Ross Douthat on Rick Perry as Howard Dean

Ross finds exactly the right words to describe something that’s been stuck in my craw about Rick Perry:


One interesting quality that Perry has in common with [Howard] Dean, and which last night’s various back-and-forths brought out, is the extent to which both his national profile and his personal affect are much more ideological than his actual gubernatorial record. Dean was a center-left and fiscally conservative governor who rebranded himself as the leader of the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” and whose public persona on the campaign trail — as a stridently anti-Iraq War Vermonter who changed churches over a bike path dispute — seemed to embody all the stereotypes associated with blue state liberals. Likewise, Perry is a Texan Gaullist (corporatist, pro-immigration, HPV vaccinating, etc.) who has rebranded himself as an anti-New Deal Tea Partier, and whose heat-packing, convict-executing, treason-accusing persona makes him seem like the perfect embodiment of the current right-wing id.

But whereas Dean wasn’t often attacked from the left during the 2004 race (save over his professed desire to be the candidate of “guys with Confederate flags on their pickup trucks”), Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul and Rick Santorum are all happy to exploit Perry’s ideological deviations, which left the Texas governor taking fire from the center and the right alike last night. 

There is, however, a crucial difference between Dean and Perry. If we take the Pew Research Center’s 2011 “Beyond Red vs. Blue” report as our guide, ideological conservatives — encompassing the typology groups labeled Staunch Conservatives, Main Street Republicans, and Libertarians — amount to 29 percent of the general public, 35 percent of registered voters, and a large majority of Republican primary voters. Solid Liberals, in contrast, are 14 percent of the general public and 16 percent of registered voters. In a Democratic primary, ethnocultural cleavages and organized labor might also help an ideologically left-of-center candidate, but the Democratic party is perhaps best characterized as a coalition between ideological liberals and moderates in which ideological liberals often have to restrain their impulses. The Republican party, in contrast, is far more conservative-heavy, and far less inclined to allow self-conscious moderates in the party, a small and arguably shrinking minority, to hold sway. 

All this is to say that a Dean-like candidate, i.e., a candidate ideologically in-tune with the party’s base, might have somewhat stronger prospects in Republican presidential primaries than in Democratic presidential primaries. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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