When Rick Perry joined the Republican presidential race, I thought he was the conservative and Mitt Romney was the moderate. But after watching them duke it out in three debates, I've changed my mind about what really separates them. Romney is from Mars. Perry is from Venus.
In their first debate, Romney had figures, but Perry had feelings. Romney believed in climate change. Perry wasn't sure. In their next debate, they were asked what they'd bring to the White House. Perry said he'd bring "the most beautiful, most thoughtful, incredible first lady that this country's ever seen." Romney said he'd bring a bust of Winston Churchill.
Romney stayed cool. Perry got hot. Twice, Perry called Social Security a "monstrous lie." He suggested President Obama was "an abject liar to the American people." He said the Fed chairman's policies could be considered "almost treasonous."
But Perry also turned warm and squishy. He volunteered praise for Obama on national security. He smiled at Romney's jokes, even when they were at Perry's expense. Romney's smiles looked fake. Perry's looked real. Perry often nodded as Romney spoke. He patted Romney on the back and grinned when Romney was asked how much credit Perry deserved for job growth in Texas. Romney, fumbling for his next canned line, looked like he was having indigestion.
Romney went after Perry like a professor trying to intimidate a student. "Do you still believe that Social Security should be ended as a federal program as you did six months ago," he asked Perry, "or do you want to retreat from that?" Perry began to answer—"I think we ought to have a conversation"—but Romney broke in: "We're having that right now, governor."
On capital punishment, Perry answered from the gut: "If you come into our state and you kill one of our children … you will face the ultimate justice." But he spoke just as viscerally about innocent life. "I hate cancer," he said when he was asked about the HPV vaccine he had mandated. "I will always err on the side of saving lives."
Michele Bachmann, the only woman on stage, pointed out that Perry's vaccine mandate violated conservative procedural rules: He had trampled the authority of parents, and he had done so through an executive order instead of consulting the legislature. But Perry didn't care much about procedure. "You may criticize me about the way that I went about it," he said, "but at the end of the day, I am always going to err on the side of life." Last night, when Bachmann again pressed the HPV question, Perry replied:
I got lobbied by a 31-year-old young lady who had stage 4 cervical cancer. I spent a lot of time with her. She came by my office talked to me about in program. … I erred on the side of life, and I will always err on the side of life.
That's Perry: waving away quibbles about parental rights and executive power with a hanky of compassion. In their second debate, when Bachmann noted that the vaccine order benefited Merck, which had donated to Perry's campaigns, Perry rebuked her: "If you're saying that I can be bought for $5,000 …" And then, as everyone braced for a thunderbolt, Perry paused and concluded: "I'm offended."
Offended? What kind of sissy talk is that?
Now the Republican primary fight has turned to immigration. Romney wants a law-and-order policy: border fence, identity cards, more agents, no amnesty. Last night, he went after Perry for letting children of illegal immigrants pay in-state tuition rates at public colleges. Romney argued that the tuition discount gives people an incentive to sneak over the border so their kids can exploit the benefit.
Perry disagreed. But instead of getting into an argument about law, tuition rates, or economic incentives, he simply declared: "If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they've been brought there by no fault of their own, I don't think you have a heart."
Don't have a heart? No wonder the audience booed him.
Yes, Perry talks like a cowboy. Yes, he's a hardliner on taxes, Social Security, abortion, and lots of other issues. But there's a pattern in his violations of the Tea Party line, and it permeates everything he says and does. He's a feeler, not a thinker, and he's up against a hyper-rational candidate running on a message of competence. Ultimately, their fates could be decided not by who's more conservative, but by whether Republicans vote with their brains or their hearts.