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Point Austin: Shameless

Perry hands the torch to a kindred spirit

By Michael King, Fri., Jan. 27, 2012

Rick Perry
Rick Perry
Photo by John Anderson

There aren't too many good ways to admit you committed the fatal turnovers and lost the big game.

Saying farewell to his bungled presidential campaign, Gov. Rick Perry called on (in order) Newt Gingrich, God, and Sam Houston, and suggested his national embarrassment might be only temporary. "As a Texan, I have never shied away from a good fight, especially when the cause was right," Perry said. "But as someone who has always admired a great Texas forefather – Sam Houston – I know when it is time for a 'strategic retreat.'" In fact, Perry hadn't known that at all. He first decided to quit the race after the debacle in Iowa, then undecided (reportedly after a morning jog and a family chat), then vowed to fight on through South Carolina (while ignoring New Hampshire, which returned the favor), then redecided that South Carolina wasn't worth the good fight after all.

Somehow, I don't think that's the way Gen. Houston would have played it.

Indeed, "retreat" had not previously appeared in the Perry campaign lexicon – he was too busy engaging in arrogance, bellicosity, grandiosity, and flat dishonesty. The Chronicle's Richard Whit­taker has catalogued with relish the embarrassing dominoes of Perry's final collapse (see "Cain 6,324 ... Perry 2,494"), and the tone of Perry's entire campaign was aptly represented by his notorious December TV ad: "You don't need to be in the pew every Sunday to know that there's something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can't openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school."

Widely mocked as both gay-bashing and false – schoolkids go right on praying and celebrating Christmas, whatever Perry says – the ad marked the campaign's desperation and had no tangible effect on the candidate's dismal vote totals. It simply amplified the list of his tone-deaf moments, highlighted by the "Oops!" when he couldn't remember his own talking points, and running the gamut from describing the United States' Turkish allies as "Islamic terrorists" to declaring he would return American troops to Iraq – a proposal as politically stupid as it is militarily unthinkable.

Spewing Poison

What Perry's most embarrassing moments generally had in common was their reliance on hard-right code words calculated to rile the Republican base – an understandable strategy, since the peak of his popularity coincided with his debate identification as the Texas Executioner, and his downfall began when he was perceived as soft on the student children of undocumented immigrants. The contemporary GOP has become a party in which it is simply impossible to run too far to the right.

So it's fitting that Perry would endorse Gingrich, who in his brief and disgraced tenure as U.S. House Speaker was singularly responsible for polarizing national politics and intentionally poisoning the public discourse. It was Gingrich who counseled campaigning Republicans to reflexively attach terms like "traitors," "liars," and "corruption" to their opponents. And it is Gingrich who has now risen in the polls in direct proportion to his willingness to use explicit racism and fake populism as the means to gin up the most rabid tea partiers. On the Gingrich demagoguery scale, Perry is a relative amateur, and he finally bowed to the master.

The Soft Sell

But for the same reason, Gingrich makes GOP big shots nervous, because they know that what works in the bloodthirsty primaries they have created will be a much harder sell in the general election. Mitt Romney remains their default option, but not because his policy proposals are substantially different or "more conservative" (whatever that terminally abused term has come to mean) than those of Gingrich or Rick Santorum or the rest. The mild-mannered and soft-spoken Rom­ney is most easily sold as a "moderate" who will, as Hamlet says, "smile and smile, and be a villain." The vainglorious Gingrich, sneering at anyone who dares question him, gives the Republican game away.

As Salon's Joan Walsh wrote this week: "Mitt and Newt are the two faces of the modern GOP. Romney, the man from Bain, provides a case study in how finance capital has hollowed out the middle class and enriched the top 1 percent over the last 30 years. Gingrich personifies the GOP's politics of resentment, often fired by racism, that let the top 1 percent do that, driven by fear that government was favoring the undeserving poor. Instead government began to favor the undeserving wealthy."

However, it remains much easier to turn on the bloodlust – to sow the wind – than to turn it off again, as both Gingrich and his successor, John Boehner, learned to their embarrassment in Washington. The current GOP race confirms that we live in a political culture that amply rewards appeals to the electorate's basest instincts. Whether the Democrats represent a sufficient counterforce remains to be seen.

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