Rick Perry's Hearty Embrace of Extremism

At last week’s Republican presidential debate, Texas Governor Rick Perry and Mitt Romney, the more moderate former Massachusetts governor, were each invited to respond to both of the first two questions — a good indication of where NBC’s Brian Williams and Politico’s John Harris thought the evening’s action was. Perry and Romney stood next to each other, heightening the dramatic effect.

Answers were supposed to be limited to one minute, but it wasn’t until 14 minutes into the debate that Michele Bachmann, the Minnesota congresswoman who won the only contest to date in the nomination fight — Iowa’s August 13 Ames Straw Poll — was offered a chance to answer a question. That’s right — just one. Then it was on to Ron Paul, the quirky and cranky Texas congressman.

Eight candidates were in the debate, but two dominated it.

The rise of one of these two — Perry — was abrupt, so sudden it resembles a fairy tale. In a Gallup Poll issued a mere ten days after he announced his presidential run on August 13, Perry had shot to a 29 to 17 percent lead over Romney among Republican voters, the previous frontrunner in national surveys.

By the time of the September 7 event in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, a poll of voters in South Carolina showed Perry leading Mitt Romney 31 to 20 percent, with Bachman, who was polling strongly earlier this summer, lagging badly at 14 percent. South Carolina’s primary follows the Iowa Caucus, which traditionally skews conservative, and the New Hampshire Primary, which allows Independents to participate, making it a more moderate venue. In recent nomination contests, South Carolina has eliminated candidates who are falling behind, and its right-leaning GOP electorate could make it a tough third act for Romney.

The longest-serving governor in the history of Texas essentially entered the 2012 contest at the head of the Republican field.

How did Rick Perry so swiftly gain the exalted status of front-runner?

Not by making appeals to moderates — that’s for sure. Instead, he has assiduously mined his base — to its very depths. Disappointing northeastern moderates and some party elites, he has courted red-meat conservatives. Polls show him most popular in the South and the West and among frequent churchgoers and Tea Party Republicans. For now, he’s ignoring moderates and Independents in favor of holding God-fearing Evangelicals tight in his embrace.

Given this strategy, even Perry’s craziest statements make sense. He pleased the Tea Party and libertarian gold bugs by castigating Federal Reserve Board chair Ben Bernanke as “almost treasonous” for his easy money policy known by Wall Street geeks as “quantitative easing.” And, in the debate, he doubled down on his description of Social Security as a Ponzi scheme.

These are not artful appeals to the middle. Among Republicans, like other Americans, Social Security is popular — and the Florida primary doesn’t come too much later than the South Carolina contest. Perry’s fighting words are offensive, and will cause trouble as the election attracts broader publics. But, right now, the Lone Star Republican is reaching out to the extreme — and he’s prospering.

His highest visibility endeavor this past summer was lending his name and Texas’ most impressive stadium to the Evangelicals for a giant rally that attracted national attention. “The Response” was called to address what organizers characterized as an American crisis through Christian prayer. Understanding who organized this rally will help explain why on July 15 Gallup gave Rick Perry four percent of likely Republican voters, while a month later — a week after the August 6 Houston event — he was number one.

The public face of the rally was its web page that featured a big picture of Perry. Reliant Stadium, as much an iconic venue in Houston as Yankee Stadium is in New York, has a retractable roof, making it air-cooled in the Texas heat. It also offers ample parking for huge crowds of people. In a nutshell, the event’s theme was: We don’t just talk about prayer, we practice prayer it in our daily lives.

The organizers, who promised to introduce new leadership who would helm a revival of religious and moral fervor, emphasized that God helps sinners avoid the temptation to drink, to steal, and to get lazy in the face of unemployment. The crowd at Reliant prayed to end the congressional deadlock over the debt ceiling.

The Response was a populist moment among a very specific demographic that happens to play a critical role in GOP primaries.

And for Perry, who clearly relished the high profile the event and its website gave him, the event achieved the most fundamental task of a campaign — mobilizing voters. The first thing a visitor to the website encountered was the question: “Will you register?” Organizers expected 10,000 to turn out; in fact, the crowd on hand August 6 totaled 30,000. The number of people who registered at the site could easily have been a multiple of that.

