Playing to a Hall Full of Extremists is a Loser Strategy


A friend once told us a story about his 9-year-old son, who had one question after watching a TV news clip of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy speaking to a Labor Day rally. Said the boy: “Why is that man yelling at me?”

Which calls to mind the distinction, apparently lost on some Republican candidates for president, between speaking to the hall and speaking to people outside of the hall.

What we witnessed at Monday night’s  Tea Party debate in Florida was a parade of candidates – notably Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann — who were playing to the hundreds of blood-thirsty, slash-and-burn Tea Partiers in the hall at the expense of the millions of centrist, moderate, even quiet conservative voters who were watching on TV.

Who were the people in the hall? Well, at one debate they applauded the news that Texas had executed 234 people and at another they cheered the idea of allowing a hypothetical 30-year-old man with no health insurance die for lack of treatment. These, we submit, are not the sentiments of your typical American voter. We doubt we’ll see a Rick Perry TV commercial proclaiming:

He executed hundreds of criminals and he’d let the uninsured die. He’ll put an end to Social Security, eliminate environmental regulations and protect tax breaks for the wealthy. Rick Perry – costs a lot more than 5 grand to bribe this ole boy.

‘Let the states do it’: On the other hand, give Perry credit for sticking to his guns on allowing illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at Texas colleges and universities. Although it made the Tea Partiers unhappy, he didn’t back away from that one like he tried to on his executive order requiring state immunization of young girls against cervical cancer.

On the third hand, check out the New York Times’ fact check on his assertions about Social Security, including this nugget:

At the debate, Mr. Perry said Social Security had to be fixed so that “our children actually know that there’s going to be a retirement program there for them.”

But in the past, as Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, correctly pointed out, Mr. Perry has repeatedly suggested that Social Security, which pays benefits to 56 million Americans, is undesirable, and that it may even be unconstitutional.

In “Fed Up” (Little, Brown and Company, 2010), Mr. Perry wrote that “by any measure, Social Security is a failure.” He described it as “a crumbling monument to the failure of the New Deal, in stark contrast to the mythical notion of salvation to which it has wrongly been attached for too long, all at the expense of respect for the Constitution and limited government.” Promoting the book on MSNBC last November, Mr. Perry asked: “Why is the federal government even in the pension program or the health care delivery program? Let the states do it.”

Hips and hot buttons: While Perry was playing to the partisans in the hall, Romney appears to have made a strategic decision to speak to the larger and more diverse TV audience.

In style and substance, the two approaches reflect broader divisions within the GOP about ideology and the best strategy for defeating President Obama next November.

Perry, since his recent, meteoric entry into the race, has quickly emerged as a Tea Party favorite: a full-throated advocate of their cut-taxes-slash-spending agenda, he also is a vocal social conservative on issues like gay marriage, and strikes a fiery, combative, shoot-from-the-hip campaign stance.

Romney, whose early lead in polls was quickly overtaken by Perry, also embraces Tea Party positions on taxes and spending, but his sharp focus on fixing the economy eschews hot button cultural issues, and his style is far more low-key.

Who woulda thunk that Social Security would emerge as a fault line in a GOP presidential primary?

But it has. While Perry bashes the 70-year old government pension system as a “fraudulent” “Ponzi scheme” that steals money from younger workers for retirees; Romney has pounced on the comments, supporting some reforms to Social Security, but portraying Perry as an extremist who is unelectable against Obama.

Not exactly Mr. Mainstream: As a practical matter, the intense exchange over Social Security is disproportionate to problems with the system. Far from insolvent, it is fully funded until 2037; a projected shortfall, driven by retirements among the massive Baby Boom generation, could be addressed through a number of reforms that have been identified, from adjusting benefits based on overall income, to raising the retirement age.

Perry’s stated idea – which he’s now desperately trying to walk back — that we should work to dismantle the federal program underpinning a social safety net built in the decades since the New Deal, is a decidedly radical notion. And a loser.

As Talking Points Memo noted:

Public Policy Polling (D) released their latest national poll on Tuesday, and it seems that calling Social Security a “Ponzi sceme” has not been particularly productive for Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Only 20 percent of voters nationally agree with that sentiment, against 70 percent who do not. Just to drive the point home, 82 percent don’t agree with ending the popular entitlement program, versus 12 who do. The results mirror a CNN poll on the issue, which showed that 72 percent thought Perry’s comments on Social Security were “not accurate.”

