09/26/2011 10:20 pm ET Updated Nov 26, 2011

Will Rick Perry's Extreme Views Make Him Unelectable? What History Shows

Back in the middle of August, just after Rick Perry tossed his cowboy hat into the ring, anonymous White House and Obama campaign aides were quoted saying that they welcomed the Texas governor into the race because they assumed that, given his radical positions, he would be easier to beat. As Reuters' Eric Johnson put it at the time, "senior activists and influential Chicagoans close to the president say Perry's more polarizing views make him a bigger target for the Democrat in a general election." Said a former White House aide involved with the campaign: "I was praying Perry would get in the race."

And that is certainly the conventional wisdom. After all, the man does have more than his share of extreme positions. To wit (or is it nitwit?):

We know he believes, depending on which day it is, that Social Security is "set up like an illegal Ponzi scheme," and a "monstrous lie."

We know he believes that the use of conventional monetary policy tools by the Fed is "almost treasonous," and that Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke would be treated "pretty ugly down in Texas."

We know he believes evolution is merely "a theory that is out there," and derides worries about climate change, saying climates have "been changing ever since the earth was formed." (When pressed on when, exactly, that occurred, he only says that the planet is "pretty old".)

We know that when asked about his thoughts on the death penalty and his state's frequent use of it, he replied, "I've never struggled with that at all." And we know that this means he apparently doesn't care very much about his role in executing Cameron Todd Willingham, who evidence suggests was likely innocent.

We know all that. So surely someone with a history of radical statements like these could never get elected president. Americans would simply never put someone like that in the White House, right?

That would be like the country electing someone who had once said that "the entire graduated income tax structure was created by Karl Marx," and that it "has no justification in getting government revenue."

Or someone who had once said that "fascism was really the basis for the New Deal."

Or someone who had supported the idea of making Social Security voluntary, which would, of course, kill Social Security as we know it.

But, in fact, we did put in the White House a man who said all these things. Ronald Reagan. In 1980, Reagan, the source of all these quotes, beat incumbent president Jimmy Carter 489 electoral votes to 49.

As laid out in Ted Kennedy's speech that year at the Democratic National Convention, Reagan had also claimed that "80 percent of pollution comes from plants and trees," and that "unemployment insurance is a prepaid vacation plan for freeloaders."

What Reagan's election shows, and the lesson it holds for those espousing the conventional wisdom on Rick Perry's electability, is that, especially in times of fear and uncertainty, people don't always vote on the logical consequences a candidate's statements would have on policy -- and on their lives.

If those guiding the Obama campaign think that Rick Perry's history of "polarizing views" is going to be their ace in the hole, they may be in for a rude awakening. And it's America that will wake up to the consequences. Instead of praying for Perry to enter the race, they should be praying for the White House to figure out how to create jobs and grow the economy.

Right now, the unemployment rate is 9.1 percent. In November 1980, it was 7.5 percent. And Ronald Reagan's history of polarizing views turned out not to matter very much.

Yes, as the debt ceiling fight showed, Obama is likely to keep on winning the "Who Is The Most Reasonable Person In The Room?" contest. But that's not the same thing as winning the election. Most people thought Jimmy Carter was more reasonable than Ronald Reagan, too. And the Carter campaign had initially preferred to run against the more polarizing Reagan rather than the more moderate George H.W. Bush.

When people feel powerless and fearful, they want a leader who speaks a language of strength and reassurance. After all, voters, including those mythical swing-vote independents, want the same thing everyone does: jobs and a strong economy. And in the absence of jobs and a strong economy, they at least want someone who speaks boldly about his plans to turn things around. It's not about the left or the right or the center. And it's not about being smart or being reasonable. It's less about the brain and more about the lizard brain.

Nicholas Confessore recently reported that the Obama campaign is having trouble wooing back many of its small dollar contributors from 2008. One of them is Edward Blair, a 65-year-old lawyer in North Carolina, who makes an appearance in a 2012 Obama campaign video. "I certainly respect him, and I trust him," said Blair, "but I am disappointed, and I'm bewildered." And this is from someone in a 2012 Obama campaign video.

At a fundraiser last weekend in San Jose, the president quoted "my friend Joe Biden," who says, "don't compare me to the Almighty, compare me to the alternative."

Well, as they say, be careful what you wish for.