News & Politics

GOP Presidential Debate: Everyone Attacks Rick Perry, But Crowd Cheers His Grotesque Legacy of Executions

Texas Gov. Rick Perry's debut on the GOP presidential debate stage offered a scenery-chewing performance, and an enthusiastic reception for the executions on his watch.

Amid the hardest economic conditions since the Great Depression, last night's debate among the contenders for the Republican Party's presidential nomination was expected to turn on issues of job creation and government spending. But the biggest applause line of the night was a cheer for death and vengeance.

When co-moderator Brian Williams of NBC noted the 234 executions that took place in Texas on the watch of Gov. Rick Perry, the current frontrunner in the GOP presidential contest, the crowd assembled in the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California, roared its approval. Asked if he ever lost sleep worrying that one of those executed might have been innocent, Perry replied, "No, sir. I’ve never struggled with that at all." [Video via TPM.]

Yet Perry is believed to have done just that in the case of at least one man, Cameron Todd Willingham, and perhaps others.

The evening was all about Perry, for whom the Reagan forum marked his first debate as a presidential candidate, having only leaped into ring several weeks ago, on the very day that Rep. Michele Bachmann, Minn., won the Iowa straw poll. Since his entry into the race, Perry has stolen the thunder of both Bachmann and former frontrunner Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, and just about everyone else in the field. Particularly miffed is Rep. Ron Paul, Texas, who has seen much of his neo-libertarian agenda lifted by Perry.

Perry v. Romney

Mainstream media love establishment figures, so last night's contest is framed by most as a great showdown between Romney and Perry. And, indeed, the two went at each other [video] early in the evening over their respective job-creation records, with Perry claiming that he created as many jobs in Texas in the last three months as Perry did during his whole term in office in Massachusetts. But Romney did hold out a back-handed valentine to Perry when the Texan was taken to task for the executive order he wrote that mandated vaccines for schoolgirls against the sexually transmitted HPV virus -- a move that many saw as a cynical attempt to fill the coffers of the vaccine-maker. "We've each taken a mulligan or two," Romney said with a sheepish smile. Call it Romney's attempt to inoculate himself from the right-wing ire directed at him for having implemented in Massachusetts a health-care program that was used as a model for the Obama plan that so invigorated the Tea Party movement.

Asked if he was a member of the Tea Party, Romney punted: "I don't think you carry cards in the Tea Party," he said. Last week, the Tea Party-allied group FreedomWorks pulled out of a Tea Party Express event for its inclusion of Romney.

Perry v. Paul


Far more interesting than the Perry-Romney rivalry was the consternation exhibited by Ron Paul, who is running third in the polls, toward his fellow Texan. While Perry is polling in first place nationally, in New Hampshire, which holds the season's first primary, Paul and Perry are running neck-and-neck behind Romney. For Perry to have a shot in the Granite State, he needs to siphon off Paul's voters, and could do so, since his agenda -- based on states' rights, deregulation of business, and a severe slashing of federal government programs -- is so close to Paul's. So Paul has unleashed an attack on Perry in an ad airing in New Hampshire [video] that highlights Perry's role as a state campaign chair of Al Gore's presidential campaign (Perry entered politics as a Democrat) and Paul's support of Ronald Reagan's run for the GOP nomination. The ad fails to mention that Perry worked for Gore's 1988 campaign, not his 2000 run; or that the Reagan campaign supported by Paul was his 1976 attempt at the nomination and not Reagan's successful 1980 win.

When asked if Perry "is less conservative than meets the eye," Paul concurred. Speaking to Williams and co-moderator John Harris of Politico, Paul said of Perry, "He wrote a really fancy letter about Hillarycare so we probably ought to ask him about that." Paul was referring to a letter penned by Perry when he was his state's agriculture commissioner, commending Clinton on her effort to reform the health-care system.

Perry shot back:
"I was more interested in the one you wrote to Ronald Reagan that said, 'I'm going to quit the party.'" Perry's camp has been highlighting that 1987 Paul missive, in which Paul decried the administration's deficit spending.

