Rick Perry campaign: When it comes to policy, he is both confident and tentative.

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Aug. 17 2011 7:25 PM

The Two Rick Perrys

When it comes to policy, the Texas governor is both confident and tentative.

Republican presidential candidate and Texas Governor Rick Perry greets visitors at the Iowa State Fair August 15, 2011. Click image to expand.

DES MOINES—Watching Rick Perry discuss policy is like watching two different candidates. One can speak easily about the levels of pollutants in the Texas air or the details of oil and gas exploration. The other talks about national issues as tentatively as a young man asking his girlfriend's parents for her hand in marriage.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

It's not reasonable to expect a national candidate—even one with a book—to arrive on the campaign trail with a detailed set of policy positions on national issues. Candidates that have been running for months don't usually have very detailed positions on the issues, and most hope they can get through the campaign without ever needing them. To get too specific is to get yourself in danger.

So it's not a surprise that on questions about taxes, ethanol subsidies, and entitlements, Perry answers by saying that those issues will be illuminated during the "conversation" of the campaign. At a luncheon with businessmen in Dubuque, he takes a full beat between "Medi" and "caid," as if to protect against the common mistake of saying "Medicare."

Yet the governor can be clear, even vivid, when he wants to be. After following him for a few days in Iowa, my question is which Rick Perry will answer any given question.

Perry's much-discussed remarks on monetary policy Monday showed how both candidates can answer at once. His instinct was not to weigh in on the issue, but he just couldn't help himself and went on to threaten Bernanke if he ever came to Texas. He concluded his answer by saying that if the Fed printed more money it would be purely for political reasons. Asked about this later, he doubled down on the idea that Bernanke, a Republican appointee, was politically motivated.

After a breakfast in New Hampshire on Wednesday, Perry was asked whether misgivings about climate science fueled distrust of federal research, he said, "I think there are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects." When asked about entitlement growth at a lunch with businessmen Tuesday, Perry suggested that part of the growth in entitlements was from greed. "Entitlements are a safety net, not a Cadillac or another vehicle to drive around in." His argument against President Obama's foreign policy isn't just that it's wrong but that the president might not love his country.

Perry's claims are based on the idea that most problems can be pretty easily solved. When talking about economic policies, Perry regularly marvels that Washington doesn't understand the simple economic truths that have served him well as governor: Low taxes and low regulation mean growth. Securing the border, he says, "is not one of those insolvable problems at all." It's also helpful that brevity is part of Perry's message. "I don't think the federal government has a role in your children's education." Therefore, no need for an education plan.

So far at least, the common thread of Perry's message is this: The solutions are simple—and those who disagree are not on the level. It's one thing to disagree with policy positions or decisions. It's another to claim such clarity on an issue that you see base motives in anyone who holds a different view. That requires either pride or a sophisticated level of understanding. And as a political matter, it ups the ante: Your opponents aren't just clueless, they're venal.

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