25 August 2011

The growing case against Rick Perry

I've been mostly apathetic about Rick Perry's entrance into the GOP primary, if for no other reason than none of his principal challengers thrills me. It's well-documented that I'd like to see the nominee come from the lower tiers -- specifically, Ron Paul (who is arguably a borderline first-tier candidate despite being completely ignored by most media types), Gary Johnson or Jon Hunstman.

Although Perry's entrance has thrilled many seeking an electable alternative to Michele Bachmann and a more conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, several damaging elements of Perry's record have emerged very quickly. While Romney's missteps are well-documented and have been discussed here ad nauseum, Perry is largely considered far more conservative than Romney, so his record is, as of yet, unimpeached.

First: In 2006, Perry supported a trans-Texan highway that would ostensibly link up the populous cities in the east to the sparsely populated west. To secure land on which to build the highway, Perry proposed gobbling up myriad property owners' homes through eminent domain. This reflects the worst excesses of the Kelo v. New London era, where state governments are held to an absurdly low standard when asked to justify why citizens should be thrown off their land. In the opinion of most conservatives (see the O'Connor/Roberts/Scalia/Thomas dissent in Kelo, for starters), the state must clear an exceptionally high bar, and have a deeply compelling interest, when taking private property through eminent domain. Building a "highway to nowhere" is far from a sufficient justification. West Texas is a notoriously sparse place, one of the most remote areas of the country. As such, Perry's initiative represented big government at its most dangerous. Property rights are sacrosanct. But apparently not to Rick Perry.

Second: While decrying the tyranny of big government, Perry is highly deferential to that same tyrannical government on matters of law and order. He exemplifies the maddening dichotomy that has enveloped 21st century conservatism: A distaste and even fear of intrusive government on the one hand, and ultimate deference to the Security State on the other. Perry vetoed a bill that would have spared mentally retarded defendants from the death penalty, despite Supreme Court decisions from time immemorial that require a minimum level of cognition in order to impose capital punishment. Since he took office a decade ago, he has seen fit to only reduce one death row inmate's sentence to life in prison, despite rampant evidence of prosecutorial misconduct nationwide. Perhaps most critically, Perry engaged in the most depraved sort of underhanded executive abuses regarding Cameron Todd Willingham. WIllingham was accused of setting fire to his home killing his wife and daughters. After he was convicted, and shortly before the execution, Willingham's lawyers provided Perry and his forensic science commission (who are appointed and serve at the pleasure of the governor) a report from an arson expert appearing to exonerate Willingham, and demonstrating that the prosecution's evidence and methodology was deeply flawed. The commission began to review the case after investigative journalists cast serious doubt on Willingham's guilt, and hired an investigator who was scheduled to give the commission a report. Shortly before the investigator's testimony, Perry dismissed the chairman and replaced three members of the commission. Willingham's appeal was subsequently denied, and he was executed in 2004. Whatever one's opinions about the death penalty, Perry's conduct was inexcusable and disgusting. That shouldn't be how "justice" is done in America.

Third: Perry once mandated that all 11- and 12-year-old girls be vaccinated with HPV while there were still serious questions about the drug's efficacy and safety. This was a mandate handed down from above without regard to parental control or local choice. Even the most genuine public health arguments are exactly those which have been made by liberals in defending Obamacare. To his credit, Perry now admits this was a mistake. Irrespective of whether mandating a vaccine is good policy, the equally damaging element of the story that Perry cannot possibly explain away is that one of the lobbyists pushing for the order, and who worked for the vaccine's manufacturer, once served as Perry's chief of staff and has since helped found a PAC for the purpose of elevating Perry to the presidency. This is cronyism of the worst kind.

Finally, Perry has engaged in embarrassing double-talk on the Tenth Amendment. Just weeks before announcing, Perry correctly, and admirably, told an audience that states should pass their own laws concerning gay marriage. Perry correctly pointed out that many Texans would not want to live in New York, and most New Yorkers probably would not care to live in Texas either. But shortly after announcing, Perry did a Gingrichian reversal, promising to impose a federal gay marriage ban if elected president. This is ludicrous and laughable. Someone must ask Perry whether he has read the Tenth Amendment lately. Even assuming the best, Perry was transparently pandering to a family-values audience. Assuming the worst, Perry is yet another Bachmann, mouthing support for the Constitution when it suits him and tossing it out the window when it doesn't.

The impression of Perry as a staunch, torch-bearing conservative is far from accurate. The press -- especially conservatives like the Wall Street Journal editorial board, National Review, Bill Kristol, Sean Hannity and yes, even self-described water carrier Rush Limbaugh -- must hold his feet to the fire and demand answers about his record, parts of which would not be out of place on the resume of a liberal Democrat.

15 August 2011

Exit Pawlenty

A year ago at this time, I would have been crushed if you had told me that Tim Pawlenty quit the presidential race after the Iowa straw poll.

Today, I frankly couldn't care less.

Tim Pawlenty ran an awful campaign. Despite building an infrastructure as early as 2009 to rival Mitt Romney's, hiring talented former McCain/Bush hands and accruing an impressive conservative record in Minnesota, Pawlenty badly underperformed in virtually every poll and never earned the "frontrunner" status so many tried to bestow on him. Lacking Romney's deep pockets or McCain's force of personality, Pawlenty had nothing to hang his hat on when Michele Bachmann entered the race and zoomed past him.

