Liberals like to think that Texas Governor Rick Perry dropped from front-runner to afterthought in the Republican presidential race because he repeatedly exposed his ignorance and intellectual incompetence. It would be reassuring to think that Republican voters take governing seriously enough to care whether a candidate for president can formulate complete sentences and remember the basics of his own platform. But this is the party that elected George W. Bush.

The real watershed moment for Perry was when he deviated slightly from conservative orthodoxy on immigration. And here’s how we now know that the only thing Republicans really cared about was whether Perry is right wing enough: because he has recently continued to embarrass himself in dramatic fashion, and yet his poll numbers are holding steady in Iowa. In fact, he appears to be gathering momentum. As Michele Bachmann and Newt Gingrich plummet, it seems that Rick Santorum is the main beneficiary, but Perry could be as well. He is currently polling in fifth, just behind Gingrich, in Iowa and a blogger for Red State went so far as to flat-out predict that if Perry comes in third, he will be the Republican nominee. Perry has made plenty of mistakes in the last few weeks, but the one he hasn’t made is being insufficiently extreme. Indeed, he only keeps going further.

What’s especially galling about the empty right-wing ideology Perry spouts is his hypocrisy. Perry is running attack ads against Santorum for requesting earmarks when he was in the Senate, calling Santorum a “Congressional porker.” But the Texas state government has requested and obtained massive earmarks under Perry. The Austin-American Statesman reports, “In a July 2006 strategic plan, the Texas Office of State-Federal Relations bragged that it and the Texas Department of Transportation worked closely together to secure over $669 million in highway earmarks for the state, $78 million in bus and bus facility earmarks, and $505 million in New Starts transit earmarks in the five-year surface transportation bill.’ ”

Complaining about earmarks, which account for a small fraction of federal spending and are often actually quite worthy, is just typical Republican campaign rhetoric. More disturbing is Perry’s bizarre proposal to make Congress part-time. Perry released a campaign commercial quoting him touting his plan: “Cut their pay in half, cut their staff in half, send them home, make them get a job like everyone back home has.” So Perry thinks being an elected official isn’t a job. By that standard, Perry hasn’t held a job in decades. He’s been a full-time public servant since the 1980s, and he has hardly worked in any other field. He’s become quite wealthy through his political connections, though. He also is currently collecting a pension in addition to his salary from the state of Texas, and is charging the state for his security detail’s campaign traveling expenses.

The most pathetic demonstration of Perry’s utter lack of substance, principal or preparation came last week when he was asked about Lawrence v. Texas, the 2003 Supreme Court decision that declared anti-sodomy laws unconstitutional. “I wish I could tell you I know every Supreme Court case, I don’t,” Perry said when a voter in Cedar Rapids asked him about the case. “I’m not a lawyer, but here’s what I do know: I know they’re spending too much money in DC and $15 trillion worth of debt is on the back of that young man right there. And if we don’t go in and cut the size of government, court cases aren’t going to make one tinker’s heck.” Perry proposes to institute judicial term limits to rein in a federal judiciary that he says has run amok. He “wrote” a book filled with strong views about the Constitution. He is a staunchly anti-gay social conservative. And the anti-sodomy law in Texas was overturned while he was governor. So for Perry to admit that he doesn’t even know the case in question, and to then go on to a completely irrelevant talking point about spending, demonstrates an ignorance, stupidity and total lack of seriousness that would embarrass Dan Quayle. And what did we hear from the conservative media that lambasted him for supporting college tuition assistance for law-abiding students brought here without documentation as children? Nothing. And from that we know just how serious conservatives are about governing.