Monday, August 22, 2011

The Rise of Rick Perry

Rick Perry's star is on the rise. And the reason is that he is as authentically conservative as President Barack Obama is apologetically liberal.

Already some polls are showing him edging ahead of previous frontrunner, Mitt Romney. This is not a post-announcement bounce, but a game-changer in the Republican race. This is a man who has won every one of the 10 elections he has ever ran in, because he picks his battles and possesses an impeccable sense of timing. Unlike Donald Trump or Sarah Palin, who flirt with the media because they like the attention, Perry is in it to win -- and he may well.

A simple compare and contrast with Mitt Romney suggests why. Whereas  Romney has to manufacture a personality, Perry breezes through with his authenticity. Romney's gaffes embarrass him; Perry's asides endear him to his base even more. Whereas Romney represents the country-club Republicans ascendant in the last century, Perry represents a modern conservative grass-roots movement recharged by its reconnection to its Confederate past. Romney can't say very much about his Mormonism, but Perry is pretty aggressive about his Evangelism. Perry's anger at Washington is real and full-blooded; Mitt Romney appears to want to just get there.

A Republican field that now reveals more shades of Perry than it does of Romney confirms this tale. If 2012 were a year for a Romney candidacy, Ron Paul would be out, andTim Pawlenty would be in. Jon Huntsman would be on the cover of Newsweek magazine, not Michelle Backmann. Karl Rove's opinion of Perry would be damning, not flattering. In nomination races, one rule stands out: whoever wears the Teflon wins the prize.

Put yet another way, Perry is practically everything Obama is not. Talk about a contrast. Perry went to Texas A&M, Obama to Columbia and Harvard. Perry earned a commission from the Air Force; Obama was a community organizer. Perry wants to make Washington irrelevant, Obama lives there. And you can bet that Perry's going to be telling us that he helped create jobs in Texas, and Obama hasn't created many for the country. The only major thing that seems to connect them is a mutual disdain for George Bush -- but even there Perry appears, yet again, to be the right person, with the right attitude, at the right time.

So this leaves us with the question of whether it would be Romney or Perry who clinches the nomination. That depends on whether Romney can enact the part of political outsider better than Perry who authentically already is. Ours is unmistakably the era of outsiders. An expanded electorate since the 1970s with no patience for establishment candidates has picked Reagan and Clinton over George H. W. Bush, Bush over Gore, Obama over Hillary Clinton.

Now the only thing Perry has to do is to prove that he can raise money at least as well as Romney can, and nearly as much as Obama will. Finally, the race is on.

Monday, August 8, 2011

A Call to Reason

America's economy is not in crisis, but its political system is, or so thinks the S&P. The real problem, however, is not the political system per se, but its infection with populism.

Even though the S&P has downgraded the US's credit rating, it did so from an exaggerated understanding of American politics based on its shrillness, and not its constitutional fundamentals. This is why on the first trading day after the downgrade, American bonds are still the place to go. The fact is there aren't enough AAA bonds out there for investors to substitute American bonds for, however "dysfunctional" American politics looks. AAA bonds in Europe aren't safer given the uncertainty in the euro zone, and stocks are certainly not going to be safer in these turbulent days. As potent as the Tea Party has become, there is still zero threat of default by the US, as Warren Buffet has noted, because the US Treasury pays its bills in US dollars, which the Fed can print at will.

S&P's downgrade, then, was driven in part by a misunderstanding of the way a separated system of checks and balances works. For all the charges of the Tea Party's "hostage taking," it is still their constitutional right to do so. But they also lack the constitutional power to have their way, which is exactly what happened. In the end, cooler minds in the House and Senate prevailed, and Congress actually passed a very, very bi-partisan bill that raised the debt ceiling.

But only in part. Unfortunately, because the S&P was duped, the populist infection has spread. The Tea Party anthem of doom and gloom had already been raging for two years, but the S&P added to its chorus by believing it. Saying so has finally begun to make it so, and the toxic language of the Tea Party Movement has helped bring consumer and business confidence to its knees.

Thanks also to the Movement, the unsophisticated debate about the public debt as a single monolithic figure has meant that we have not been able to sift out the real long-term problem of entitlement spending, and the possibility that government spending may well be required in the short term to stimulate demand, invest in education for the future, and address the infrastructural deficits in this country since businesses are reluctant to invest. Instead, the government's hands are clipped, even though it is precisely in this moment of distress that government needs to step up to offer some hope. Instead of a balanced menu of solutions, too much of what we hear from Washington is indiscriminate talk of austerity as if it were the silver bullet to all our economic problems.

The problem, then, is unregulated populism. Popular movements have always swept politicians into Washington; divided party control of government has always existed. But the framers never intended for the movements which swept their leaders into government to continue to hold a leash on them so that the whole point of representative government has now been turned on its head. Demagogues from both parties have become slaves to some of the irrational voices among their constituents, but the worst are those whose hatred of government is so intense that they actually wish for the full faith and credit of the US to be downgraded so that they can satisfy some atavistic yearning for a pre-modern economy based on corn and cotton. (Is this really what the spirit of '76 was about?)

To begin to get ourselves out of the immediate pickle, the super-committee of the Senate designated to discuss further spending cuts ought to be sequestered as much as is possible with little media contact, so that unelected feudal lords like Grover Norquist cannot stick their noses into the process and turn the cooling saucer of the Senate into another playpen for demagogues. Leaders should be allowed to be leaders -- John Boehner came so close to being one -- and should be permitted to think about the big picture and the long term without recourse to petty interests and ideologues. Thank goodness most senators aren't up for election next year.

This is already a time of panic, of disillusion, and of market irrationality; so there is no need for more. The framers created a representative democracy so that the noise would be filtered out, not invited to the deliberative halls of the greatest democracy the world has seen. Let leaders be leaders; if not, a system that has morphed out of control may well be seeing the beginning of its end.