On the Debate

by Yuval Levin
I basically agree with Rich’s assessment of the debate: Perry and Romney both looked reasonably good.
Romney was significantly more confident, but he’s been doing these things longer. I also think that as Perry grows stronger, Romney actually will too. This is really shaping up as a two man race in which each man embodies one of the two types that usually compete for the hearts of Republican primary voters: the assertive populist conservative and the reliable prudent conservative. In this recent essay (written before Perry entered the race), AEI’s Henry Olsen says these two types appeal to the two key types of conservative voters, whom he calls, “ideological conservatives” and “dispositional conservatives.” He writes:
The distinction between dispositional and ideological conservatives is often subtle; as a result, the breakdown is difficult to capture neatly in public-opinion polls. It is, however, approximated by the distinction made in some polls between Republican voters who identify themselves as “somewhat conservative” and those who identify as “very conservative.” And as exit-poll data from the 1996, 2000, and 2008 Republican presidential primaries and caucuses show, these different types of conservatives prefer very different types of presidential candidates. Very conservative Republicans favor rhetorically aggressive champions of conservative ideology. Somewhat-conservative Republicans, on the other hand, tend to prefer established candidates — people who, while generally in agreement with ideological conservatives in their positions on the issues, are not as strident when it comes to ideology, rhetoric, or temperament.
It is worth noting that these somewhat-conservative voters make up a majority of Republican primary voters who identify as conservative. Polls taken in late 2010 and early 2011 show that conservatives comprise between 66% and 71% of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents. Most pollsters do not break conservatives into “somewhat” and “very” categories, but a mid-October 2010 Wall Street Journal poll asked if respondents were “very conservative” or “just conservative.” At the height of Tea Party fervor within the GOP, “just conservatives” outnumbered “very conservatives,” 36% to 34%.
I think both Perry and Romney are actually somewhat stronger candidates than is usually the case with the types they seem likely to embody. Candidates who tend to be thought of as populist tribunes are often fairly rough, short on substance, and can seem to be out of their depth very quickly in debates and interviews in ways that lead to gaffes and missteps. But Rick Perry, who has for a decade been governor of the nation’s second-largest state—a huge, complicated, diverse, and evidently pretty well governed state—appears on the whole to be, as Rich put it, smooth, well-informed, and not inclined to false steps. Candidates who tend to be thought of as sober prudent types, meanwhile, tend to be squishy on many of the social, fiscal, and national security issues that matter to conservatives. But Mitt Romney, at least in his most recent incarnation(!), is a down-the-line conservative on policy. Obviously his about faces on various issues over the years are a very real cause for concern, but running as a down-the-line conservative for five years (and making various commitments in the course of this campaign) makes him a stronger candidate than the usual competence candidate, and would at least seriously complicate any attempt to go soft if he were elected.
The emerging dynamics of this two-man race also mean that each of them looks to be in a position to run as himself, which always helps a candidate. In 2008, Romney decided he had to run as an angry conservative, and he came off looking like a tax accountant trying out for the part of an angry conservative at a community theater. In a race with Perry, his added value will be his actual value: He’s an experienced, sober, calm executive with a deep understanding (born of experience) of the global economy. Perry, meanwhile, will run strongest if he runs as a populist, states’ rights, don’t mess with America, conservative constitutionalist—which seems roughly to be what he is. Both exude patriotism (if in different ways), both seem genuinely to be social conservatives (if of different sorts), and both seem really to believe in the market economy. As things look now (and it’s very early going for Perry of course), it seems like voters shouldn’t have too much trouble imagining either of them as president. Both have very real drawbacks, but either would be a far, far better president than Barack Obama, and either could well be elected.
I am left, therefore, uttering the motto of the conservative optimist: It could be worse, much worse.
Now if they’ll just get serious about Medicare reform…

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