Slick Rick Perry
When James Richard Perry was an elementary school student in the desolate, isolated community of Paint Creek, in the far northwest corner of Texas, he won his first election — for the post of King of the Paint Creek School Carnival — by handing out pennies to fellow students for votes.
It was the last election he’s had to buy. Ever since Rick Perry decided to run, as a Democrat, for the Texas State House in 1984, he’s floated upwards through the ranks of state politics like a helium balloon. For the last quarter century, Perry has been a formidable figure in Texas politics: always making moves at precisely the right time. Perry will have been governor for 15 years by the time his current term expires, and yet his political missteps are few and far between. As the man from Paint Creek runs for the Presidency, Democrats who underestimate Perry’s political acumen do so at their own peril.
Perry’s play for the top job seems like a natural evolution of a blessed political career. And in typical Perry fashion, the path to the nomination has unfolded courteously before the candidate’s eyes: barring a scandal or serious gaffe, the Texan is set to clinch the GOP candidacy.
With months to go before the Iowa caucus, Perry’s double-digit lead in the polls doesn’t mean much, but it seems to indicate that Perry is the only candidate who can bridge fissures in a fractured and agitated Republican party. It’s possible to divide GOP primary voters into three broad categories. First, the Christian right, who care primarily about social issues. Second, fiscal conservatives, the business class, who constitute the moneyed and “respectable” wing of the party. Third, the Tea Party, which practice a very particular kind of fanatical populist politics that blends social and fiscal matters together. Unlike other frontrunners like Mitt Romney and Michelle Bachmann, Perry can make a case to all three.
In the early years of his governorship, Perry cared little for religious politics. But recently, he has secured the support of many of the nation’s most important evangelical leaders. ‘The Response,’ a prayer rally headlined by Perry and held in that most holy of places, Houston’s Reliant Stadium, has gone a long way to introducing Perry to the national evangelical community. Bachmann, the previous evangelical favorite, has seen her poll numbers plummet — which implies that Christian Republicans are looking elsewhere.
Many of the fiscal conservatives who care little for social issues prefer Romney. But Perry appears to be making rapid headway. He’s spent much of his time talking up Texas’ economic model, which puts a premium on economic growth above regulatory protections or social services. On September 20, Perry attended a fundraiser in New York City held by the disgraced former head of AIG, Hank Greenberg. It was a crucial test of his ability to draw support from Wall Street.
As for the Tea Party, if Perry can obscure the fact that he has often governed to the left of his public persona, he will find a strong base of support. At a Tea Party-sponsored debate for Republican candidates September 12, the audience of activists enthusiastically supported many things the media previously declared to be gaffes — namely, his declaration that Social Security was a “Ponzi scheme.”
Another factor, often overlooked, runs in Perry’s favor. As the former chairman of the Republican Governor’s Association, Perry has direct — and often personal — relationships with every Republican governor, including those in important primary states like South Carolina and Iowa, and in general election swing states like Ohio, Virginia and Pennsylvania. Compare this to Romney, who hasn’t held elected office in four years.
It will be months before Democrats face Perry in a general election, if he gets that far — but as yet, liberals have done a remarkably poor job of generating lines of attack against the governor. Attacks on Perry’s personality, or his stances on social issues, will have much less resonance this cycle, when the sole concern of most voters is our decrepit economy. But so far, that appears to be all Democrats can manage.
As for the economy, unemployed, foreclosed independents in Indiana and Florida are unlikely to be swayed by Democrats’ arguments that the explosive growth of the Texas economy under Perry has come at the cost of income inequality and awful government services. If the theme of the 2012 election is job creation, Obama will be outperformed every day of the cycle.
There are more promising tactics for both Obama and Romney. The idea that Perry has drawn a government paycheck since 1985 seems to fly in the face of his anti-government ethos. He is a man of the establishment, very solidly so. And he is beset by ethical problems — to take one example, he become a millionaire on the back of real estate deals assisted by a disgraced Austin developer, Gary Bradley, who ended up owing more than $100 million to the federal government.
Perry’s critics say the governor is an empty vessel full of fuel — a charismatic, folksy template upon which policy positions can be imprinted like decals on a well-coiffed action figure, and whose success in politics is mostly due to luck. But Democrats shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the governor as a fortunate dunce. He knows what moves to make and when to make them. His path to the White House may be clearer than many care to believe.