Monday, September 12, 2011

The Texecutioner's Song: Part I


I called the 2004 election for George W. Bush on October 8, the night of his second debate with John Kerry.

Political analysts and media critics said the town-hall debate ranked as a tie (the previous and following meetings were solid Kerry victories), but by the end of the night it didn't matter if they ever met on stage again.

"Need some wood?"
The moment I knew Bush would coast into another four-year term occurred during an exchange about tax rates on small businesses. Kerry said Bush's policy made "small businesses" out of everything and everyone. He cited a report about Bush's tax filings showing the president had an $84-dollar income from a timber company, a meager amount that nonetheless qualified Bush as a small business owner.

Bush's response sealed any lingering hope I had that he would lose.

"I own a timber company?" he asked the crowd. "That's news to me." And with a pause that should be studied by every politician wanting to master the art of public speaking, Bush added, "Need some wood?"

These exchanges went on all night and throughout the remainder of the campaign. When Kerry outlined his support for tort reform, he talked about numbers and policies: the 500,000 kids cut from after-school programs, the 365,000 kids cut from health care, the future tax bracket for those making under $200,000 a year, the $3,500 or 64 percent increase in premiums for Missourians, the percentage of medical costs associated with tort reform.

Bush was much simpler.

He pulled out one detail of Kerry's monologue and quipped, "You're now for capping punitive damages? That's odd. You should have shown up on the floor in the Senate and voted for it then."

The end.

The debate wasn't a tie. Bush secured his second term, and in the process he reminded Democrats that, in politics, facts don’t matter. Kerry's points on both tort reform and taxes were accurate and valid in the context of the issues, but nobody watching the debate could say one way or another whether health insurance premiums in Missouri rose 64 percent or 46 percent. Not only would Americans not remember such a statistic, they wouldn't care. And in all honesty, why should they?

It's for the same reason that I believe Rick Perry has the GOP nomination in the bag.

I make the prediction not merely because he surpassed all expectations by completing his sentences during his first live debate performance. It's not because he so flippantly dismissed the debate moderator's "gotcha" questions and stuck to his talking points. And it's not because he got a raucous round of applause from a crowd that apparently thought putting 234 Texans to death was commendable.

It's because he's a cowboy who embodies all the positive qualities the American people found in George W. Bush. He's passionate but not pinched. He's quick and harsh when on the attack, but he's more entertained than vengeful when launching them. He talks in the stilted, stuttering drawl of a clichéd Texan – a comfort to those who aren't Ivy League elocutionists. Mainly, he appeals to the heart.

Tom Pennington, Getty Images
Similar to how most Republicans react to politics, my prediction about Perry's primary success is based on a gut reaction.

As Roger Simon of Politico put it, those who watched Rick Perry in the primary debate "saw a guy with square shoulders and a gunslinger squint, a man who likes to drop his g's when speakin' his mind... What his answers sometimes lacked in logic was made up for in enthusiasm, and after some initial nervousness – he gripped the sides of his podium as if he were hanging onto a life raft – Perry settled down to his talking points."

Indeed he did.

When asked about climate change – specifically, if Perry could name "specific scientists or specific theories" that he found "especially compelling" – the Texas governor focused on one detail of the question, in this case a word, and crafted an answer that was palatable to essentially every American watching on TV.

"Let me tell you what I find compelling, is what we've done in the state of Texas, using our ability to regulate our clean air. We cleaned up our air in the state of Texas, more than any other state in the nation during the decade. Nitrous oxide levels, down by 57 percent. Ozone levels down by 27 percent. That's the way you need to do it, not by some scientist somewhere saying, 'Here is what we think is happening out there.' The fact of the matter is, the science is not settled on whether or not the climate change is being impacted by man to the point where we're going to put Americas economics in jeopardy."

Is any of it true?

Well, no. Texas ranks 13th on the "Toxic 20" list of most polluted states, and Houston ranks as the fifth most polluted city in the U.S. (Dallas also was in the top 10). Furthermore, climate change is only a "questionable theory" to cranks, and PolitiFact.com confirms that Perry's statement is utterly false.

But again, the facts are irrelevant.

In between his regular criticisms of "Romneycare," Perry finally fielded a question about his own "health care mandate" – a mandatory vaccination against cervical cancer for 12-year-olds.

Rather than stumbling over a defensive apology for his record, he put the question to rest by saying, "I hate cancer."

Who in America disagreed?

In mocking the intellectual over-analysis of left-wing pundits, Comedy Central's Jon Stewart explained Perry's magnetic effect with Republican voters this way: "In the presence of Republican voters, Rick Perry actuates an neuro-endocrine reaction that reroutes any analytic frontal cortex activity as a hotwave of electro-chemical impulses, stimulating their proto-reptilian limbic system."

As George Lakoff noted in The Political Mind, 98 percent of all political beliefs are unconscious. While Romney will win the battle for intellectuals who agree with his economic plan, Perry will win the war by appealing to the heart, the gut and, as Stewart's crotch grab implied, the balls.

"You don't get Rick Perry here," he said, pointing to his head. "You get him here!" 

(Cross-posted at Muddy Politics.)

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