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The Tea Party’s dog whistle

The Tea Party’s dog whistle

Posted: Monday, September 26, 2011 7:03 pm

By DOUGLAS COHN
and ELEANOR CLIFT
WASHINGTON — Texas Governor Rick Perry has jumped ahead of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney to claim clear frontrunner status in the Republican presidential race.
Perry’s ascendancy in the polls has more to do with his swagger and style than with any specific policy positions.
Indeed Perry’s more expansive views on immigration run counter to the restrictive attitudes of the Tea Party.
What this tells us is that voters who identify with the Tea Party may not agree with Perry on every subject, but they like his approach. He is a big personality, much more colorful than the buttoned-down Romney, and in states with closed primaries, where only registered Republicans can vote, it’s hard to see Romney getting much traction with Perry in the race. Romney comes across like a competent manager when the Tea Party, reveling in historical ignorance, is only looking for someone to shake things up.
Romney’s appeal is that he is likely more electable in a general election, where candidates have to reach out to a broad array of non-Tea party voters, especially Independents. Primary voters are a much smaller slice of the electorate, and generally far more partisan than the voter who skips the primary and only turns out in November.
The primary voters now gravitating to Perry are not looking at substance, and they probably don’t care much what the polls say about who has a better chance of defeating Obama.
They’re sizing up Perry based on things he said well before he entered the race, statements that for Tea Party voters are like the dog whistle only they can hear.
Perry’s flirtation with Texas seceding from the union, and his questioning of the direct election of senators, are positions that thrive in the nether world of Tea Party politics on the Internet.
He’s no longer talking about either of these issues, but the statements he’s made and the extreme positions he’s staked out give him Tea Party traction, enough that they excuse him when he departs from the party line.
During one debate, when Perry defended Texas’ policy of funding tuition for the children of illegal immigrants, the audience booed. To his credit, Perry did not back down. And according to a report in The New York Times, when Perry meets with financial donors, he stresses his ability to appeal to Hispanic voters, the fastest growing voter bloc in the country.
Governing a state like Texas that is home to many Hispanics, creates a more tolerant mindset about immigration, legal and illegal, and if Perry continues to forge ahead, it will be fascinating to see whether he can hold to his few progressive views, or whether he will feel the need to trim his positions in deference to the majority view within the GOP which is anti-immigration.
Meanwhile, polls suggest that the Tea Party is giving Perry a pass on the issue because they like his style, though this may have more to do with his inclination to double down on his hot-button Tea Party-friendly issues and its view of him as a poor Texas boy made good. For now, Tea Partiers only hear the siren call of his whistle, either not knowing or not caring that it is a call to shipwreck their party or the country on the shoals of political ineptitude. Published in The Messenger 9.26.11

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