Whatever global warming might or might not have done to polar bears, it has put Rick Perry's presidential candidacy at risk. The Texas governor clings to an ice floe of diminishing credibility, emerging in just about a week's time as intellectually unqualified to be president. He engaged in a brief dialogue with a child about evolution and came out the loser. Perry said there are some gaps in the theory. If so, he is one.
Maybe more important, Perry waxed wrongly on global warming. He rejected the notion that it is at least partially a product of industrialization, asserting that "a substantial number of scientists have manipulated data" to make it appear that mankind -- our cars, trains, automobiles, not to mention China's belching steel mills -- is the culprit. He said that an increasing number of scientists have challenged this notion and that, in conclusion, he stood with them -- whoever they might be. In Appleton, Wis., Sen. Joe McCarthy's skeleton rattled a bit.
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The late and hardly lamented demagogue pioneered the political use of the concocted statistic. In his case, it was communists and they were, literally, everywhere. There were some, of course, just as there are some scientists who are global warming skeptics, but these few -- about 2 percent of climate researchers -- could hold their annual meeting in a phone booth, if there are any left. (Perhaps 2 percent of scientists think there are.)
Perry's quaint belief in the utter innocence of mankind when it comes to polluting our precious atmosphere might seem like a innocuous tick, a conviction without consequence. In this, it could be likened to the entirely wacky conservative belief of yore that the fluoridation of drinking water was a communist tactic to addle the minds of youth: It was not designed to eliminate cavities, but capitalism instead.
The temptation is to put Perry's assertion in the same category of silliness. That would be a mistake. In the first place, global warming is a serious matter affecting not just cute polar bears, but the more homely of God's creations -- namely you and me. But just as important is the reason Perry clings to his belief. It's not that he has studied the science, pored through the reports and all. It's rather that global warming is global and reversing it would take global programs. This means that standards and limits have to be imposed by the much-reviled federal government -- and it, in turn, has to cooperate with other nations. This nationalization and internalization of a problem and solution are not, to say, the least, very tea partyish. They are merely realistic.
Perry has given us a glimpse of what happens when his ideology collides with reality. Ideology wins and it does so not on the up and up, but by cheating a bit -- in the case of global warming with the fictitious numbers and false charges. We have already seen the consequence of this kind of thinking. George W. Bush's conviction that he was chosen to rid the world of Saddam Hussein led us into a war for stated reasons that were later contradicted by the evidence -- or, more to the point, lack of evidence. Bush had many ways of making his case. To Joe Biden who worried that things were fast going wrong in Iraq, he cited "my instincts." To others, he said he "prayed over" his decisions. All his prayers and instincts could not, for some reason, produce weapons of mass destruction or impose a plan for governing Iraq once a nominal victory was achieved. This is a terrifying way to make policy.
Old Texas hands repeatedly urge us not to liken Perry to Bush just because they both are from Texas and are religious. Granted. But the similarities are there and unavoidable -- not just the accent, but in a way of thinking. Perry's insistence that evolution is a "theory that's out there," but so is creationism -- in other words, they have parity -- and his adamant refusal to come to grips with the realities of global warming are reminiscent of the way Bush marched us into a war that still has not ended and imposed his religious convictions on federal government scientists.
I take Perry seriously. He is no Michele Bachmann, unaccountably elected from a single congressional district, but the three-term leader of the vast nation of Texas. The achievement warrants deep respect and, after last week, considerable worry. It's not his thinking I fear. It's the lack of any at all.
Richard Cohen's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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