Who says miracles don't happen? One occurred at the Republican presidential debate earlier this week. To wit: making Texas Gov. Rick Perry — the coyote-shootin', secession-talkin', George Wallace-channelin', global-climate-change denyin', extremist loudmouth — look less loony than some of his opponents.
If that doesn't qualify as a miracle, what would? I mean, Perry is the kind of guy whose positions put the lunatic in the lunatic fringe! Who could be crazier than he is?
Well, the conservative hard cases who are attacking him from the even more extreme right, such as Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum and the nuttier members of the Tea Party. (I'm not even going to mention Ron Paul.) For these crazies, any deviation from the science-averse, history-revising, fact-twisting mythology that they subscribe to is heresy — which may explain why Perry seemed to compare himself to Galileo in a bizarre moment during a previous debate.
Amazing as it seems, Perry has actually managed to get a couple of issues right during his long tenure as governor. He was right on the so-called Texas Dream Act, a law that he signed in 2001 that allows the children of illegal immigrants who have lived in the state for three years and obtained a GED or high school diploma to pay in-state college tuition. It's a humane and practical approach to the very real problem of knitting these young people into the fabric of American society as productive contributors.
And he was also right in 2007 when he issued an executive order mandating the vaccination of preteen girls against the human papillomavirus (HPV), which causes cervical cancer and genital warts. Public health experts say that inoculating girls before they become sexually active is the best way to safeguard them from a bug that affects 20 million Americans and is responsible for thousands of deaths that could have been prevented if the vaccine had been available to earlier generations.
Protecting women from such a scourge is the right thing to do and no different than shielding them from polio, measles, smallpox and other plagues for which vaccination is routinely mandated across the U.S. and around the world. Besides, Perry's mandate included a provision allowing parents who had reservations about the vaccine to opt out of the program.
But n-o-o-o! Instead, in a reprise of the strategy House Republicans pursued during the battle over the debt ceiling, they dug in their non-negotiable heels and proclaimed that, for them, it's all or nothing all the time. To them, Perry's uncharacteristic lapses from the most extreme right-wing orthodoxy are worthy of savage attack.
"To have innocent little 12-year-old girls to be forced to have government injections through an executive order is just flat out wrong," Bachmann admonished during the debate, even if those injections might save their lives.
"This is big government run amok," Santorum chimed in.
As for the Texas Dream Act, to Santorum, all it amounted to was an attempt to attract "the illegal vote — I mean the Latino voters." Added Bachmann, Perry's approach is not only "not the American way" but also, even worse, very similar to a proposed federal law backed by the arch demon, President Barack Hussein Obama.
The next morning, Bachmann added even more fuel to the fire on which she'd like to burn Perry's candidacy by suggesting the discredited canard that the HPV vaccine could cause mental retardation. She subsequently retreated after a chorus of critics, including the Wall Street Journal and Rush Limbaugh, castigated her for scientific rumormongering.
When even Limbaugh and the Journal think you've gone too far, that's really saying something. But the horrifying fact remains that Bachmann's and Santorum's absurdities have considerable support among the fanatics who dominate the Republican primary process. Some commentators say that both candidates breathed new life into their campaigns by spreading this nonsense.
And Perry, rather than moderating his shoot-from-the-hip rhetoric, seems ready to ratchet it up a notch. As he told some of my former colleagues at Time magazine, "I think American citizens are just tired of this political correctness and politicians who are tiptoeing around important issues. They want a decisive leader." Perry's not going to let anybody out-crazy him, pardner, you can bet on that.
This is exactly the sort of demented posturing that we've come to expect from the fact-challenged lunatic right, where evolution is dismissed as just another theory, well-established climate-change science is derided as a profit-seeking scam, the facts of American history can be changed on a candidate's whim and Obama can be portrayed as a foreign-born agent of Islamic socialism.
The gathering salience of such beliefs is proof that, with each passing day, a significant segment of Republicans becomes less and less like a political party and more and more like a cult. These folks are really drinking the Kool-Aid. To borrow a phrase from the Royalettes' old hit tune, it's gonna take a miracle — yes, it's gonna take a miracle — to restore them to their senses.
Jack White writes the RightWatch column for The Root.
is a former columnist for TIME magazine and a regular contributor to The Root.