What if Rick Perry is right?
Not about the lunacy of his latest television commercial in which he implies that gay soldiers are keeping our children from celebrating Christmas in schools. In less than a day Perry’s ad has become the one thing in politics everyone you know could agree on.
Online gay activist George Takei (Sulu from the originalStar Trek series) had one word for the ad: “vomit.” Conservative writer Andrew Sullivan mockingly noted that Perry was wearing the same Carhart jacket as Heath Ledger’s closeted gay character did in Brokeback Mountain. Even Rick Perry’s top pollster, Tony Fabrizio, called the ad “nuts.”
Of course they’re all right, but that’s not the point and Perry knows it. Texas children get to sing Christmas carols to their hearts’ content at public school assemblies even with a Halfrican-American President in the White House. Perry’s ad offends non-Christians, gays, and reason itself, but the white evangelicals who made up 60% of the Iowa caucuses in 2008 could not care less about how they look on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
“Perry is seeking to tap into this notion of the ‘persecuted evangelical’ that none of the GOP candidates, and almost none of the conservative mouthpieces, are expressing,” noted Democratic pollster Zac McCrary. “Perry isn’t going to become relevant by singing the same tune as Romney and Gingrich, and there is certainly a sizable niche of Iowa evangelicals who earnestly believe they’re core beliefs are mocked and attacked by mainstream American. Perry is also no doubt correct that he can be an effective vehicle for this message, especially compared to a twice-divorced creature of the beltway and a formerly pro-choice, pro-gay rights Mormon. Perry’s ad may or may not catapult him back into contention, but I do believe it will have many Iowa evangelicals nodding in their Barcaloungers.”
Rick Perry did not become the most powerful Texas politician since Lyndon Johnson by being stupid all the time. While every national pundit is digging his political grave, Perry is climbing out of the single digits in Iowa. With as many as two-thirds of Iowa Republicans telling pollsters they could change their minds, literally anyone besides Jon Huntsman could finish in the top three.
Perry has been dragging bottom for a month in Iowa, but among evangelicals he’s tied for second with Rep. Ron Paul but well behind former Speaker Newt Gingrich. Republican frontrunners seem affected by an inexorable gravity pulling them down to Earth, and Perry has to count on Gingrich with his three wives, his fat sort of-lobbying contract with Freddie Mac and his giant ego not being immune to this force. And polls show that the only things more unpopular with Iowa Republicans than Romneycare are Ron Paul’s foreign policy positions. Apparently they want to leave their Christian soldiers over there.
Perry’s ad is an attempt to put him in a position to pick up evangelical voters if Gingrich and Paul start shedding them. Perry’s ad speaks directly to the 15% of Iowa Republicans who told the Washington Post/ABC pollsters that their top priority was social issues such as gay marriage.
Beating up on gays to score political points is no longer a safe bet, even for Republicans, most of who would rather their prospective presidents talk about fixing the economy. But if 15% of Iowa Republicans want to hear about religious values, then Perry wants every one of them.
This is Perry’s last stand. Getting half of all evangelical voters translates to 30% at the Iowa caucuses, and in this fractured field that could be enough for first place. Finishing in second or third means he has risen from the dead and can make at least as far as Florida. Finishing fourth, where he currently is in the polls, means it’s over for Perry.
The problem for Rick Perry isn’t whether he’s already dead. It’s whether resurrection is still possible. “It may be a pretty ad and an effective message, but it’s way too late and delivered by a totally discredited messenger,” agreed Democratic media consultant Bob Doyle. “Looks like Rick Perry’s Alamo.”
Doyle’s probably right. Asked whom they trust most on social issues, Iowa Republicans ranked Perry 6th, ahead of only Huntsman. The worst thing about Perry’s ad isn’t the intellectually dishonest attack on gays in the military. The fatal flaw of the Perry ad is that it has Rick Perry in it.
Jason Stanford is a Democratic political consultant and the co-author of “Adios, Mofo: Why Rick Perry Will Make America Miss George W. Bush.” He blogs at jasonstanford.org.
Follow him on twitter at @jasstanford.