Jonathan Martin and Dan Hirschhorn have a story in POLITICO this morning casting the choice between Gov. Romney and Gov. Perry as follows:
Choice A: The Hippocratic oath strategy — first do no harm. Under this approach, the party would nominate the safe-but-not-sexy Mitt Romney to keep the election focused as much as possible on Obama and to have a better chance to appeal to swing voters and independents.
Choice B: Go big. Given the nation’s economic troubles and the vast majority who believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, pastels just won’t cut it. Bold, bursting differences between Obama and the GOP standard-bearer are a must. By this scenario, Perry, the tough-talking, job-creating machine, would be Ronald Reagan to Obama’s Jimmy Carter.
They later say, based on polling, that “many in the base don’t think they have to settle to win.”
I agree. Because in my judgment, Messrs. Martin and Hirschhorn’s piece misunderstands the choice confronting conservatives today–and not because they’re lousy reporters, either. It’s because many of us misunderstand it, too, and that comes through when you listen to us.
Here’s the deal, friends. I’m all for going big or going home. The scale of the fiscal disaster our nation faces is so massive that we have no other choice–kinda addressing it is little better than not addressing it at all. Either way, my kids are screwed. So let’s go big. But doing that inexorably leads not to Gov. Perry, but to his rival.
Why? First of all, because it simply is not the case that Gov. Perry is significantly more conservative than Gov. Romney. What is the case is that he’s cockier and comes from an infinitely more conservative state, with an infinitely more conservative legislature. Social Security is a great example of this. If you read beyond the headlines, both men agree (as anyone who can add must) that Social Security is insolvent and must be reformed big time. They even agree that current recipients should continue to experience the program basically as it is. What’s the difference? Again, Gov. Perry is cockier. Not only can he not resist launching verbal broadsides that make folks where I grew up (the Philadelphia suburbs) nervous; he clearly relishes it. Gov. Romney, on the other hand, prefers a good spreadsheet to a good scream.
Secondly, Gov. Romney is more capable than Gov. Perry of leading the kind of radical renewal this country’s finances need. The proof of that is not just in his record from Massachusetts, but from his larger career–and if we’re such principled conservatives, obviously we should give significant weight to private-sector experience. Gov. Romney has spent his whole career taking troubled enterprises and turning them into profitable ones (showing a rate of return of 113 percent), and taking good ideas and turning them into success (his most notable success being an investment in Staples when it was just a concept). Gov. Perry, on the other hand, took over an enterprise called Texas that was already on the right track. Don’t get me wrong; he deserves credit for not derailing it, and I think he even accelerated it a bit. But that’s a vastly different skill set. The one we need, in a go-big kind of way, is the one Gov. Romney has. Those spreadsheets are good for something, after all.
Let’s be honest: Far too often, conservatives–and particularly evangelicals–go for the candidate whose rhetoric makes us feel good, not necessary the one whose policies will do good. That is why so many of us are flirting hard with Gov. Perry. Heck, he leads prayer rallies. Unapologetically! And remember the last governor of Texas? He also ran for president, and when he showed he wasn’t afraid to use the word “Jesus” in the process, we swooned. Not only that, if we really want to air our dirty laundry, we need to confront the fact that the first modern candidate who began to mobilize evangelicals was none other than President Jimmy Carter in 1976. He, too, sounded like the biggest Christian in the room. How’d that work out for us?
There is a bright side, though. In 1980, we got our acts together and dumped President Carter for a divorced ex-actor from California who was accused of not going to church enough and whose wife hung out with an astrologist. Some might call that settling. I would call it smart, and a recognition that the people we find in politics are all imperfect. If we quit looking for a Conservative Messiah and falling for the guys who sound good, we can elect one who actually does good and who turns this country around–just as we did with that divorced ex-actor, Ronald Reagan.