By Eugene Robinson
Here’s my question for the Republican Party: How’s that Rick Perry stuff workin’ out for ya?
You’ll recall that Sarah Palin asked a similar question last year about President Obama’s “hopey-changey stuff.” Indeed, hopey-changey has been through a bad patch. But now the GOP is still desperately seeking a candidate it can love. Or even like.
That Perry was crushed by Herman Cain—yes, I said Herman Cain—in the Florida straw poll Saturday confirms that the tough-talking Texas governor’s campaign is in serious trouble. He’s the one who put it there with a performance in last week’s debate that was at times disjointed, at times disastrous.
Perry was supposed to be the Shane-like Western hero who brought peace to the troubled valley that is the Republican presidential field. A month after he rode into town, however, increasingly frantic GOP insiders are begging New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to saddle up and save the day.
After watching Perry in the debate, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol—a card-carrying member of the Republican establishment—had a one-word reaction: “Yikes.”
Perry got off to what his supporters consider a strong start, which means he spoke in complete sentences. After the first hour, however, he began to slip into gibberish—as when he said his program for controlling the border with Mexico without building a fence includes putting “the aviation assets on the ground,” and when he described the nation between Afghanistan and India as “the Pakistani country.”
Then he wound up for his big attack on Mitt Romney as a flip-flopper. This is what came out:
“I think Americans just don’t know sometimes which Mitt Romney they’re dealing with. Is it the Mitt Romney that was on the side of—against the Second Amendment before he was for the Second Amendment? Was it—was before—he was before the social programs from the standpoint of—he was for standing up for Roe versus Wade before he was against Roe versus Wade? Him—he was for Race to the Top. He’s for Obamacare and now he’s against it. I mean, we’ll wait until tomorrow and—and—and see which Mitt Romney we’re really talking to tonight.”
Yikes, yikes, and double yikes.
The prospect of Perry standing next to Obama on a debate stage may have freaked out the GOP establishment, but what angered the party’s base was Perry’s position on illegal immigration. It is both reasonable and compassionate, meaning it is also completely unacceptable.
At issue was Perry’s initiative to let the sons and daughters of illegal immigrants pay in-state tuition at Texas state universities. “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,” Perry said.
Two days later, in the straw poll, Florida Republicans showed him just how heartless they can be.
I don’t know anyone who believes that Cain’s big victory—he captured 37 percent of the vote, compared with Perry’s 15 percent and Romney’s 14 percent—is a sign that the Hermanator’s campaign is about to catch fire, except perhaps Cain himself. Instead, it was a vote of no confidence in what still looks like a strikingly weak field.
Michele Bachmann swiftly rose and fell in the polls. If Perry traces the same arc, the temptation would be to conclude that the party has resigned itself to Romney and is ready to fall in line. But Romney has been running for nearly five years now, and still hasn’t overcome an uncomfortable truth: The party’s just not that into him.
At this point, you have to wonder if the GOP will fall in love with anybody. I’m trying to imagine the candidate who can maintain credibility with both the party’s establishment and tea party wings. If the ultra-flexible Romney isn’t enough of a political contortionist to do it, who is?
Given the state of the economy, Obama’s going to have a tough re-election fight no matter what. But while the president flies around the country knitting the Democratic Party’s various constituencies back together, Republicans are still waiting for Mr. or Ms. Right to ride over the horizon.
I don’t know if Christie can ride a horse, but this movie’s not over yet.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group
Gage Skidmore (CC-BY-SA)
Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Fla., on Friday.