When Rick Perry announced that New York’s approval of gay marriage was within its powers and therefore “fine with me,” I was pleased for the country but worried as a partisan. It seemed like quite a shrewd move for the man who now seems – as the sole candidate acceptable to the plutocrats, the theocrats, and the teahdis – very likely to be the Republican nominee for President in 2012.

It appeared to reflect Perry’s confidence that his links to the theocrats were strong enough to allow him to start now the rhetorical move toward the center that would be necessary to make him competitive in November.

But now Perry has turned around. As soon as his master, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, called “Heel!” Perry dutifully trotted back to place, restating his support for the Federal Marriage Amendment that would undo New York’s law by restricting marriage nationally to “the union of a man and a woman.”

Perry wraps his flip-flop in a long mumble about “activist judges and special interest groups,” but what it comes down to is that states’ rights are important but bashing gays is more important.

So now Perry looks not only like the wingnut that he is, but also like a spineless weasel. (Actually, what he looks like is a guy who sells used cars six days a week and preaches in a storefront church on Sunday, but that’s a different problem.)

This reflects the larger strategic challenge for the GOP: now that its fringe has become its base, it’s almost impossible for anyone to get the Republican nomination without saying things that make it impossible for him to win in November.

In the long run, it would be better to have two nationally competitive parties. But what the country needs right now is a series of punishing electoral defeats for the Republicans that will either force the party back toward sanity (though it’s hard to imagine the mechanism for such a transition) or send it the way of the Federalists and the Whigs and allow for the emergence of a new conservative party, one whose leadership wants to repeal the Great Society but not the New Deal, the Enlightenment, or the rules of logic and arithmetic.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

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Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.