A week before the Response was held, Perry was already identified in polling as the most popular candidate among Southern Republican voters. And after the rally, its organizers launched an ambitious Christian voter mobilization effort called Champion the Vote.

Strip away the Response’s revivalist veneer and you will find a disquieting core. The event’s lead organizer was the American Family Association of Tupelo, Mississippi. Trackers of right-wing extremists, like the Southern Poverty Law Center, label AFA a hate group because of its vituperative propaganda against the LGBT community. Bryan Fisher, its director of issue analysis, broadcasts daily on AFA’s Tupelo radio station and many of its 180 affiliates. His most infamous statement — unfortunately, among many contenders — was, “Hitler discovered he could not get straight soldiers to be savage and brutal and vicious enough to carry out his orders, but that homosexual solders basically had no limits on the savagery and brutality they were willing to inflict.”

AFA is careful to state that Fisher’s opinions “do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Family Association or American Family Radio,” but a caveat like that about its own issue analysis director seems like a distinction without a difference — especially from a group whose most visible activity is organizing boycotts of corporations that are gay-friendly.

Focus on the Family’s James Dobson presided over a portion of the Response. Famous for his books on child-rearing that support spanking — emphasizing the traditional value of “spare the rod, spoil the child” — Dobson oversees a group that Southern Poverty Law has also designated a hate group. Focus on the Family traffics in pseudo-scientific studies purporting to show that homosexuals are prone to molesting children.

Still, the rally presented a benign public face. It wasn’t about gays, it was a “great awakening in support of” Christian values — even though at least some supporters acknowledged this was spin for public consumption. The evil mentioned most often in Houston was not homosexuality, but abortion, an issue that somewhere in the recent past became a safer target for political attack than gays.

To be sure, the Response had its critics. Shortly after it was announced, the Houston GLBT Political Caucus issued a statement of condemnation. But most of the criticism centered on the event’s lack of diversity.

The Jewish Anti-Defamation League organized a high-minded ecumenical critique of the rally.

“Houstonians may pray differently or not pray at all. We cherish the fact that we can pray freely in our own way,” the ADL wrote, in a statement to which dozens of religious groups signed on. The release went on to note, “This religious event is not open to all faiths.”

At a counter-rally the same day in Houston, organized by the American Civil Liberties Union, some noted that the groups gathered at Reliant Stadium represented an almost exclusively white constituency.

“There is still prejudice present today,” said William Lawson, an African-American Baptist pastor, according to AmericanIndependent.com. “What Governor Perry is doing by hosting a Christian prayer rally and excluding everyone else is a new form of Jim Crow.”

In 2008, a public outcry forced Barack Obama to reject the views of his former Chicago minister, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Nothing approaching that sort of scrutiny was visited on Perry for his cozying up to the organizers of the Response. (That’s not for want of trying by Rachel Maddow, who featured hair-raising clips of participating ministers on her MSNBC show.)

Predictably for a Texan who cultivates a reputation for not backing down, Perry was not thrown off track by critics of the Response. Down the road, he will undoubtedly say that the more extreme homophobic rhetoric of his Response allies are not his views.

What may be harder to explain is his unwillingness to simply say, “No, thanks” to their political help.

Right now, Perry is cruising and pleased with his campaign, but a good many in the Republican establishment are not happy. Karl Rove, an erstwhile advisor, is unstinting in his criticism. Joe Scarborough, a true-believer conservative and former House member from Florida, regularly mocks him on his “Morning Joe” show on MSNBC. After nearly 11 years as governor, Perry has more than his share of enemies in Texas, a fair number of them Republicans. His opponents, Congressman Paul among them, are chipping away at his record there.

On his 538 blog on newyorktimes.com, Nate Silver notes that Perry supporters and many other Republican primary voters believe in the Texas governor’s electability. Silver, however, believes that when his ties to extremist groups and his unorthodoxy on economic matters from the Federal Reserve to Social Security become better known, doubts about Perry’s ability to survive a general election race will grow.

Hammering away at Perry’s unfitness for office is a fight the LGBT community should join — and quickly.