Political Animal


August 19, 2011 8:45 AM Perry, parties, and pragmatism

By Steve Benen

This fascinating clip made the rounds yesterday, and with good reason. To get a sense of how Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) evaluates evidence, it’s an illustrative three minutes.

I can’t find a full transcript, but to offer a flavor, the clip shows a reporter passing along a question from the audience to the governor: “Why does Texas continue with abstinence education programs, when they don’t seem to be working? In fact, I think we [in Texas] have the third-highest teen-pregnancy rate in the country right now.” Perry responds, “Abstinence works.”

So, the reporter tries again. “But we have the third-highest teen teen-pregnancy rate among all states in the country. The questioner’s point is, it doesn’t seem to be working.” The governor answers again, “It — it works.” Perry then spends two-and-a-half minutes on a meandering answer that doesn’t really make any sense.

The problem here isn’t just that Perry has the wrong answer. The more meaningful problem is that Perry doesn’t seem to know how to even formulate an answer. He starts with a proposition in his mind (abstinence-only education is effective), and when confronted with evidence that the proposition appears false (high teen-pregnancy rates), the governor simply hangs onto his belief, untroubled by evidence. As Jon Chait put it, Perry seems to struggle “even to think in empirical terms.”

To understand the larger dynamic here, consider Paul Waldman’s sharp observation: “[T]he difficulty he has here comes from the fact that his stance on sex education is about 95 percent moral and 5 percent practical. He gets forced to confront the practical question, and he does so in such a bumbling way because he keeps trying to turn the practical question into a moral one…. He doesn’t have a practical argument because he’s probably never thought about it in those terms, and doesn’t much care.”

That sounds right to me. In general, conservatism isn’t pragmatic because policy outcomes aren’t the goal. Indeed, they’re largely irrelevant. As we’ve seen in too many instances, Republicans aren’t principally concerned with solving problems; their goals are ideological.

In a case like education and lessons on sexual health, the left tends to look at this in terms of results: what works in preventing teen pregnancies and the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases? For the right, the question is philosophical: what’s consistent with their morality?

The exchange in the clip is amusing because it makes Perry look foolish, but it actually offers a peek behind the curtain: the right believes programs work, even when they don’t work, so long as ideological goals are being met. Real-world implications are meaningless.

Postscript: Just as an aside, Perry also believes public-school science classes should present students with both science and religion, assuming young people are “smart enough to figure out which one is right.” Here’s a radical idea: maybe Perry should consider a similar approach to sex-ed?

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


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  • Marc on August 19, 2011 8:59 AM:

    Is it that he is saying that the program works or that abstinence works?

    I think it is the latter. He does not answer the question asked - he is answering a different question.

    He eventually gets to the question and talks about return on investment.

    While I am frightened by the man, I don't think misunderstanding him helps.

  • c u n d gulag on August 19, 2011 9:01 AM:

    God, in this clip you see the very worst of Little Boots in Perry.
    The little smirk, the swagger, the sheer idiocy, the faith, the bullshit, that little lisp.

    And my favorite line was 'that he could attest that abstinance works.'
    Really, Governor?
    Than why did your father-in-law have to give you a vasectomy?

    BTW - I wonder Freud would have called a father-in-law clipping his son-in-laws cojone's tubes?
    OMG, can you imagine how much he'd like to have Perry, his wife, and her parents on the couch? One at a time, I mean...

    This is somewhere beyond even Oedipus and Electra...

  • Oh my on August 19, 2011 9:03 AM:

    All I can say is if America liked W, their going to LOOOVE Perry.

    The all balls and no brain cowboy act has been tried before. Is America going to sign up for another 4?

  • kevo on August 19, 2011 9:04 AM:

    Yes, I do believe
    I did indeed
    that Ideologue
    walking his Dogma
    the other day,
    but I just had to turn away -
    and laugh hysterically,
    for it was peeing
    on many of the attendees!

    If the ones among us who dare call themselves journalists give the Dear Governor from Texas a pass on any of his nonsense,

    Whale Oil, Beef Hooked! -Kevo

  • walt on August 19, 2011 9:05 AM:

    The ideology of Republicans can be described as anti-pragmatic in the sense that it wants government to fail except in the most traditional capacities (say, jailing poor people, enforcing drug laws, protecting corporations from unions, etc.).