Pawlenty should have been a top-tier candidate, and instead was left fighting with the likes of Rick Santorum and Herman Cain in the also-ran bracket.

And good riddance. A pragmatic conservative who earned an "A" rating from the Cato Institute and coined the term "Sam's Club Republican," Pawlenty swung horrendously hard to the right once he announced his candidacy. He and Romney, embarrassingly, seemed intent on climbing over each other to reach Bachmann/Limbaugh territory. Pawlenty nauseatingly adopted neoconservative dogma on empire issues, promising never to cut a dime from the Pentagon's bloated budget, arguing that the Libyan military action was too weak and attacking Barack Obama for "alienating" Israel -- a ridiculous charge.

We remarked that Pawlenty seemed to be adrift, pandering to crowds that -- at least on foreign policy issues -- he didn't really understand.

In 2009, we assumed the primary rationale for his candidacy would be a sort of conservative pseudo-populism, highlighting his union background and blue-collar roots, and touting his record of job creation in Minnesota. Instead, Pawlenty tried to play culture warrior and McCain lapdog at once. In a time when unemployment is over 9% and voters are seeking economic results, this approach was baffling. Pawlenty gutted the entire rationale for his candidacy at a time when that message would have been so well-received.

Overall, Pawlenty's candidacy was a huge disappointment. He badly underachieved, pandered to a segment of the electorate that is much smaller than he assumed and became a hysterical reactionary.

Although many pundits and even Pawlenty's rivals are lamenting the exit of a genuinely civil guy, I fail to see how the race isn't better off without him.

12 August 2011

Debate post-mortem

Last night's GOP debate was highly entertaining and, surprisingly, informative. Here's a few observations:

1. I thought Tim Pawlenty had an excellent performance. I would have liked more specificity when he was going after Mitt Romney, but he did precisely what he needed to do. He criticized after Romney for his myriad missteps in Massachusetts and Bachmann for her nonexistent legislative record. He successfully painted Bachmann as a fringe voice rather than a real policymaker and leader. This was critical, because Pawlenty desperately needs a strong finish in the straw poll this weekend to keep his campaign viable.

2. After Pawlenty was through with her, Bachmann looked lost and defeated. This was the first time I can remember that Bachmann has had to face open hostility -- in the first debate, she went unchallenged and was the star -- and it was obvious. I haven't read any post-debate reaction, but I believe she took an enormous hit last night. It's offensive that Bachmann thinks she is even remotely qualified for the presidency, so I'm thrilled to see other candidates willing to step up and take shots at her.

3. I was also interested by how fixated Rick Santorum was on Bachmann. Santorum obviously thinks that he and Bachmann are going after the same segment of voters. If he would ease up on the culture-warrior shtick, voters might actually see a politician who grasps the nuances of public policy better than most of his competitors. Perhaps Santorum knows that the more he slobbers over social issues, the less likely it is that he will have to explain his vote on Medicare Part D.

4. The last point on Bachmann: I genuinely don't understand how true "conservatives" can line up behind her. She hasn't ever accomplished anything, so how do you know how she's going to govern? I can understand tea partiers lining up behind the likes of Jim DeMint, Rand Paul or even Pawlenty. But Bachmann? Is the tea party really about rhetoric and not results? If so, that would explain its fixation with Bachmann.

5. Herman Cain doesn't belong here. He has such a laughably poor grasp of public policy that I almost felt sorry for him. He is embarrassing himself and his party by continuing his campaign. I don't know that a less-informed man has ever taken a debate stage.

6. Newt Gingrich's obsession with trying to fit every world event into some grand historical puzzle is both dishonest and annoying. The next debate drinking game should be based on Gingrich's use of the phrase "in my lifetime." I give Republican primarygoers a great deal of credit for not buying his nonsense.

7. Chris Wallace's line of the night, to Jon Huntsman: "At the risk of raising Speaker Gingrich's ire, I'm going to ask about your record, sir." Brilliant.

8. Huntsman seems like the forgotten candidate after all the fur flying, but he is clearly a serious person concerned with serious things. Even if he is only truly running for 2016, he made an excellent first impression last night. Additionally, his record demonstrates that he is more conservative than John McCain or George W. Bush, so any suggestion that he's not "electable" in a Republican primary is completely off-base. I would be thrilled with Huntsman as the nominee.

9. While I have concerns about his electability, Ron Paul has powerful conservative ideas, and my agreement with him on so many issues will make it hard for me to vote for anyone else. Paul has studied monetary policy for three-plus decades, criticized the Bush administration long before it was in vogue for conservatives to do so, and regularly points out the folly of our interventionism overseas. Our country would be in a much better place if we had listened to Ron Paul in 2002 and 2003. Everyone seems to be obsessed with Gingrich as the "ideas man," but I have yet to see a candidate demonstrate such a deep understanding of the issues that have befallen American as Paul.

10. Finally, once again, where was Gary Johnson? He was a successful two-term governor of a blue state who cut taxes and annually ran balanced budgets. Bachmann has been in Congress for five years and never authored a single bill that has been signed into law. The fact that Johnson is a marginal candidate and Bachmann -- until last night, at least -- is considered a frontrunner is truly absurd.