Listening to snippets of the Republican presidential debate this morning on npr, you could see that the Romney camp is going to try -- correctly I think -- to pound Rick Perry on the radical statements about Social Security that appear in his book. Romney's approach is both tactical and strategic -- on a tactical level, to try and peel off older GOP voters in places like Florida who might be frightened by Perry's rhetoric. and on a strategic level, to send the message to the broader Republican electorate that Perry will not be electable. I think this is both Romney's best bet, but a dangerous one as well. And it is one that is going to yield significant insights into the nature of the Republican electorate of today.
Romney is attempting to see if pragmatism can trump ideology in these contests, to see if the zeal to defeat President Obama is such that the GOP voters can back someone who is viewed as deeply suspect in terms of his political convictions. Romney's reputation as a political shape-shifter, along with the fact that he was governor of the most liberal state in the nation and belongs to a religion many in the Party view as suspect are huge impediments in his battle with Perry. He only overcomes these if a cool-headed assessment of electability carries the day with Republicans -- or Perry really steps on his own dick (hardly an inconceivable scenario).
My own sense is that the voters in the Republican primaries in many states -- especially the southern ones -- are going to react poorly to electability arguments and will see Romney as a traitor to conservatism if his attacks on Social Security are deemed overly sharp. Rush Limbaugh has already made noises on this score and I would bet we will hear much more from him on this subject. The interesting bellwether on this score will be Fox News, an organization that will enjoy unprecedented influence in its coverage of the nomination contest. I suspect that Fox can make or break Romney in this regard -- if they take the Limbaugh line and rally to Perry's defense, Romney is going to be in deeep trouble once the primaries are in places other than New Hampshire. (Perry should campaign like hell in New Hampshire by the way -- it is a place that has a lot of hardcore wingnuts in the Republican ranks and there is no reason he can't make a decent showing there.)
As I have noted here before, the Republican Party has become a hard core right wing party in which a kind of strange identity politics -- the poor beleaguered conservative -- have won the day. It is a white, southern, male dominated party, one in which Perry's stands are not viewed as generally extreme. More importantly, Perry's views are not so much a policy plank, but rather a kind of Rorschach test about who is and what it means to be an American to this electorate.
Romney has no choice but to fight this battle on these terms -- he is never going to out-American Perry the secessionist. (Irony doesn't really register with Republicans.) In the end, I think the quest for purity is going to trump pragmatism. (In that vein, Perry's biggest weakness is his support for in-state tuition for the children of undocumented workers -- something Romney is also hitting him on from the right, always a good bet in the party of hate.)
Again, my bet is on the guy who has the better feel for the base.