Politics & Policy

My Rick Perry Problem — and Ours

Conservatism is starting to have an identity-politics problem all its own.

Texas governor Rick Perry is the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination now, at least in the national polls. Undoubtedly that’s the main reason so many East Coast pundits and Beltway wags are making fun of him. He likes guns! He’s from Texas! He talks funny! He’s a — gird yourself now — Christian!

New York magazine and others mock his harmless, Bush-like pronunciation of nuclear (“nuke-ular”). They’re scandalized that he doesn’t go to a golf course to relax, but a shooting range. It’s already a cliché among liberals to describe him as the sort of cartoonish, ignorant cowboy they thought George W. Bush was (though to date, nobody feels the need to apologize to Bush for misinterpreting him).

And before we bust out the world’s smallest violin — or, I guess, the world’s smallest fiddle — to play the world’s softest sob-song for poor Rick Perry, keep in mind that he plays this game too. When asked to explain the difference between himself and Bush, Perry responded that Bush went to Yale, while he went to Texas A&M.

“In other words,” joked Conan O’Brien, “Rick Perry’s idea of instilling confidence is to say, ‘Don’t worry, I’m not as smart as George W. Bush.’”

Rick Perry’s overt Christianity horrifies many of his liberal critics. Bill Keller, the outgoing editor of the New York Times, agonized recently that “Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum are all affiliated with fervid subsets of evangelical Christianity.” Actually, Santorum is a fairly famous Catholic, but that’s tomaytoh, tomahto for Keller, apparently.

“Every faith,” Keller writes, “has its baggage, and every faith holds beliefs that will seem bizarre to outsiders. I grew up believing that a priest could turn a bread wafer into the actual flesh of Christ.”

I hope his current priest doesn’t mind when he calls Holy Communion “baggage.”

Perry’s twang offends liberals who think everyone should talk like Barack Obama, a man of cosmopolitan and learned diction. Of course, Obama pronounces “corpsman,” “corpse-man” — as if our Navy were staffed with heroic zombies. One would think he’d have picked up the right pronunciation during his travels to all 57 U.S. states.

Obama’s gaffes earn no traction the way, say, the last president’s “Bushisms” did. Nor do they cause bowel-stewing panic at MSNBC the way Sarah Palin’s flavorful patois does. 

And don’t even get me started on Joe Biden. He could show up at a Russian state funeral in a Speedo and pith helmet, singing the Alvin and the Chipmunks B-sides, and NBC’s Andrea Mitchell would lead with the disturbing reports that Sarah Palin quoted Biden inaccurately on her Twitter account.

Let’s cut through the clutter: A lot of people on the East and West coasts are bigots and snobs about “flyover types.” They equate funny accents with stupidity, and they automatically assume someone who went to Texas A&M must be dumber than someone who went to Yale. Overt displays of religion trigger their fight-or-flight instincts, causing them to lash out irrationally.

My favorite example? When John McCain picked Palin as his running mate, University of Chicago professor Wendy Doniger wrote that Palin’s “greatest hypocrisy is in her pretense that she is a woman.”

When I read such idiocy, it’s impossible for me not to love Bush, Perry, Palin, et al. for their enemies.

But here’s my problem: I find the prospect of another four or eight years of defending these cultural distinctions to be intensely wearying.

My weariness is hardly a major consideration for anybody, but I think it reflects a larger problem. Conservatism is starting to have an identity-politics problem all its own. I think conservatism needs to spend less time defending candidates for who they are, and more time supporting candidates for what they intend to do.

Bush’s inability to articulate arguments had nothing to do with his Texan-ness or his Christianity, but a lot of folks on the right defended him as if that were the case. “He speaks American, don’t you get it?”

To which I’d reply: “No, he speaks badly.”

Perry’s not a bad speaker, and I’m trying to keep an open mind. I suspect I agree with him more than I did with Bush, whose compassionate conservatism I loathed.

Nor do I mind folksiness per se. Mississippi governor Haley Barbour can talk seriously and colorfully at the same time. But this time around, folksiness isn’t a substitute for seriousness, and I have very little patience for those who pretend otherwise.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him by e-mail at JonahsColumn@aol.com, or via Twitter @JonahNRO. © 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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