Rick Perry Talks About Sex

We sure are talking about Rick Perry a lot. But why stop now -- he's not only new, but interesting in ways that some of his opponents aren't. Jonathan Chait brings us this video of Perry seemingly flummoxed when confronted with the fact that his preferred policy of abstinence education doesn't work to stop teen pregnancy:

Jonathan comments: "Liberals frequently believe that Republican leaders -- George W. Bush, Sarah Palin -- lack analytical intelligence. Conservatives reply that this is merely liberal snobbery against plain-spoken folks from the heartland. I'd reply that conservatives seem to gravitate toward anti-intellectual figures." That's true, but there's something else going on here that is particularly vivid when it comes to sex education, but applies to many other policy realms as well. When liberals and conservatives argue about the issue, they're giving very different weight to moral and practical considerations.

Liberals may think that conservatives support abstinence education because they believe it will reduce teen pregnancy, when the truth is that stopping teen pregnancy is at best a minor consideration for conservatives. If there's going to be any discussion of sex in school at all, they believe it ought to express the categorical moral position that sex is vile and dirty and sinful, until you do it with your spouse, at which point it becomes beautiful and godly (you'll forgive a bit of caricature). The fact that abstinence-only education is far less effective at reducing teen pregnancy than comprehensive sex-ed isn't something they're pleased about, but it doesn't change their conviction about the moral value that ought to be expressed.

Liberals, on the other hand, think sex education ought to have as its primary goal reducing teen pregnancy and keeping kids safe from STDs. And yes, they also believe that it ought to encourage a perspective on sex that leads to a healthy, well-adjusted sex life that isn't built on 17th century puritanical notions of shame and fear. But they weigh the practical considerations more heavily than the moral considerations.

So while it's true that Rick Perry is not a particularly smart guy, the difficulty he has here comes from the fact that his stance on sex education is about 95 percent moral and 5 percent practical. He gets forced to confront the practical question, and he does so in such a bumbling way because he keeps trying to turn the practical question into a moral one. "Maybe I'm old-fashioned" doesn't constitute evidence in support of a practical claim; he knows it, which is why he struggles so hard to answer. He doesn't have a practical argument because he's probably never thought about it in those terms, and doesn't much care.