The Republican presidential field is remarkable for one reason. They’re doing the best they can to distinguish themselves in how unremarkable they are. I’ve talked about some of this before, but with the events of the past few days in this race, I need to talk about it again.
EJ Dionne wrote about this in his column today. (And that’s before Herman Cain’s truly impressive gaffe on Libya today. If you watch the video of that one, you’re left wondering if he knows anything at all.)
Dionne made some points today about the lack of depth in the field. That it wasn’t Perry’s brain cramp (which can happen to anyone and is a little bit forgivable), but what’s really bad is his lack of depth.
What really matters is the subject that sent Perry’s brain into lockdown. He was in the middle of describing sweeping changes in the federal bureaucracy closely connected to his spare vision of American government. One presumes a candidate for president ponders such proposals carefully, discusses them with advisers and understands their implications.
Forgetting an idea at the heart of your program, in other words, is not the same as forgetting a phone number, a friend’s name, a football score or the title of a recently read book.
Perry’s memory lapse showed that he wasn’t asserting anything that he is truly serious about because he is not serious about what government does, or ought not to do. For him, governing seems a casual undertaking.
“And I will tell you,” he declared, “it’s three agencies of government when I get there that are gone: Commerce, Education and the — what’s the third one there? Let’s see.”
Yes, let’s see what “gone” might imply. Would Perry end all federal aid to education? Would he do away with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the part of the Commerce Department that, among other things, tracks hurricanes? Energy was the department he forgot. Would he scrap the department’s 17 national labs, including such world-class facilities as Los Alamos, N.M., Oak Ridge, Tenn., or — there’s that primary coming up — Aiken, S.C.?
I’m not accusing Perry of wanting to do any of these things because I don’t believe he has given them a moment of thought. And that’s the problem for conservatives. Their movement has been overtaken by a quite literally mindless opposition to government. Perry, correctly, thought he had a winning sound bite, had he managed to blurt it out, because if you just say you want to scrap government departments (and three is a nice, round number), many conservatives will cheer without asking questions.
“He hasn’t given them a moment of thought.” Doesn’t that just nail the problem with the GOP today?
It is a brainless field. They brainlessly spout off talking points (to huge cheers, mind) about the evils of government, about how taxes and spending and regulation must be cut, about foreign policy (see Herman Cain’s moment from today), or torture (both Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain say that they would waterboard people again). They all attack science and intellectual work as evil liberal plots. And conservative voters — even those who should know better — lap it up.
It’s a frightening prospect. Someone from this field — my guess is that it will be Romney — will be the nominee, and someone else from this field will be the running mate. That person has a pretty decent chance at beating President Obama next November. Others in this field may be in line for Cabinet positions. These are the people who would run the country. And they haven’t thought anything they say they want to do through. It’s simply about being the president, not actually governing if they win. How can that not be scary?
I’ll leave off with Dionne’s last paragraph:
There are honorable exceptions: Bill Bennett, for one, and to some degree — hard to admit, I know — Karl Rove. But that so many other members of a movement theoretically devoted to traditional values on sexual matters would eagerly jump into this mess on Cain’s side speaks volumes about its condition. To paraphrase Bennett from another context, where’s the outrage about a conservatism that is losing both its intellectual moorings and its moral compass?