    Perry's Republicanism is now the norm except in the Northeast. In Arizona, where I live, it's turned traditional politics into a Holy War where legislation involves mostly hot-button, culture-war kind of issues. The one transformational salient in their agenda is lowering taxes, which is part of their overall plan to shrink government.

    Perry is a bit of a shock to people since he's so unapologetic about his ideology. But anyone in the Sunbelt can tell you this is the GOP's dominant strain now. Ignore him at your peril.

  • DAY on August 19, 2011 9:05 AM:

    Being blessed/cursed with an active imagination, gulag has THOROUGHLY ruined my day. . .

  • Anonymous on August 19, 2011 9:09 AM:

    I dunno, I think he's a LITTLE smarter than this.

    Look, the Right's position here -- as with evolution -- is explicitly religious. It's not a MORAL argument, it's RELIGIOUS DOGMA. Abstinence is correct because their weird version of Christianity says so. Likewise creationism. So the excuse of letting students "figure it out" for themselves is pure fiction; they want creationism in the schools because it's the religious dogma they want the state to advance. Full stop.

    Perry knows his audience wants this, and he's giving them what they want. Nothing more.

  • stormskies on August 19, 2011 9:13 AM:

    And we need to remember too when asked about what our Constitution means relative to the 'general welfare' of our country: this was meet by total silence on his part .. utterly unable to answer.

  • mk3872 on August 19, 2011 9:18 AM:

    Bennen: "... the left tends to look at this in terms of results ... the right believes programs work, even when they donít work, so long ideological goals are being met."

    I love Steve's work. But being an apologist for Left-wing activists is not acceptable.

    The radical lefties @ FDL, DK & others are ALSO trying to force Obama and Dems into ignoring pragmatic solutions that work and instead, taking ideological stances that bring nothing more than gridlock.

  • estamm on August 19, 2011 9:26 AM:

    Perry is right. Abstinence prevents pregnancy. It is just that abstinence education does not actually promote abstinence. Pretty much the opposite.

  • Josef K on August 19, 2011 9:31 AM:

    I was going to say something snarky about Perry needing his vocal chords clipped, but that seemed a bit much.

    What I'd like to know more than anything is how has this guy managed to survive this long being this disconnected from reality. I wouldn't trust him to cross the street on his own.

    One can only hope the national electorate is less suicidal than those in Texas.

  • low-tech cyclist on August 19, 2011 9:36 AM:

    In general, conservatism isnít pragmatic because policy outcomes arenít the goal.

    I think it would be more accurate to say that for conservatives, the policy is the policy outcome. They don't care if it 'works' by some exterior measure; the fact that their policy is in place is all that counts to them.

    In the case of abstinence education, the goal is to teach abstinence and denigrate birth control in the schools. In the case of lower taxes on the rich, the goal is lower taxes on the rich. It doesn't matter whether abstinence education reduces teen pregnancy, or whether lower taxes on the rich stimulate the economy. The policy itself is the desired outcome.

  • dr2chase on August 19, 2011 9:36 AM:

    "I don't think misunderstanding him helps"

    At minimum, he intends to be misunderstood, by people who might vote for him. Abstinence works perfectly when used as directed, in the same way that one can canoe safely down the wildest river by following the simple instructions "don't hit rocks, don't fall out, don't tilt the canoe".

  • gussie on August 19, 2011 9:41 AM:

    Perfect example, dr2chase. This really cries out for an analogy contest.

    Dodging bullets works, so long as you actually _dodge_ them.
    Falling out of an airplane won't kill you, as long as you take care not to hit the ground.

  • DisgustedWithItAll on August 19, 2011 9:43 AM:

    This reality and empirically challenged Republican phenomenon can't be new to anybody here. Anything involving numbers becomes a candidate for wrongness with the faith-based, ideological party. They've had 30 years to evaluate supply-side theory and practice and they've come to the wrong conclusion. Given that amount of time to be wrong on AGW they will be responsible for baking the only planet we know how to live on.

  • Kathryn on August 19, 2011 9:55 AM:

    It's obvious Mr. Perry is no more qualified for higher office than Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachmann, not that it's surprising. He needs a Katie Couric moment and if his handlers let anybody with a brain near him, it's coming. Don't see him showing up on Sunday talk anytime soon (FOX only), even someone as lame as David Gregory could expose his world class ignorance. No offense to chimps, but he sort of has a chimp face, just an observation.

