Romney and Perry: Not Two Peas in a Right-Wing Pod

| Fri Nov. 11, 2011 2:05 PM EST

Would a Romney administration really be very different from a Perry administration? Peter Beinart says no, because modern Republicans are all so right-wing that there's not much difference between them. Will Wilkinson says yes, because Romney would appoint very different kinds of people than Perry to fill up all those assistant deputy cabinet positions. Matt Steinglass moderates:

I [] don't really think there's much of a clash between these two views. A Romney administration would likely involve a significantly different flavour of conservatism from a Perry administration, and would entail different alliances, recruit different people, and focus on different issues; but I doubt it would be any less conservative along a simple single-axis measurement. By way of analogy, a Republican president elected in 2000 who wasn't a Southern evangelical like George W. Bush might not have launched a multi-billion-dollar global effort to fight HIV/AIDS that involved massive funding for faith-based organisations and strict mandates for increased abstinence promotion and anti-prostitution campaigns. But it's hard to argue that the PEPFAR programme wasn't "conservative".

Agreed. But I'd look at this in two different ways. When it comes to garden variety governing, I doubt there would be a huge difference. Every individual has specific issues that they care about strongly, and that would matter a bit. Maybe Romney would try to focus attention on healthcare and Perry would try to focus more on energy policy. Who knows? In any case, that's a bit of a crapshoot and it probably matters only on the margins anyway.

More broadly, both men would find — as every president finds — that there are suffocating levels of institutional, bureaucratic, political, and public opinion pressure that simply don't allow a president to stray too far from the status quo. Even if Rick Perry were serious about eliminating the Commerce Department, for example, he'd discover very quickly that at least a couple of powerful committee chairmen derive most of their power from oversight of the Commerce Department and have no intention of allowing anyone to undermine that. Pretty much every idea for reorganizing the federal bureaucracy runs up against the shoals of congressional committees. If you want to add a department, you can probably do it because it means someone in Congress gets some extra influence. Getting rid of one is a whole different story.

But there's also a second way to look at this: How would Romney and Perry react to surprises and emergencies? And there, I suspect the differences would be stark. Sure, Perry would have a staff just like any other president, but it would mostly be a staff of ideologues that would reinforce his tendency to view everything in simple ideological terms. Romney would be just the opposite. He'd start from a conservative frame, but he and his staff would genuinely want to know what's really going on and how best to address it. They'd be better prepared (FEMA wouldn't have been gutted under a President Romney, for example) and they'd be more reality-based.

A few months ago I was pretty much rooting for a Perry or a Bachmann to win the GOP nomination because I figured (a) they'd lose big in the general election, and (b) their loss might push the Republican Party back toward the center sooner than otherwise. But it's just too obvious now that Obama is genuinely vulnerable and someone in the Republican field might well be our next president. That's why I'm now mostly hoping that the GOP base comes to its senses, holds its collective nose, and just nominates the Mittster. On a day-to-day basis, I suspect Romney would govern about as conservatively as any of the others. But in an emergency, he's the only one who seems pretty certain of responding in a non-catastrophic way.