On his own merits, Paul didn't disappoint those who sought his customarily unique take on the small-government message. Asked to comment on the Transportation Security Agency, Paul called for it to be abolished, and its duties returned to the private sector. If private guards could protect the transport of massive amounts of money, he said, then surely they could provide the same level of protection for airline passengers. Then he accused TSA screeners of being involved in "all kinds of sexual activities," presumably alluding to the pat-downs and scanning machine imaging to which passengers are subjected.


Perry v. Everybody


"I feel a little bit like the pinata at the party," Perry said at one point, as he fended off jabs from his fellow contenders, and pointed questions from the moderators.

Harris asked Perry to defend his assertion, made in his book, Fed Up, that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme [video], words Perry stood by, even though Harris deemed them "provocative."

"Maybe it's time to have some provocative language in this country," Perry said, "and say things like 'let's get America working again and do whatever it takes to make that happen.'" He contended that the notion that Social Security would continue to exist was "a monstrous lie."

When Harris noted that no less a light than Karl Rove, who once served as Perry's adviser, suggested that the governor's language on the topic was "toxic," Perry retorted, "Karl has been over the top in his remarks for a long time. I'm not responsible for Karl anymore."

Perry's intransigence gave Romney an opening to defend Social Security, chiding Perry for calling the program a "failure."

"I would never say by any measure that Social Security is a failure," Romney said. "It's working for millions of Americans."

Former Utah Gov. John Huntsman, trailing badly in the polls, used Perry's denial of climate change (and, implicitly, Perry's rejection of evolution) as a platform to attack the anti-science bent of both Perry and Bachmann.

Asked to cite a scientific expert who supported Perry's claim that human activity does not create climate change, Perry came up empty, instead asserting that the science "was not settled." Then, letting loose with a real head-scratcher, he said, "Even Galileo got outvoted for a spell." (Galileo was expelled by the Roman Catholic church for saying that the earth revolved around the sun.)

Even Michele Bachmann was no match for Perry's scenery-chewing performance, though she got in some licks over the vaccine controversy in the name of "parental rights."

Herman Cain, the Atlanta businessman, continued to push his "999" tax plan, which basically would dial down all taxes to 9 percent, including corporate income tax. It was left to former Sen. Rick Santorum, Penn., to defend the neo-con projects of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and the NATO intervention in Libya.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich made his case against the media, all but accusing his hosts of conspiring for the re-election of Barack Obama by trying to make the Republican candidates fight with one another. (Isn't that pretty much what debates are about?)

But as much as the evening seemed to be all about Perry, neither moderator deigned to ask him a specific question about states' rights or Perry's view of the 10th amendment, even in light of his 2009 remarks about talk around Texas of secession if the Obama health-care plan passed.

Will Perry Survive Rove?

Of all the opponents arrayed against him, the man likely to be Perry's biggest nemesis was not on the stage. Karl Rove, ally of the Bush family, who are known to have no love for Rick Perry, is believed by many to hold the keys to the kingdom with his super-rich advocacy organizations American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS. With the millions at Rove's disposal for third-party outside group political advertising and organizing, could Perry, also known for his fundraising prowess, possibly survive the GOP primaries to win the party's nomination? He would surely need the backing of a rival moneybags, someone (or someones) capable of gathering huge pots of dough to put behind the candidate of their dreams.

In Perry's case, it would have to be someone for whom all that "toxic" rhetoric against Social Security, climate-change science and government spending would hold great appeal.

As reported by ThinkProgress, Rick Perry made a pilgrimage to Vail, Colorado, last June to make his case before a gathering of big-money political donors convened by Charles and David Koch, the billionaire funders of the Tea Party movement and the anti-climate-change-science industry. Also at the gathering, and received with great enthusiasm by the Kochs, as reported by Brad Friedman for Mother Jones, was New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. As long as Christie stays out of the race, Perry may have found the backers of his dreams.