Who is best situated to be the Republican presidential nominee in 2012? Gallup (October 31-November) finds that 71% of Republicans would "seriously consider" supporting Huckabee, with Romney and Palin at 65% each. Other names who show up on GOP presidential polls include Pawlenty, Gingrich, Giuliani, Barbour, Jindal, and Jeb Bush, none of whom are within telescope range of the top trio. But the top threesome all came out of 2008 as damaged goods. Huckabee was primarily a regional candidate in '08 and had a hard time expanding his appeal beyond the Bible Belt. Romney didn't connect well with voters, and Palin was too polarizing.
Not a single poll (on pollingreport.com) even listed a politician who I would argue has a good to chance to win the nomination. I believe this politician (a) has figured it out and (b) has decided to run.
It's Rick Perry.
That would explain a lot of things -- for starters, why he decided to seek four more years as governor, after he had told many of his supporters he wouldn't (implicitly clearing the way for them to support Hutchison in 2010); and why he didn't choose to take a victory lap and make easy money on the boards of companies that benefited from his governorship. He has to remain on the political stage in order to compete for the presidential nomination. A beatdown of Kay Bailey Hutchison in the Republican primary would elevate his standing as the GOP's leading conservative figure, now that South Carolina's Mark Sanford has been so generous as to commit political hari-kari and Sarah Palin, while popular, hasn't gained in stature.
Perry's consultant, Dave Carney, is from New Hampshire, and he understands national politics. Sometime in 2007, I suspect, Carney and Perry looked at the Republican field, and at the wreckage of the Bush presidency, and recognized that 2008 was destined to be a Democratic year. They saw no one in the GOP who was capable of defeating Clinton or Obama, the two prominent Democrats who were vying for their party's nomination. At the same time, they realized that both Democrats had substantial negatives -- Clinton because of her husband and her own stridency, and Obama because of his race. Either Clinton or Obama was going to be unpopular with older white males, the core constituency of the Republican party, and was at risk of being a one-term president. Whoever could grab that constituency could win the nomination.
Perry's decision to face Texas voters was high-risk. If he lost his primary battle against Hutchison (and the first poll in the race showed her with a lead in the mid-twenties), he would be remembered in Texas history as the state's longest-serving governor but one who left no legacy because he stayed too long. But luck -- bad luck for America, good luck for Perry -- proved to be on his side, as it has been throughout Perry's career. The economy collapsed, Bush bailed out the banks, and all of a sudden a Republican civil war broke out between Main Street and Wall Street. I interviewed members of Perry's inner circle around a year ago, and the strategy for defeating Hutchison was already in place: label her as the candidate of Washington values, position him as the candidate of Texas values. Another aspect of Perry's good fortune is that his opponents always seem to be afflicted by brain seizures: Jim Hightower was overconfident and didn't spend money in the closing days (agriculture commissioner, 1990), John Sharp pulled the hard-hitting ad that had him in the lead (lieutenant governor, 1998), and the current Hutchison campaign has been inept and messageless.
Here are the reasons why Perry is well placed to be a viable contender in 2012:
1. Unlike Huckabee, Romney, and Palin, he is still in office.
2. He is the longest-serving governor in Texas history.
3. He is governor of the biggest red state that sends the most delegates to the Republican convention.
4. He has the best conservative record of any contender: significant tort reform, a large property tax cut, refusal to raise taxes in the face of a $10 billion budget deficit (2003), declining to expand government by accepting strings-attached unemployment insurance stimulus funds, implementing efforts to enhance border security. During his tenure as governor, Texas has been active in passing social legislation, including a strong abortion bill in 2003 and a constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage. You can argue that the effect of the property tax cut was wiped out by rising appraisals, or that his border security efforts were all for show, but it adds up to a record that will be popular with Republican voters.
5. He has assiduously courted key figures in the Republican establishment, such as Grover Norquist and Rush Limbaugh (whom he made an honorary Texan), as well as other talk radio hosts.
6. The Murdoch news empire loves him. He is the beneficiary of puff pieces in the Wall Street Journal and softball questions on Fox News.
7. He has an extensive fundraising apparatus in Texas that is capable of raising enough money to make the race, and he is now in charge of finance for the Republican Governor's Association, giving him access to the GOP's big national donors.
8. He has not one but two strong messages. One is the familiar refrain that Washington is corrupt to the core and out of touch with Main Street. The second is the Texas economic miracle: that by following conservative fiscal policies, Texas has been able to survive the recession in better shape than most, if not all, other states. Low taxes, low spending, constitutionally mandated balanced budgets, saving for a rainy day, and business-friendly regulatory policies have made Texas the top state in job creation year after year. Perry can say to residents of the other states: Do what Texas did and you can enjoy economic growth too. It is a strong message in a recession.
9. He was quick to understand the significance of the tea party movement and attended many of the early gatherings. The tea party people are a natural Perry constituency: angry, unyielding folk who are eager to go where few in American politics are willing to venture: states rights and secession.
10. With rare exceptions (such as the HPV vaccine controversy), he almost never deviates from the conservative line. He is against the border fence, but he makes up for it with his emphasis on border security, even though the cameras and the deployment of Texas Rangers were mainly for show.
* * * *
I'm not saying that Rick Perry SHOULD be president. Heaven forbid. I'm saying that it is not hard to make a case that he CAN be elected president, that he has the necessary ingredients -- the resume (grew up poor, farmed, served his country, married his childhood sweetheart, started out as a Democrat, switched parties as a matter of conscience), the record, the money, the conservative credentials -- to make the race. Yes, I know, this is Rick Perry we are talking about. Governor 39%. Governor Goodhair. Forget all that. Familiarity breeds contempt. You have to look at Perry as he will present himself to the Republican electorate. He can make a compelling case for himself. I just made it for him.
Perry was a terrible public speaker early in his career, but he is very polished now. Whatever you may think about his hair, the camera loves him. He never takes a bad photo or looks out of sorts on TV. In those TV spots of him prowling the border in 06, he came across as the embodiment of the rugged individualist.
Of course, there is another side to the Perry record. Readers know that Texas's public schools are chronically underfunded, that the state faces a $17 billion budget hole in 2011, that we lead the nation in the number of people who are uninsured, and so on. There is no need to chronicle the state's deficiencies; we know what they are, and they will become part of the debate if Perry decides to run. As we are finding out in the governor's race, though, Republican primary voters do not care about what the government is not doing.
The main argument that I have heard against Perry's presidential aspirations is that the rest of the nation will not elect another Texas president any time soon. They don't love us, that's for sure, but presidential elections are about issues and principles, not geography, and Perry's brand of unapologetic conservatism is a perfect fit for the Republican party in the tea-party era. Timing is everything in politics. And, right now, the timing is right for Perry.
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