Rick Perry Doesn't Apologize Except When He Does

It’s 2000 all over again: A Republican governor from Texas is running for president, and the press is swooning over his manly manliness.

Opinion columnists are already lining up to squeeze Perry’s biceps. Washington Post “liberal” columnist Richard Cohen thinks Perry “looks like a president,” whatever that means, while Kathleen Parker writes that Perry shares George W. Bush’s “certain brand of manliness.” I can’t tell if she means being a conservative from Texas or being a cheerleader.

It’s getting a little hot in here for the straight reporters too. Yesterday, the Washington Post’s Chris Cilizza wrote an uncharacteristically credulous post where he labeled Governor Rick Perry the “no-apologies” candidate who is “is brash, bold and unapologetic about being so.”

Perry famously floated the idea of Texas seceding from the United States if the federal government kept trampling on states’ rights in 2009;he referred to the BP oil spill as an “act of God”; and he once asked Texans to pray for rain to end the state’s drought.

In each case — and many, many more — his critics (and they are legion in Texas) seized on the remark as evidence that Perry was out of touch with average voters.

And, time and again Perry refused to back away from his comments and felt no political pain as a result. Perry is the longest serving governor in the country — he ascended to the office in 2000 following George W. Bush’s election as president — and in 2010 convincingly defeated Sen .Kay Bailey Hutchison in a Republican primary and former Houston Mayor Bill White in the general election. Both races were less competitive than many people expected them to be.

Cilizza concludes, “Put simply: Rick Perry doesn’t apologize — and it’s worked for him politically.” The Perry campaign must have been delighted—after years of Republicans trying to paint Obama as the kind of president who goes on “apology tours,” the Cilizza piece frames Perry as his diametric opposite. And after poor Mitt Romney went through the trouble of literally titling his book “No Apology!”

Of course Perry does apologize, just not always for saying dumb things. There was that time he said sorry for inviting a “Messianic Jew” (kind of like Jews for Jesus) to a signing as a representative of the Jewish community, and the time he apologized for saying “adios mofo” to a TV reporter. This is all a bit underwhelming compared to an implied threat to the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, but these aren’t the kind of dumb remarks that fire up the base either, so there's no harm in apologizing. By not backing down from his indefensible remarks about Ben Bernanke, he's just showing Republican voters what a tough guy he is. 

But Perry has backtracked on substantive issues as well, when he strays from conservative orthodoxy. Most recently, he said he was wrong to have mandated that Texas girls be vaccinated for Human Pappilloma Virus—an anathema to conservatives who think disease is an appropriate punishment for having premarital sex. He also recently walked back his federalist position on same-sex marriage in an interview with religious right leader Tony Perkins, saying that he supported a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, because not doing so “would impinge on Texas, and other states not to have marriage forced upon us by these activist judges and special interest groups.” Previously he had said of the passage of New York’s marriage equality law, “That's New York, and that's their business, and that's fine with me. That is their call. If you believe in the 10th Amendment, stay out of their business." Perry did the same dance on a constitutional amendment to ban abortion. As Conor Friedersdorf has documented, Perry has conveniently reversed himself on the issue of federalism whenever doing so might ingratiate him to social conservatives eager to use the power of the federal government to constrain the rights of women or gays and lesbians.

So aside from the strangeness of lauding Perry’s “boldness” for being willing to stand by culture war rhetoric that pleases the conservative base, what’s even stranger is Cilizza pretending that Perry is “unapologetic” about his substantive political positions. It’s more accurate to say that he won’t apologize for saying things his base likes, and he will often conveniently change his mind when his base wants him to. This isn’t “boldness.” It’s typical behavior for any politician jockeying for his party’s presidential nomination.

Cilizza isn’t the only offender here of course, words like “rugged” and “muscular” are getting thrown around all over the place in the “objective” political press, “bold” is hardly an outlier. The media swoon over Rick Perry even prompted one conservative blogger to ask, “What kind of whammy did Perry throw on these press boys?”

On some level, I think it stems from reporters desire to see a more dramatic race—one reporter described Perry as “injecting a shot of vigor into the contest.” But it also looks a lot like the whammy George W. Bush threw on back in 2000.

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