In the Arena

13 Days Till Iowa: Remember Rick Perry?

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Jim Young / Reuters

U.S. Republican Presidential candidate and Texas Governor Rick Perry speaks during a campaign stop in New Hampton, Iowa, December 18, 2011.

Davenport, Iowa

Is it elitist to expect that a candidate for President of the United States have a passing familiarity with the English language? Rick Perry is a mud-track biker when it comes to fluency, slipping and sliding past proper usage into the realm of the nitwit ridiculous. Most of his malapropisms are of the classic kind: a not-so-smart guy trying to sound intelligent. Thus, in the first five minutes of his stump speech yesterday, he praised the 10th Amendment to the Constitution as “simplistic” and called the troops fighting in Afghanistan “sacrificial young people.”

This would be a minor, Dickensian curiosity but for the fact that Perry is sneaking up the polls in Iowa again.

He had a pretty good crowd in Davenport last night. He speaks softly, sidled up to the audience, left foot forward, right back, like a fencer. He speaks slowly, usually, because every sentence offers the opportunity for disaster. (I know George W. Bush would screw up from time to time, but he was Diogenes compared to this guy.) And then, there’s the substance of his remarks–which is appalling. Asked why Texas was first among the states in the number of uninsured children, he said, “Texas has chosen to have that sort of health care delivery system” and then immediately compared that Mitt Romney’s individual mandate in Massachusetts.

Apparently, Perry’s definition of “freedom” includes the freedom to allow children to get sick, suffer and die. I immediately thought of Rick Santorum’s definition of “freedom,” which I’d seen him propound a few hours earlier in Mt. Pleasant and was far more rigorous. “I’m not gonna make your life easier,” he told a smallish crowd. He was talking about parents taking increased responsibility for their children’s educations. “Freedom is hard.”

And still earlier, in Mt. Pleasant, Newt Gingrich had a similar message: If elected, he was going to pass a lot of government functions back to the states and that would require a greater level of citizenship on the local level. His and Santorum’s are plausible arguments: if you want less federal government, you have to do more for yourself and your neighbors. Gingrich’s longtime support for an individual mandate fit neatly into that philosophical system–it was a matter of personal responsibility, especially for those who could afford health insurance, and it was a matter of social responsibility for the rest of to subsidize those who couldn’t. Neither he nor Santorum, both Catholics, both immersed in the teachings of their church regarding the poor, would ever call what Perry has in Texas a “health care delivery system.” It is a moral disaster.

But Perry can check all the boxes. He’s a “Christian,” although I’d love to hear him redact Matthew 25–“when you do this for the least of these, you do it for me”–and match that up with his raft of untreated poor children. He’s an “outsider.” He’s a low tax, low spend, low regulate guy. And he’s got enough money to be a significant advertising presence in Iowa these last two weeks. In today’s Iowa poll, he has snuck past Santorum and Michele Bachmann into double digits. Watch out.