The GOP’s two frontrunners shared the debate stage for the first time last night. And the contrasts couldn’t have been sharper:
On the left, you had Mitt “The Brain” Romney, managerial technocrat, touting his new 59-point plan to revive the American economy, sunnily projecting electability, and training his fire on president Obama, but gently, so as not to offend the soccer moms: “This president is a nice guy,” Romney said. “He doesn’t have a clue how to get this country working again.” At one moment, Romney veritably pleaded with the GOP base not to follow its baser impulses: “Our nominee has to be someone who isn’t committed to abolishing Social Security, but who is committed to saving Social Security,” he said.
On the right, you had Rick “The Gut” Perry, who introduced himself to America by saying, “maybe it’s time to have some provocative language in this country.” No apologies. No pussy footing. Just real talk. Base talk. About how Social Security truly is a “Ponzi scheme” and “a monstrous lie” (“I don’t care what anyone says”). About how government spending is a “snake” whose head needs to be “cut off.” About how responding to global warming is “nonsense” that would have “a monstrous economic impact.” About how we need “Predator drones” and “boots on the ground” to patrol the Mexican border. Most revealing, Perry said of approving the executions of 234 Texas convicts: “I’ve never struggled with that at all.” And the crowd, at least in the Reagan library, went wild. As they did when he took out his rhetorical shotgun and aimed it squarely, not at Obama, but at Romney: “Michael Dukakis created jobs three times faster than you did, Mitt.”
Perry took his share of blows in this debate, and was not particularly gracious about it: “I kind of feel like the piñata here at the party.” And he more than occasionally sounded like a bad George W. Bush flashback, as when he summed up his plan for the the budget: “cappin’ it, cuttin’ it, and gettin’ a balanced budget amendment.” (Former Bush speechwriter David Frum tweeted that “Perry is like Will Ferrell doing Bush, but on half speed.”) But Perry clearly saw tonight an occasion to serve up red meat to the GOP base — raw, bloody, and delicious.
Romney, far outflanked on his right, for once ceased the soulless pandering that made him seem like such a tool in 2008. He seemed to settle as a candidate into what he really is, a wonky, Northeastern fiscal conservative who has “put together a plan with a whole series of points,” and is convinced that a projection of managerial competence will be enough to oust Barack Obama in 2012.
The battle lines have been drawn. We’re going to be watching an epic battle between the Republican party’s far-right id and its more electable superego. Given that the big applause line of the night was for Rick Perry’s record of putting to death more inmates than any governor in modern times, the smart money is on the id.