When I wrote about Rick Perry’s very well-received speech at CPAC representing the underlying radicalism that has become commonplace at conservative gatherings, I did so in part because we’ve all gotten too accustomed to the duplicitous game played by Republican pols who talk out of both sides of their mouths about very popular federal domestic programs like Medicare and federally guaranteed student loans. If they aren’t hinting they’d like to repeal them altogether, they’re often promising to defend them to the last ditch, like Paul Ryan so conspicuously did with respect to Medicare in 2012.
But to my surprise, at least one major Republican writer was disturbed by Perry’s rhetoric at CPAC: Commentary’s Peter Wehner:
It is one thing - and I think very much the right thing - to argue for a more limited role for the federal government and conservative reforms of everything from entitlement programs to education, from our tax code to our immigration system to much else. It’s quite another when we have the kind of loose talk from the governor of the second most populous state in America.
I realize that some people will argue that what Perry is offering up is simply “red meat” for a conservative audience. It’s a (lazy) default language those on the right sometimes resort to in order to express their unhappiness with the size of the federal government. But words matter, Governor Perry is actually putting forth (albeit in a simplified version) a governing philosophy, and most Americans who hear it will be alarmed by it.
As a political matter, running under the banner of “Get out of the health care business! Get out of the education business!” hardly strikes me as the best way to rally people who are not now voting for the GOP in presidential elections. I’m reminded of the words of the distinguished political scientist James Q. Wilson: “Telling people who want clean air, a safe environment, fewer drug dealers, a decent retirement, and protection against catastrophic medical bills that the government ought not to do these things is wishful or suicidal politics.”
Wehner, of course, is not your typical conservative writer. In February of last year, he and WaPo columnist Michael Gerson penned one of the more serious post-2012 articles on the need for some serious rethinking of the GOP message and policy agenda, earning them a spot in Ryan Cooper’s list of “Reformish Conservatives” in the May/June 2013 issue of the Washington Monthly.
But still, with Republicans getting themselves all revved up for a big 2014 victory so long as they keep their message simple and stupid, it’s refreshing to hear at least one voice suggest there is long-term danger—or really short-term danger, since 2016 isn’t that far away—in Perry’s kind of rap. At some point, Democrats are going to figure out how to effectively make the case that the “red meat” speeches reflect actual Republican priorities far more than the “incremental reform” or even defense-of-the-status quo rhetoric GOPers aim at swing voters.
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