The conventional wisdom out there is that Michele Bachmann (who won the Ames straw poll) and Rick Perry (who spoiled her victory by entering the race on the same day) are competing for the same religious conservative voters. That masks some important differences between the two, differences that will become more evident as the campaign proceeds.
What follows is not meant to be formal political analysis, but some musings of someone who has moved in both worlds, first as an Aggie who followed Rick Perry in College Station and later as an institutional Evangelical with some political experience.
Let’s start with Michele Bachmann. She is almost the perfect Boomer, post-Gothard Evangelical: natalist in both belief and practice, product of the Evangelical “system” (esp. her years at ORU) and theonomistic. She defies her opponents’ stereotypes of gender roles in Christianity, but Sarah Palin showed that Evangelicals can be flexible about this if the situation calls for it. As a Midwesterner, she’s more transparent and precise about what she thinks, as opposed to Southerners, who always muddy the waters with Celtic, relational politics. Her goal is to restore an ideal construct on this soil, not an uncongenial goal since the United States is, in many ways, an ideal construct. But the complexity of our society, the creeping tendency of our people to simply gauge everything in terms of outcomes rather than principles, and the endless influence of moneyed interest groups make the restoration of an ideal construct beyond the realm of possibility.
“Old Army Rick” Perry reminds me of something a friend of mine in the Corps of Cadets told me the first semester I was there: the Corps encouraged its members to get any religion they could. Perry’s religion doesn’t strike me as opportunistic but neither does it seem as deeply internalised as Bachmann’s. He is a product of a conservative culture which spawned parsimonious government, and he is faithful to that. He’s not afraid of bare-knuckles politics if he thinks it suits his purpose. The results of a Rick Perry presidency would not be as “pure” as a Michele Bachmann one, but they would be more sure to come to fruition.
So which one to choose? It depends upon how you look at our present situation. If you want to go for a restoration of whatever conservative ideal is in your mind, then Michele Bachmann is the one for you. If you’re looking for more expedient results and pain for conservatism’s political enemies, Rick Perry is more likely to deliver. In late Roman Republic terms, a Bachmann vs. Perry comparison would be a Brutus vs. a Julius Caesar; in late Empire terms, a Gratian vs. a Constantine.
I’m also inclined to think that Perry, as these differences become apparent, will cut more into Mitt Romney’s camp than Bachmann’s. But all bets are off if Sarah Palin gets into the race, because she in some ways combines the attributes of both.
Note on the Corps of Cadets: some background articles on Rick Perry emphasise the animosity between the Corps of Cadets at Texas A&M and the “non-regs” (civilian students.) I as a “non-reg” always got along with people in the Corps because I was raised with a deep respect for the military, but there were others on both sides who had other opinions. There was friction between the two; Texas A&M is a deeply conservative university where change comes with difficulty, and there are periods in its history when that conservatism in the student body clashed with the administration.