    Reports on liberal radio yesterday indicate that his personal financial returns from 1995 show an investment in Movie Gallery, a large porn film distributor. I know everything IOKIYR, but that does seem at odds with his phony Christian fervor. Also he pushed laws making it easier for porn distribution across state lines. Anybody think this could trip him up in the least?

  • Gandalf on August 19, 2011 9:57 AM:

    mk3872 yes your basically full of shit. If your going to change the subject and somehow try and equate leftyies to Perry being a mindless douchebag please be so kind as to at least reference some specifics of what the fuck your talking about. Jackass!!

  • June on August 19, 2011 10:09 AM:

    Reading @Kathryn's post (thanks for that very interesting tidbit re: Perry's investment in Movie Gallery) really sets in stark contrast the bar as set for Republican presidential candidates, and the bar as set for Democratic presidential candidates.

    Imagine if John Kerry or Barack Obama had been found to have invested in, and lobbied for, porn-related ventures. Every MSM headline would be a version of "President of Porn!" Now, here we have this so-called fervently religious guy (Perry) having been found to do just those things, and not a peep out of CNN, et al.

    I know -- life isn't fair.

  • maggie on August 19, 2011 10:11 AM:

    Actually, in his mind it does work - the difference is in the definition of the preferable outcome. For Perry and the likes, it's not about preventing preganancy. If teens have access to birth control, then it's harder to tell the good girls from the dirty little sluts. Bad bad girls are SUPPOSED to be punished with a baby. Therefore, abstinance "education" works, in that it achieves their desired effect.

  • Keith Sader on August 19, 2011 10:19 AM:

    He's like George W. Bush, but dumber.

  • Brenna on August 19, 2011 10:20 AM:

    Mindless douchebag. Perfect. That's exactly what's wrong with these far right extreme candidates. They're literally mindless, in that they don't question any of their positions or thoughts. It makes them small, devoid of any creativity or fresh ideas.

    Maybe that's the difference between dems and repubs. Mindful vs. Mindless.

  • Brenna on August 19, 2011 10:22 AM:

    Didn't see Maggie's comment before I had posted.

    "Bad bad girls are SUPPOSED to be punished with a baby. Therefore, abstinance "education" works, in that it achieves their desired effect."

    I think that's spot on.

  • ComradeAnon on August 19, 2011 10:22 AM:

    Let's get The Onion to post an article saying that Obama invested in Movie Gallery. I'll suggest it to them. Noting to lose. Within 10 minutes Fox would be all over it saying the President invested in a porn-related venture. Perry is what Palin could become with a lot of work. I wonder if her handlers see that. Maybe that's their goal and would make them very happy.

  • anandine on August 19, 2011 10:36 AM:

    Perry also believes public-school science classes should present students with both science and religion

    Even more, he believes they do teach science and religion (evolution and creationism) in Texas schools.

  • arkie on August 19, 2011 10:40 AM:

    "Armed with ignorance and dogma...."

    Jacob Bronowski


  • biggerbox on August 19, 2011 10:53 AM:

    While most Republicans seem out-of-touch with the practical questions that Waldman talks about, Perry strikes me as worse. He actively rejects caring about them. There IS no practical evidence that matters to him. He rejects the whole idea of practical evidence, and the rationalist Enlightenment tradition on which it is based. (Not that he's sophisticated enough to understand that's what he's doing, he's just going with his arrogant gut.) While other candidates are just stupid or ignorant, he's actively anti-intellect.

    He knows what works and what doesn't. Don't you tell him different, because he'll have to whup you. You best get in line behind him, or else.

  • Texas Aggie on August 19, 2011 11:46 AM:

    Several comments on this travesty of a Homo sapiens. The Palins can tell you from their life experiences that abstinence most assuredly does NOT prevent pregnancies if that is your goal. Sarah, Brittany and the boy whatever his name is are all unwed parents.

    And if your goal is indeed to prevent teenage pregnancies, you've been teaching abstinence for the last 11 years. Why is it not preventing pregnancies?

    In functional courses on sex education, absolutely no one is saying to go out and have sex. That you have to lie about that says a lot about your position. On the contrary, it's the abstinence teachers who are in effect, telling the kids to go out and have sex. When has a kid taken no for an answer rather than a challenge? What kid wants to be like the dorks who teach abstinence as the only solution?

