Rick Perry and Mitt Romney's sparring at last night's debate laid out the GOP's identity crisis in no uncertain terms.
Last night in Las Vegas, all bets were off. The takeaway from the GOP debate was the astonishing showdown between Rick Perry and Mitt Romney over illegal immigration. After appearing tongue-tied in couple of recent debates, Perry tried to redeem himself by calling out Romney for hiring "illegals," then (somewhat awkwardly) bulldozed over his opponent's rebuttal. Romney shed his cool-as-a-cucumber rep and rose to the occasion, making his disdain as clear as glass. He cackled, he smirked, he became visibly peeved, and in a pissing-contest move, he put his hand on Perry's shoulder. Anderson Cooper, CNN's correspondent on duty, even quipped, "I thought Republicans followed the rules." Both liberal and conservative pundits agree that the debate was a shitshow rife with infighting and thin on actual information.
But jokes and jaw dropping aside, Romney and Perry's showdown is significant, and not because of the substance of the back-and-forth. (After all, pitting the immigration policies of Massachusetts and Texas is, to use Herman Cain's metaphor, is like comparing apples and oranges). Despite Cain's lead in the polls, which doesn't mean much considering the tiny pool of voters involved, the fight is clearly between these two well-funded candidates. They couldn't be more different. Romney and Perry are indeed polar opposites, representing two distinct brands of conservatism. The GOP's identity crisis has been going on for years, but last night's clash between the establishment and the populist wing laid it out in no uncertain terms. And whoever prevails will determine both whether Tea Party-influenced populism translates to national elections, and which the GOP cares more about: purity or mass appeal.
My first reaction after watching this debate scene—"Romney is a smug bastard, Perry is a dimwit"—sums up the source of the rift. The way the two candidates embody their respective prototypes is uncanny. Romney is the cold, corporate, buttoned-up, practical, paternalistic, East Coast elitist that will have no hope of capturing the public's imagination with a cult of personality but will comfort both moderate Republicans and one-percent banker types who see themselves reflected in his perfectly coiffed visage. Perry is a fiery, folksy, populist, reactive, willing-to-go-there conservative with a Texas drawl that appeals to Tea Party frustration and diehard right-wingers, especially social conservatives and Obamacare-haters.
So who does the party want? Recent polls reveal that voters are less interested in ideological purity than whether or not a candidate can beat Obama in 2012, but primary voters are notoriously swayed by the person most loyal to party principles. At this point, the main contenders represent no middle ground—giving voters a choice between a volatile cowboy and an arrogant stiff. Voters frustrated that there's no candidate embracing the best of both need not look further than the guy who got us into this mess: George W. Bush. Sure, now he's vilified by the right for being a big spender, but it's not hard to see that his perfect blend of good ol' boy and old-fashioned Connecticut elitism was a significant part of his appeal.
After the mud-slinging we saw between Perry and Romney, it's hard to imagine that the victor would pick the other as their VP. But that kind of ideological combo may be exactly what the GOP needs.