Bob Franken

King Features Column

(As usual, the deal with syndicators means these columns appear here a week after their newspaper release)


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What with all the back and forth about hearts and brains, it doesn’t take too much imagination to see the similarities between the Republican presidential debates and another work of on-screen fiction, “The Wizard of Oz.”

There, for instance, was Rick Perry skipping merrily along the yellow-brick road, imagining an easy jaunt from Texas to Washington, when he fell into the gaping pothole of illegal immigration and bitter hostility against those who sneak across the border looking for menial jobs and facing life on the run. The very same man whose extreme views on a variety of subjects have thrilled the extremists who control the GOP is suddenly on the defensive.

It seems that Gov. Perry’s record is not entirely cruel. So, he’s fending off attacks over his executive order mandating student vaccinations in his state against the virus that causes cervical cancer. Now he has to own up to his record of compassion for the undocumented. Not only had he opposed the idea of a 1,200-mile fence along the border with Mexico, calling it “idiocy,” but suddenly he was under attack — the most wicked which came from Mitt Romney — for supporting in-state resident tuition for the children of parents who had brought their families as they crossed into life as U.S. illegals in Texas.

Perry was indignant, insisting during the last Florida debate that those who oppose the approach “don’t have a heart.” “I think if you’re opposed to illegal immigration, it doesn’t mean that you don’t have a heart,” shot back Romney, a day later, “it means that you have a heart and a brain.”

It’s pretty exciting to watch the Tin Man and the Scarecrow duke it out trying to captivate the hearts and brains of a party base that doesn’t always demonstrate an abundance of either. Take that earlier Florida debate, where Ron “Bare Bones Government” Paul was asked by moderator Wolf Blitzer about his you’re-on-your-own views of health care: “What do you tell a guy who is sick, goes into a coma and doesn’t have health insurance? Who pays for his coverage? Are you saying society should just let him die?”

At that point, some members of the audience shouted “Yeah!!” and nobody onstage disowned them. It was a telling moment, but in reality, my old friend Wolf asked an incomplete question. It should have been, Would you let YOUR son die? Maybe that would have elicited a different response. Maybe not.

Right now in politics, particularly on the right, passion has overtaken compassion. Enmity rules, and comity is impossible. So the only path to the nomination is antipathy. Support of compromise of any sort is considered a, uh, cowardly line.

Rick Perry is in trouble because he deviated from the right’s righteousness. He paid for it in the Florida straw poll, when he was wiped out by Herman Cain, in the “who’s that” tier of candidate munchkins, but apparently more reliably out on the fringes. He’s also an exciting speaker. Meanwhile, Perry doesn’t help his cause one iota when he tries to explain himself, particularly when he trips up on mangled syntax about the sin of accommodation. We can see why, in 10 years as Texas governor, he skipped all but four debates. A silver tongue, he’s not. And this isn’t Texas anymore, so he’s reduced to reminding a conservative group: “It’s not who’s the slickest candidate or the smoothest debater that we need to elect.”

This is great theater, particularly since the final decision on the Republican nomination is still way over the rainbow and so up in the air that picking a winner at this point is impossible for even the most prescient wizard of odds.

© 2011 Bob Franken

Distributed by King Features Syndicate, Inc.

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