Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry exited the presidential race Sept. 11 in the same manner in which he conducted his second presidential race, with maturity, largeness of spirit and devotion to conservative policies that improve the lives of all Americans. He declared, “It is time to elevate our debate from divisive name-calling, from sound bites without solutions, and start discussing how we will make the country better for all if a conservative is elected president.” And he warned, “The conservative movement has always been about principles, not personalities. Our nominee should embody those principles. He – or she – must make the case for the cause of conservatism more than the cause of their own celebrity.”
He concluded with a call to action:
“I remain as convinced as ever: There is nothing wrong with America today that cannot be fixed with new leadership. Leadership that champions conservative ideas. As great as our greatest Republican presidents were – from Lincoln to Reagan – it is their ideas that remain greatest. Those ideas live on through the spirit, idealism and optimism of this generation of Americans. We must return to great ideas, to our belief in the power of free individuals, free markets, and free Americans standing watch for liberty wherever it is threatened.”
He was arguably the most accomplished candidate of the race with a career in the Air Force and 14 years as governor in Texas, racking up the largest job growth of any state during the worst period of the recession. He handled a border crisis, an Ebola scare and numerous natural disasters.
He ran his campaign as one would hope every candidate would. He spent years, not weeks or months, studying foreign policy. He demonstrated command of national security issues (making timely videos and writing well-crafted op-eds on issues such as the Islamic State, Iran and military funding). At the Citadel, he gave one of the most astute foreign policy speeches of the campaign. He refused to pander or play to voters’ worst instincts on the Confederate flag issue, gay marriage and immigration.
At the National Press Club he delivered the best conservative speech in years, addressing issues of race and poverty. In an election in which candidates later would call for eviscerating the 14th Amendment he chastised the party for its obsession with the 10th Amendment to the detriment of the 14th. He also did the party a great service by condemning Donald Trump’s brand of politics, which he rightly called a “cancer on conservatism.” In short, he was a qualified grown-up speaking to the most important issues in a serious way.
And yet he was the first candidate to exit. There is something deeply troubling about our political culture that he is out while Trump, the sleazy Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and the admirable but unqualified Dr. Ben Carson hum along.
Perry is not without blame. His campaign arguably spent too much, too early. And his disastrous 2012 run continued to haunt him. But still.
It is not hard to see how we got here. The mainstream media obsesses on trivial matters, almost priding itself on political coverage that ignores the substance of candidates’ messages, and fixates on a self-promoting mogul running a campaign about himself. The right-wing media bubble is part of a crass political culture excusing (promoting, even) ignorance, anger and paranoia. This serves to dumb down our politics and turn the electorate into a mob. Flagship conservative weeklies irresponsibly fan anti-immigrant sentiment and celebrate frivolous candidates.
The result is debased political discourse and a sense of victimhood bent on attacking Republicans who dare to govern responsibly. Voters surely shoulder their share of blame. They run to embrace bad causes, gobble up a steady diet of political junk food, celebrate rotten behavior and buy into the notion that insufficient conservative extremism is the root of our troubles. If President Obama has done more than Republicans could have hoped to do on their own to unify the GOP and re-instill proper concern for national security, then the right wing has done more to undermine conservatism than any Republican could have done. They are converting a serious party of ideas into an unattractive, angry racket for snake-oil salesmen.
A long-time GOP operative assures me, “The adult voters in the GOP always show up to the party fashionably late.” We should pray he is right.
Perry, to be certain, was not every voter’s cup of tea. And no candidate has a right to expect voters’ support. But it is fair to worry whether the GOP electorate has become incapable of setting standards for political debate, of distinguishing crass entertainers from legitimate contenders and of rejecting bigotry and irresponsibility. If so, Republicans picked a particularly inopportune moment to lose their marbles. On the other side are hopelessly partisan Democrats who are indifferent to the world’s suffering, allergic to world leadership and wedded to an utterly unsustainable welfare state that is creating more poor people, more non-workers and more divisiveness that we have seen in decades. The country needs a serious, responsible Republican Party. I am increasingly worried it is on the brink of extinction.
Jennifer Rubin writes the conservative Right Turn blog for The Washington Post.