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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Inside Dumb on Rick Perry

While interesting for its anecdotes, Jonathan Martin’s lengthy Politico piece today on the mind of Rick Perry is in some respects a maddeningly repetitive non sequitur. It asks the question (as its title puts it) “Is Rick Perry Dumb?” And the answer, generally, is “He Hasn’t Lost an Election!”
It’s unclear whether Martin’s main point is that book larnin’ isn’t essential to political success so long as you can follow a poll briefing, or that Perry is cunningly lying in wait for observers and opponents who underestimate him as the kind of guy who struggled to make C’s at Texas A&M.
I guess Martin pretty much does establish that Perry’s not some Chauncey Gardner figure who has no idea what he’s doing, being manipulated by smart and cynical advisers. But I’m not sure how many people really think there is some direct correlation between IQ and success in political and elected office.
For one thing, luck and timing are hugely important in public life, and by any measure Rick Perry is a very lucky guy with an extraordinary sense of political timing. For another, it’s a very open question whether it’s better for policymakers to be guided by their own powers of reasoning and deduction, as amplified by experience, or by a fixed set of principles that constituents have had every opportunity to understand and endorse–i.e., an ideology. One of the legitimate questions about Perry is whether his very clear ideology actually guides his decisions, as frustrated Texas conservatives have often observed when he does things like promoting a vast infrastructure project, supporting Rudy Giuliani for president, or using public funds to reward his political allies and cronies.
Like many other observers, Martin thinks it’s important to comprehend that whatever his lack of intellectual gifts, Perry is shrewd, tough, and power-hungry. These are qualities that typically inspire admiration among those who are allied with such a politician, and fear among everyone else. Since comparisons of Perry with George W. Bush are both ubiquitous and inevitable, it’s probably worth noting that W. often seemed bored with the exercise of political power; you didn’t get the sense he woke up in the middle of the night with his lower brain churning at images of his enemies screaming in pain and cowering in defeat. The same could be said, of course, about Barack Obama, and often is said by progressives who are beside themselves in frustration about the 44th president’s apparent lack of martial instincts.
So when conservatives talk about Perry being the “anti-Obama,” they probably aren’t just referring to the contrast between the Texas governor’s theories, such as they are, about how to grow the economy as opposed to the Obama administration’s. During the 1972 presidential campaign, Hunter Thompson once said that nominating Ed Muskie to run against Richard Nixon would be like “sending out a three-toed sloth to take on a wolverine.” It’s a matter of ongoing debate whether President Obama is really the weak and over-cerebral politician that his progressive detractors say he is, or instead someone playing a weak hand with a complex and multi-leveled strategy that may turn out to be brilliant or too clever by half. But there’s not much doubt that Rick Perry is one Republican presidential aspirant for whom subtelty in any form seems entirely alien. Whether you adjudge him as “smart” or “dumb” will probably depend on how you view the relative intelligence of a hammer-head shark.

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