‘Mindless opposition to government’

Rick Perry’s faulty memory during last week’s debate has, as expected, taken on an almost folklore status. It’s been ridiculed by late-night comedians, parodied on “Saturday Night Live,” and even mocked by Perry himself. And while the “brain freeze” will be remembered, it’s worth appreciating what really matters: the substance behind Perry’s argument.

E.J. Dionne Jr. had a terrific piece today using the Texas governor’s incident as a reminder about the state of the conservatives’ movement “and the health of their creed.”

Remember, as far as Perry is concerned, his administration would simply scrap the departments of Commerce, Education, and Energy, though the governor didn’t take the agenda seriously enough to remember it.

Would Perry end all federal aid to education? Would he do away with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the part of the Commerce Department that, among other things, tracks hurricanes? Energy was the department he forgot. Would he scrap the department’s 17 national labs, including such world-class facilities as Los Alamos, N.M., Oak Ridge, Tenn., or — there’s that primary coming up — Aiken, S.C.?

I’m not accusing Perry of wanting to do any of these things because I don’t believe he has given them a moment of thought. And that’s the problem for conservatives. Their movement has been overtaken by a quite literally mindless opposition to government. Perry, correctly, thought he had a winning sound bite, had he managed to blurt it out, because if you just say you want to scrap government departments (and three is a nice, round number), many conservatives will cheer without asking questions.

This is a long way from the conservatism I used to respect. Although I often disagreed with conservatives, I admired their prudence, their affection for tradition and their understanding that the intricate bonds of community are established with great difficulty over time and not easy to reweave once they are torn asunder. At their best, conservatives forced us to think harder. Now, many in the ranks seem to have decided that hard and nuanced thinking is a telltale sign of liberalism.

That last point seems especially important, and should give thoughtful conservatives pause. What has become of their ideology? Are they satisfied with the depth of thought and seriousness of purpose when it comes to the right’s approach to public policy? Do they look at the intellectual rigor of conservative politics in 2011 and feel a sense of pride?

Or do even they realize that the right has descended into knee-jerk, soundbite solutions to every problem?