The Republican Debate: 5 Theses

Thesis 1: When the libertarian rubber hits the political road

Going after Mitt Romney in the first ten minutes of the debate, Rick Perry claimed that Romney had a good record of creating jobs when he was in the private sector but a terrible record as governor of Massachusetts.  Conversely, said Perry, he had a terrific record as governor of Texas.  “We created more jobs in the last three months in Texas” than Romney did during his entire term in Massachusetts.  Even Michael Dukakis, Perry added, had a better record than Romney, to which Romney replied: “George Bush and his predecessor created jobs at a faster rate than you did.” In all the back and forth, no one noted the obvious irony: according to conservative orthodoxy, it’s not the government that creates jobs; it’s the free market.

Thesis 2: Mitt Romney is a mad man.

Listen to the video of that exchange between Romney and Perry in the link above.  Shut your eyes, and tell me if Romney doesn’t sound like this man:


Thesis 3: Beware facile comparisons.

Pointing out that Reagan raised taxes at least five times during his presidency, Ezra Klein concludes that unlike the current crop of GOP candidates Reagan was a “pragmatist,” a “conservative who was willing to compromise with reality. And that’s not something I heard a lot of on the stage last night.”

You hear this kind of comparison all the time, but it makes little sense. The reality that Reagan confronted was very different from the reality confronting today’s GOP.  Reagan had to deal with a Democratic Party that was, to some degree, still a liberal party. While the New Deal and the Great Society were under siege, they still had institutional and ideological legs, which Reagan had to contend with—a point historians Julian Zelizer and Bruce Schulman ably make in their introduction to Rightward Bound. It’s not that Reagan was willing to compromise; it’s that he had to compromise.

Today’s GOP operates in a veritable free-fire zone cleared of liberals; the kinds of free-market assumptions that were revolutionary in Reagan’s time are now orthodoxy. Though none of us can truly know what was in Reagan’s heart then or in Perry’s heart (assuming he has one) now, they were/are confronting radically different environments.

More generally, I wish we could stop making these kinds of comparisons across time. You know, the Obama is more conservative than Nixon comparison, the George W. Bush is way to the right of Lincoln claim, that kind of thing. (Full disclosure: I’m sure at some point or another I’ve made the same kind of move.) They’re facile and useless. They ignore historical context and what Yale political scientist Steve Skowronek calls the place of the presidency in political time.

Every president comes into office opposed to or allied with the dominant regime of his time. FDR was opposed to the Republican regime that had dominated American politics since the nineteenth century and overthrew it; Nixon was opposed to the New Deal/Great Society regime and accommodated it; George W. Bush was allied with the Reagan regime and extended it.Bush was able to do things Reagan and Nixon never did because the liberal Democratic regime they had to contend with was dead by the time Bush was inaugurated (Reagan helped kill it, Clinton buried it).

The long and the short of it is: before we make ahistorical comparisons about who is more liberal or conservative in relationship to whom, let’s situate the president in political time. Assess how strong or weak is the dominant regime, place the president in relation to that regime (allied or opposed), and take it from there.

Thesis 4: Sent a bolt of lightning, very very frightening me. (Galileo) Galileo!! (Galileo) Galileo!! (Galileo) Figaro!!


The most arresting moment of the debate was when Rick Perry invoked Galileo in defense of his skepticism about climate change.  Here’s what he said:

The science is not settled on this.  The idea that we would put Americans’ economy at jeopardy based on scientific theory that’s not settled yet to me is just nonsense.  Just because you have a group of scientists who stood up and said here is the fact. Galileo got outvoted for a spell.

That line has got everyone spinning; google Rick Perry and Galileo, and you get 471,000 results. But while everyone churns out their pet theories, let’s  remember that Galileo has long held a special place in the mind of the Old South. Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, famously invoked Galileo in defense of the slaveholders’ conviction that “the negro is not equal to the white man” and “subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”

The comparison between Galileo and the slaveholder was as far-fetched as Perry’s, but like Perry, Stephens defended it on the ground that his position was a fugitive knowledge, a heresy that would one day become orthodoxy.  “This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science.”

Other slaveholders (Josiah Nott, John C. Calhoun) made the same comparison; Calhoun also invoked Francis Bacon, Stephens also invoked William Harvey. Their point was that like those great heresies of early modern science, the southern science of race would one day triumph and be recognized the world over. It’s the way the white southerner has always negotiated his contradictory self-understanding of being both victim and victimizer. Again, Stephens:

As I have stated, the truth of this principle may be slow in development, as all truths are and ever have been, in the various branches of science. It was so with the principles announced by Galileo it was so with Adam Smith and his principles of political economy. It was so with Harvey, and his theory of the circulation of the blood. It is stated that not a single one of the medical profession, living at the time of the announcement of the truths made by him, admitted them. Now, they are universally acknowledged. May we not, therefore, look with confidence to the ultimate universal acknowledgment of the truths upon which our system rests?”

And so, I assume, says Rick Perry to himself and his followers about their equally dubious science of climate non-change.

Thesis Five: Andy Borowitz is funny.

Comedian Andy Borowitz had the best tweet of the night: “”For a guy who doesn’t believe in science, Rick Perry is sure happy about the invention of the electric chair.”



  1. scott September 10, 2011 at 1:48 pm | #

    I like the point you made about Reagan at Ezra Klein’s expense. The Village and its junior members like to think that politics consists of honorable, centrist, pragmatic folks sweetly reasoning together to arrive at just conclusions. Instead, it’s what it’s always been, a clash of interests where the outcome is determined by the force of the ideas at war with one another but also by the strength of the institutions pushing those ideas and the impact they make on the public at large. Thank you very much for pointing this out, although I’m sure I can’t expect that EK will retire his rose-colored ideals any time soon.

  2. delphine October 10, 2011 at 3:20 pm | #

    C’est tellement vrai… nous avons tendance à penser que pour perdre du poids, nous devons nous limiter à la famine, aux portions, aux régimes crash, cependant le temps nous a prouvé que ces méthodes de perte de poids ne fonctionnent pas. En fait, si vous souhaitez prendre du poids, c’est la méthode parfaite. Des études ont prouvés que ces régimes vous font avoir plus de poids qu’avant d’y adhérer et endommagent votre corps dans le processus. Lorsque ces régimes vous disent “alimenter votre corps de façon naturelle”, avez-vous vu le prix exorbitant de leurs aliments, les repas crus ou le tofu sans goût? C’est ce à quoi je pense quand j’entends parler de ces régimes …

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