. And that’s what we’ve done in the state of Texas. And I’m proud that we are having those individuals be contributing members of our society rather than telling them, ‘you go be on the government dole.'”Now he was getting booed.After a couple of rivals took whacks at Perry’s policy by trying to outflank him on the right, Perry tried again to explain himself by invoking some tea-party terminology:”What we did in the state of Texas was clearly a states’ right issue….We were clearly sending a message to young people, regardless of what the sound of their last name is, that we believe in you. That if you want to live in the state of Texas and you want to pursue citizenship, that we’re going to allow you the opportunity to be contributing members in the state of Texas and not be a drag on our state.”After Mitt Romney got his licks in (Republicans are “the party of law-abiding citizens”), Perry tried again:”Are we going to give people an incentive to be contributing members of this society or are we going to tell them no, we’re going to put you on the government dole? In the state of Texas, and this is a states’ right issue, if in Massachusetts you didn’t want to do that or Utah you didn’t want to do this, that’s fine. But in the state of Texas, where Mexico has a clear and a long relationship with this state, we decided it was in the best interest of those young people to give them the opportunity to go on to college and to have the opportunity. They’re pursuing citizenship in this country rather than saying, ‘you know, we’re going to put you over here and put you on the government dole for the rest of your life.’ We don’t think that was the right thing to do.”It’s weird, really. When Perry was floating along fact-free, he was cheered by those who dwell in a post-fact world. But when Perry suddenly stood tall for a policy they don’t like, when he explained the facts and talked the language of pragmatism and compassion, they turned on him. These grassroots Republicans are sure tough to satisfy; to borrow Murphy’s terminology, the howling nuts giveth and the howling nuts taketh away.Going forward, if not even Rick Perry can run this gauntlet successfully, who can?——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

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