Crazy Like a Republican

perry nee  collage Crazy Like a RepublicanGranted, Rick Perry—the Texas governor who has lately been talking up the virtues of economic self-sufficiency and secession—may sound unhinged. But given the current state of the Republican Party, what he's doing is actually pretty smart.

Sure, it's easy to ridicule Mr. Perry's irrational and over-the-top pronouncements. And it's just as easy to laugh at his extraordinary hypocrisy, as Mr. Perry—the same governor who had stoked secession fervor at a "tea party" rally in San Antonio just days earlier—asked the federal government to supply his state with hundreds of thousands of doses of Tamiflu so that his administration could combat any Swine Flu outbreak.

But this isn't a simple case of a hysterical ideologue coming unglued in full public view. Yes, Mr. Perry has always been on the conservative end of the spectrum, but there have been occasions when he's let logic and clear thought override knee-jerk ideology.

For instance, in early 2007, just months after winning election to his second full term, he issued an executive order mandating that all sixth-grade girls in Texas receive a vaccination against H.P.V., a common sexually-transmitted virus that can lead to cervical cancer. Predictably, this infuriated religious conservatives in Mr. Perry's party—and in Texas, there are many of them—who charged him with condoning and encouraging promiscuous sex. The governor defiantly stood his ground, but his move was quickly overridden by veto-proof legislation that he allowed to become law without his signature.

These days, though, Mr. Perry is showing no similar inclination to stake out innovative positions that offend the traditional right, and it's no wonder: He's facing a serious political threat from Kay Bailey Hutchison, the third-term U.S. Senator who is planning to challenge him in next year's Republican gubernatorial primary and who consistently rates as the most popular political figure in Texas.

Until next March, when the Texas G.O.P. primary will be held, his survival depends on appealing exclusively to members of the Republican Party. His antics are best understood in this context, and the fact that he has chosen this course—undoubtedly on the well-researched advice of high-priced pollsters and consultants who measure the mood of the electorate for a living—is most revealing, then, for what it says about the current condition of the G.O.P.

For instance, the general tone of the media's coverage of Mr. Perry's secession talk was initially a mix of disbelief and bemusement: Wow, can you believe he said that? What a crazy guy.

But the joke was on the press. Days later, a poll found that Texas Republicans are evenly split—48 percent for and 48 percent against—on the question of whether their state ought to secede from the union. And on the matter of Mr. Perry's rhetoric on the subject, Republicans approved of it by a 51 to 44 percent margin. Needless to say, the poll found that the attitudes of non-Republicans in Texas are far different on the secession subject.

A few years ago, you almost certainly wouldn't have seen a result like this. When George W. Bush was president and the G.O.P. owned seemingly impenetrable Congressional majorities, secession probably wasn't stirring much passion among Texas Republicans.

But a few things have happened since then: Katrina, violent chaos in Iraq (which finally convinced a majority of Americans that the war had been a mistake), the collapse of the economy, and the emergence and election of Barack Obama.

Nationally, this was all too much for millions of less-than-pure conservatives who, for one reason or another, had stuck with the Republican Party for years, providing G.O.P. candidates up and down the ballot with crucial votes throughout the Reagan-Bush era. Over the last four years, they have exited the G.O.P. in droves, a phenomenon confirmed not just by the 2006 and 2008 election results but also by a poll just released this week.

The ABC News-Washington Post survey found that, over the past years, there has been an eight-point drop—from 29 to 21 percent—in the number of voters who identify themselves as Republicans. In that same time, there has been an eight-point surge—from 30 to 38 percent—in the number of self-identified independents. (Democratic identification held steady at 35 percent.)

The result, nationally and in Texas, is a Republican Party that has been stripped of its moderating influences—a shrunken base of ideological purists with an almost primal resistance to Mr. Obama. The mere mention of his name prompts them to thoughtlessly spew exclamations like "Socialist!" and "terrorist!"—and worse. This, in turn, only hastens more G.O.P. defections from non-purists, thus pushing the party even further to the fringes.

Mr. Perry clearly understands this and is happily pandering to what remains of his party's base. For him, this is a smart and possibly career-saving tactic. But for national Republicans who might be interested in reclaiming the presidency and the Congress someday, it's a trend that must be reversed—not reinforced.