    And I can assure you that a whole lot more money is being wasted on abstinence than on steroid testing.

  • Andy C on August 19, 2011 11:56 AM:

    Nigel Tufnel: The numbers all go to eleven. Look, right across the board, eleven, eleven, eleven and...
    Marty DiBergi: Oh, I see. And most amps go up to ten?
    Nigel Tufnel: Exactly.
    Marty DiBergi: Does that mean it's louder? Is it any louder?
    Nigel Tufnel: Well, it's one louder, isn't it? It's not ten. You see, most blokes, you know, will be playing at ten. You're on ten here, all the way up, all the way up, all the way up, you're on ten on your guitar. Where can you go from there? Where?
    Marty DiBergi: I don't know.
    Nigel Tufnel: Nowhere. Exactly. What we do is, if we need that extra push over the cliff, you know what we do?
    Marty DiBergi: Put it up to eleven.
    Nigel Tufnel: Eleven. Exactly. One louder.
    Marty DiBergi: Why don't you just make ten louder and make ten be the top number and make that a little louder?
    Nigel Tufnel: [pause] These go to eleven.

  • Old Uncle Dave on August 19, 2011 12:52 PM:

    Abstinence-only education works.
    Cutting taxes on the rich creates jobs.
    Obama is a socialist.
    Capitalism is democracy.
    War is peace.
    Freedom is slavery.
    Ignorance is strength.

  • Sam on August 19, 2011 12:59 PM:

    The problem isn't even his answer. Of course abstinence works. The problem is he is too dumb to even understand the question.

  • Schtick on August 19, 2011 1:43 PM:

    Proof that facts or stats will never sway the tealiban. Kinda like that stupid piece of paper called the Constitution. 3rd in the country? Well, it's just a bunch of numbers.

    crapcha....Nicken shiptoy....not quite what I was thinking..

  • eserwe on August 19, 2011 2:04 PM:

    "The exchange in the clip is amusing because it makes Perry look foolish, ..."

    Sorry, but given that this guy is governor of one of the most populous states, not to speak of the fact that he wants to become president, this clip is fuc*ing depressing. There are thousands of teenage girls behind this little statistic of the third highest teenage pregnancy rate every year.

  • gVOR08 on August 19, 2011 3:35 PM:

    I think it's not really ideology or a religious tenet per se. It's a belief that conception is a miracle wrought by God, and if God wants to work one of His miracles, you have no right to stand in His way.

    Why God's will couldn't just as well be that He wants you to wear a condom escapes me, but they seem to hold strongly otherwise.

  • David on August 19, 2011 4:03 PM:

    He's like a dumbed-down version of Bush.

    Three words: nuclear launch codes.

  • Jack DeTate on August 19, 2011 5:12 PM:

    Perry is a 1st class fool who insists on promoting nonsense at the expense of the public he's supposed to represent. There seems to be no end to the depth of his absurd conclusions. The people of Texas who suffer under his delusional fantasies deserve better. I don't believe he can pass a psychological test or anything that measures his rational stability.

  • Anonymous on August 20, 2011 2:06 AM:

    anandine, they have actually, approved textbooks teaching creationism for students in texas...of course, made in texas.

  • David in Houston on August 23, 2011 9:34 AM:

    I knew Perry wasn't "God's best" when it came to intellect, but this video is simply shocking. He's told that Texas has the 3rd highest rate of teen pregnancies, yet he doesn't think that anything needs to be done to address that issue. He wants to stay the course, because in his mind abstinence programs are actually working. Not only is he completely unfit to be president. But he shouldn't even be governor... or the manager of a Walmart for that matter. He's a complete imbecile.

    I think Brenna said it best above: August 19, 2011 10:20 AM
    "They're literally mindless, in that they don't question any of their positions or thoughts. It makes them small, devoid of any creativity or fresh ideas."


  • Steve on August 23, 2011 11:10 AM:

    It's the same with religion in general. Religion isn't based on logic, reason or evidence. It's immune to it. The more you argue with logic the more entrenched people become. They have their desired outcome and then mold their whole worldview around it.

    This is just the extension of that. Perry's approach to everything is religious in nature. His abstinence policy is entirely religious. So he uses the same kind of thinking to defend it.