The flailing attacks on Rick Perry multiply as he pulls easily ahead of the Republican field. Journalists had rooted for an exciting figure to parachute into the lackluster race but now probably regret that hope. Perry scares them. He is, by their lights, a "terrifying" critic of the New Deal and Great Society, a "theocrat," a hater of "science," and no "compassionate" conservative.
The same media that portrayed George W. Bush as ideologically dangerous now hold him up as the measure of an acceptable Republican. Rick Perry has managed to make journalists nostalgic for the Bush years. A Perry victory, the Washington Post reports with concern, would "cement the Republican Party's shift away from Bush's approach to a more libertarian, anti-government GOP."
In other words, another "compassionate" conservative from Texas would be tolerable to the chattering class after all, but not a Tea Partier from Texas.
Mitt Romney can count on favorable coverage in the coming months from a media that now sees its mission as "saving America from Rick Perry." Those words come from Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus, who calls that an "urgent fight." Perry represents to this media the dreaded continuation and expansion of 2010 Tea Party success, whereas Romney represents a reassuring step back to the safety of establishment Republicanism.
The rumored strategy of Romney against Perry will apparently feed off these media fears. According to Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen, "Romney's campaign will argue that Perry is against the very idea of Social Security and Medicare," and it will use his book Fed Up! to "scare seniors in early-primary states with large retiree populations, such as Florida and South Carolina." Also: "The Romney campaign will argue that Perry repels independents and can't win in key swing states such as Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan -- while Romney can."
And yet if Perry is too conservative for Romney's taste, he is also, on at least one issue, too liberal. Thiessen reports that the Romney campaign "plans to use immigration to drive a wedge between Perry and his conservative base by highlighting Perry's opposition to a border fence and legislation he signed in 2001 allowing the children of illegal immigrants to attend Texas colleges and universities at in-state tuition…. Romney strategists believe immigration will be a devastating issue for Perry with Tea Party Republicans across the country -- especially in important primary states such as Arizona."
Another line of attack will be that Perry is the "anti-government candidate who has spent most of his life in government," says Thiessen. Romney has already rehearsed this one, saying in a speech on Tuesday that "career politicians got us into this mess and they simply don't know how to get us out."
Much of this is likely to fall flat. A scenario in which the Tea Party rushes into Romney's arms over immigration is improbable, particularly if he is at the same time knocking Perry for a dim view of Social Security and Medicare and saying that Perry is unacceptable to independents. The two lines of attack will cancel each other out. Lumping Perry in with career politicians that "got us into this mess" also seems odd, since most Tea Partiers don't associate Perry with the national political class and consider jobs-rich Texas under Perry a contrast to the mess.
Unmentioned in the Thiessen piece is whether Romney will engage Perry on any cultural issues. Perhaps this is an area best avoided by Romney, though one can imagine the media helping him in this regard, casting the formerly pro-choice Mormon as more "mainstream" than the "theocrat" Perry.
The media is certainly itching to address these issues. In a preview of things to come, New York Times executive editor Bill Keller demands to know if a candidate places "fealty" to religion over the "Constitution." What touching concern from Keller for a document liberals have shredded through fealty to secularism.
Most of the Founding Fathers wouldn't have passed Keller's vetting. If Perry is a "theocrat" for thinking that America is one nation under God, so were they. If Perry is "anti-science" for thinking that the world didn't create itself through random processes, so were they. As usual, the media intends to use politically correct name-calling and mau-mauing as its chief mode of covering a conservative candidate. Any stick will do in its quest to save liberal America from Rick Perry.