So in comes Rick Perry. He will surely be an instant co-frontrunner along with Mitt Romney. In fact I would argue, and will one paragraph down, that he’s basically the instant frontrunner. So for the sake of argument, let’s go ahead and think about a Perry-Obama race. Such a race would be about, yes, the economy first and foremost, and deficits and health care and all the rest. But an Obama-Perry race would be something else, too: a war between the two Americas, each side represented by its respective cultural standard-bearer, each side’s foot soldiers absolutely smoldering with contempt for everything the other guy stands for and indeed the way he looks. We’ve never quite had that before, not in this way, so it’s worth thinking about.
First, I think Perry becomes the frontrunner, even ahead of Mitt Romney, for three main reasons. No. 1, he fires up large chunks of the base in a way Romney does not. Romney has “default candidate” written all over him, but evangelicals and other hard-shell conservatives are never going to love a Massachusetts Mormon. They’ll love Perry. No. 2, Perry can quickly become the “establishment” candidate because the establishment of today’s GOP is not based on Wall Street or the heartland but in Texas—Karl Rove, the oilmen, the various billionaires who prime those GOP pumps. No. 3 is speculation rather than fact, but I believe Perry will demonstrate pretty quickly that he’s a better campaigner than Romney. It won’t be hard.
It will take some time, probably, for the polls to reflect all this, but they will. Republicans don’t want a posh, well-spoken Yankee who works at a place with a name like Bain Capital. In their deepest souls, they want a Texas governor. They want a shit-kicker. And here, we circle back to culture.
When my friends and I looked at George W. Bush in 1999, we shuddered like people who’d turned a street corner and stumbled across a dog’s corpse. We knew and had contempt for his beliefs, but it had nothing to do with them, really. It was just the way he presented himself. That puffed-out chest. That self-satisfied smirk. All that Jesus talk—even in the event that it was sincere, which we never quite bought, it was to a liberal deeply inappropriate to haul it into the public square like that. He represented Southern country clubs and Dodge Durangos and Browning bolt-actions and homes with no books in them (putting Laura to the side, since she wasn’t the candidate). He was the kind of man who, if I ran into him at a hospitality tent at a tailgate party, I’d make an effort to avoid. Liberals just couldn’t stand the sight of the guy. And that was before he ruined the country.
I understand that conservatives feel similarly about Obama. They look at him and see wine-and-cheese parties where people have jazz playing in the background and where talk turns to the merits and demerits of Jonathan Franzen, who drive Priuses (or is it Prii?) and buy espresso machines and live in homes with far too many books in them. And worse than that: for much of Red America, Dr. Frankenstein himself could not have stitched together a more perfect Other: urban, urbane, sophisticated, intellectual. “Black,” of course, may no longer be a deal breaker in this day and age, but it doesn’t help. Many conservatives clearly can’t stand the sight of him.
Perry, on this scale, is chillingly Bush-like. I saw a clip the other day of him saluting—an off-screen soldier, perhaps, or a flag. It was a small thing. But he looked exactly like Bush. The chest pumped up with self-regard. The overly aggressive way he thrust his saluting hand out from his forehead. He even, I swear, was smirking. I shuddered all over again.
During an Obama-Perry contest, millions of Americans on both sides would be shuddering constantly for four months. We’ve never had quite this kind of showdown culturally. Our present Kulturkampf dates only to the 1980s. There’s never been a cultural showdown of the sort Obama v. Perry would represent. Yes, Republicans hated Clinton, but he was Southern and enough of a good old boy that he cut across those lines to some extent. Gore was painted as an egghead, and was, but again Southern-ness diluted the cocktail a bit. Bush versus John Kerry is probably as close as we’ve come, but Kerry was never really quite threatening enough to Bush America to merit serious hatred. And John McCain, mostly because he was not Southern and partly because he was so old, was not nearly as perfect a foil for Obama as Perry would be.
I don’t relish this. We’re divided enough, thanks. To invoke one of Bush’s most degrading moments of smirky chest-puffery, I say don’t bring it on.