Crony capitalism: Perry’s other big problem – for which Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum ripped into him, doing Romney’s wet work — is his executive order mandating use of a vaccine against HPV, a common sexually transmitted infection that causes genital warts and, in women, can lead to cervical cancer.

The Washington Post offers a good peek at Perry’s ties to Merck, the drug company that makes the vaccine – ties that Bachmann suggested could have been the real reason why Perry issued his must-vaccinate order.

Despite his debate assertion that Merck gave him just $5,000, the Post reports:

Perry’s gubernatorial campaign, for example, received nearly $30,000 from the drug maker since 2000, most of it prior to his decision in 2007 to order young girls to obtain Merck’s vaccine against the human papillomavirus, or HPV.

Merck has also given more than $355,000 in donations to the Republican Governors Association since 2006, which was the year that Perry began to play a prominent role in the Washington-based group, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.

Perry served as chairman of the RGA in 2008 and again this year until he decided to run for president. The group also ranks among Perry’s biggest donors, giving the Texas governor’s campaign at least $4 million over the past five years, according to Texans for Public Justice.

Of course, it’s still way early in the GOP contest. At this juncture, however, it looks like a two-man race: Perry vs Romney, with Bachmann and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas hanging on the fringes.

But it’s clear that the Republican Party is at a crossroads and which path they take will determine whether President Obama coasts to victory in November or has a serious fight on his hands.

Talking outside the hall: BTW, the best example we can conjure of how a candidate who plays outside the hall is smarter than one who plays inside the hall occurred at the California Democratic Party convention in 1990, when Dianne Feinstein, in a contested primary against Attorney Gen. John Van de Kamp, proclaimed her support for the death penalty.

As brilliantly recounted in the seminal work, “Never Let Them See You Cry,” now available at flea markets and church rummage sales everywhere:

As soon as she uttered the words “death penalty,” delegates began a chorus of boos and jeers that cascaded throughout the Sacramento convention center. TV news coverage of the convention played up the spectacle of Dianne being booed by her own party — which played right into her hands.

“Bless you, bless you,” media adviser Hank Morris said, standing at the press table as the Democrats lustily booed his candidate. “They booed, exactly as they were supposed to.”

Soon after, Morris and [Bill] Carrick had crafted a new 30-second spot out of the episode, which was duly recorded by a video crew the duo had the foresight to have on hand, and aired it to demonstrate Feinstein’s roughness and independence.



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There are 9 comments for this post

  1. avatar Bill Leonard says:

    Playing to a hall of extremists is indeed a losers strategy. That is why I also expected your thoughtful analysis to also include Gov. Brown’s speech in Las Vegas to labor leaders where he promised in advance full pardons for crimes in California. Great applause line and laugh but does not work in the real world.

    • avatar ReilleyFam says:

      He’s not in the middle of an election and the labor convention – unlike the GOP confab – is not a nationally televised debate held EXCLUSIVELY for the benefit of allowing voters to decide on his electability. It’s apples & oranges.

      Oh, and we see how independent and unbiased you are, you’d never take a non-factual partisan swipe at JB would you?? See below:

      William R. Leonard (born 1947) is a Republican U.S. politician who served as a member of the California State Board of Equalization from 2002 until his resignation in March 2010 to work for then-Governor Arnold Swarzenegger.

    • avatar pjhackenflack says:

      Bill is a welcome commenter. Everyone is free to bring their partisan perspectives to Calbuzz.

  2. avatar pjhackenflack says:

    Thanks Bill — but we think Jerry was making a joke.

  3. avatar tegrat says:

    “Outing” a commentator is bad form, regardless of their political stripe. Moderator?

  4. avatar tegrat says:

    Perry and his ilk are all about small government unless it serves their selfish purposes to bring Big Brother into the mix. He could have ordered an educational campaign and let doctors and their patients decide on the use of the vaccine (small government), but instead tries to order (illegaly, it turns out) mandatory vaccinations to further his political gain. Mainstream media yawns.

    • avatar Adelaides Lament says:

      The mainstream media may not be yawning for long. Two investigative pieces came out today re. Perry and pay-to-play in Texas. The temperature has been turned up a few notches on the Texas catfish, I think.

    • avatar chrisfinnie says:

      Love the catfish moniker! Where were the investigative pieces published?

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