Rick Perry, Accidental Civics Teacher

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The Texas governor might be bad for the GOP and bad for Democrats. But the media relies on his brand of hyperbole to have any sort of public policy debate.

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REUTERS

Texas Gov. Rick Perry might not be good for the Republican Party, the environment, state poverty, or Mitt Romney.  But I'm nearly convinced that he is a force for good in American civics and public policy debate. Or more specifically, that his brand of brashness and hyperbole has become necessary for any sort of serious public policy debate on television.

Take the issue of state economics, for example. You might not have predicted six months ago that cable news would join a wonky debate about whether natural resources or public policy play a greater role in state-by-state job growth. Who cares about weighing business tax incentives against international demand for crude oil, right? Wrong. In August, there they were -- CNN, MSNBC, Fox News -- one week after the Iowa Straw Poll, filling the airwaves with opposing arguments on whether Perry could claim credit for the "Texas Miracle," or to what extent he had been dealt pocket aces by topography. Here was an important economic debate, once relegated to the lonely corners of the urban policy blogosphere, that enjoyed a week in the primetime spotlight thanks to Perry's campaign launch.

The media needs "treason," "Ponzi scheme," and other Perryisms like lungs need oxygen

It didn't take long for the governor's civic education instincts to strike. Two days after the Iowa Straw Poll, Perry said it would be "treasonous" for Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke to print more money. This whistled the beginning of a familiar form of pundit tug-of-war. After the initial cross-partisan howling, reasoned progressives explained that Perry was flat wrong and "printing money" was a reasonable response to a weak economy. Conservatives rebutted that if Perry was hyperbolic, he was at least right that more money won't lift the economy. "Expansionary" vs. "contractionary" monetary policy is a debate fit for think tank conferences. But Perry gift-wrapped the discussion for cable news producers by making it a war between "treason" and "patriotism."

Now I'm getting the sneaking suspicion that Perry relishes his stealth role as civics instructor. For the last two weeks, he's been on a rampage calling Social Security a "Ponzi scheme." Bad analogy. Splashy news peg! In the days after the last Republican debate, news shows ate it right up. Social Security is indeed a Ponzi scheme, Charles Krauthammer wrote in a strong column that will animate a few minutes of a Sunday talk show, but it's a necessarily and reformable Ponzi scheme that will not and should not go away.

This is how a Perryism (or a Palinism) works. A catchphrase, dripping with hyperbole, enters the mainstream. One side attacks. The other side defends. Back and forth we go until we're having a real, honest-to-goodness debate about the underlying merits of the idea. These episodes aren't exceptions to the way we handle public policy debates. This is just the way we debate public policy.

The media loves nothing more than to give hyperbolic statements both a platform and a panning. Statements like Sarah Palin's "death panels," Joe Wilson's "you lie!" and Perry's quips about treason and Ponzi have become perhaps the most important way that we talk about Medicare cuts, insurance for immigrants, monetary policy and Social Security. We don't have debates about reasonable criticisms. We have (sometimes) reasonable debates about hyperboles.

So, do you want to have a national discussion about filling 14 million jobs? Me, too. But we might have to wait until Rick Perry thinks of something quippy to say about national retraining efforts. "You know who also believed in national retraining..."


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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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