He’s a winner in a Republican year, with no need in the world to win liberal approval.
In 2006, country music singer and satirist Kinky Friedman was in such a snit at losing his independent candidacy for Texas governor (he won 12 percent) to Rick Perry that he refused to concede. “When I die, I am to be cremated and the ashes thrown in Rick Perry’s hair,” he snarled. Such was his contempt for the man he had dismissed as “Governor Goodhair” during the campaign.
But three days after the election he recounts that the governor “called to give me a gracious little pep talk, an act of random kindness effectively talking me down from jumping off the bridge of my nose.” Now Kinky Friedman, the Lone Star state’s self-described “Jewish cowboy,” has become a most surprising fan of Perry’s presidential candidacy.
“Obama has done for the economy what pantyhose did for foreplay,” he wrote in the Daily Beast. “Texas is kicking major ass in terms of jobs and the economy, and Rick’s fingerprints are all over it.” Rick Perry often has a disarming effect on his political opponents. “Running against Perry is like running against God,” marvels John Sharp, the Democrat who narrowly lost to Perry in a 1998 race for lieutenant governor. “Everything breaks his way. Either he’s the luckiest guy in the world or the Lord is taking care of him.”
Perry has won six consecutive statewide elections against Democrats in Texas over the last two decades. And that doesn’t even count his 2010 smackdown of Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison in the Republican primary. Perry, trailing by 20 points and with the entire Bush political machine from Karl Rove to Dick Cheney endorsing Hutchison, skillfully turned the election from a referendum on him to a critique of his opponent’s Senate record. He portrayed her as an elitist habitué of Washington salons and a backer of Wall Street bailouts so big her nickname should be “Kay Bailout Hutchison.” Perry wound up winning by 21 points, and swept to victory in the fall over former Houston Mayor Bill White by 13 points.
But Perry’s prairie populism, his firm religious convictions (“God is how we got here”), and his Texas swagger mark him as a man who will never be able to charm true liberals. They view him as the Rio Grande reincarnation of Sarah Palin and are just as dismissive of him as they are of her. “A ‘C’ and ‘D’ student who hates to govern, loves to campaign, and barely has a sixth grader’s understanding of economics would lead our nation into oblivion,” is how CNN commentator James Moore put it. “Bush without the brains,” was MSNBC commentator Ed Schultz’s dismissive conclusion.
Even some Republicans joined the pile on. “Rick Perry’s an idiot, and I don’t think anyone would disagree with that,” claims Bruce Bartlett, a former George H. W. Bush Treasury official. All of this led Politico to run a long feature asking, “Is Rick Perry Dumb?”
In the end, the article came down far more on the side of “no” than “yes.” He may be uninterested in the details of issues that aren’t on his political plate, but he certainly has the ability to focus. Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, a certified brainiac, recalled how Perry demonstrated knowledge of the nuances of economic policies in a meeting at which he told Texas businessmen how Louisiana had built its film industry. “He knew in detail what Louisiana had done and then pushed Texas to be more competitive,” Jindal said. He dismissed questions about Perry’s intellect as “elitism from those who only like Republicans who either raise taxes or lose elections.” Perry pollster Mike Bacelice says his client comes from the Ronald Reagan school of management: “Trust the right people and manage well.” Perry himself was eager to take on the issue of intelligence question raised by Politico and turn it around by saying the real topic should be the “dumb” policies of President Obama.
“What’s dumb is to oversee an economy that has lost that many millions of jobs, to put up unemployment numbers — over his four years will stay probably at 9 percent — to downgrade the credit of this good country, to put fiscal policies in place that were a disaster back in the '30s and try them again in the 2000s. That’s what I consider to be the definition of dumb,” he told Sean Hannity on his radio show. That’s what is called political pivoting.
ANOTHER WAY IN WHICH Perry is turning a potential criticism into an asset concerns the frequent comparisons made between him and President George W. Bush, whom he succeeded as Texas governor in 2001. “I’m not sure voters are ready for another Texas governor,” says GOP pollster David Hill.
But Perry has worked to distance himself from Bush for years, which explains in part the animus many Bush loyalists have toward him. “This big government binge [under Obama] began under the administration of George W. Bush,” Perry has said. In his book Fed Up!, Perry makes his distance with Bush’s approach even starker: “The branding of compassionate conservatism meant that the GOP was sending the wrong signal, that conservatism alone wasn’t sufficient or worse yet, was somehow flawed and had to be re-branded.”
All of this has raised hackles among the Bushmen. “George Bush won crucial independent voters with his message of compassionate conservatism,” says Mark McKinnon, a key aide in both of Bush’s presidential campaigns. “I worry that today’s Republican firebrand version of conservatism is dragging the party so far right it will repel independent voters.”
Electability in the general election will also be a major argument against Perry by supporters of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who has inherited much of the GOP’s traditional business support and what remains of its moderate wing.
In late August, Mark Thiessen, a columnist for the Washington Post, revealed that Romney advisers were warning that “at a time of our choosing” they planned to attack Perry as opposed to the very idea of Social Security and Medicare. They would quote passages in his book that call Social Security “a Ponzi scheme” and note Medicare will need dramatic reform. Of course, such attacks could boomerang with GOP primary electorates, as Newt Gingrich learned when he criticized Rep. Paul Ryan’s proposed Medicare reforms as “right-wing social engineering.”
And Perry says talk about his unelectability is just that. He noted that the latest Gallup Poll had him trailing President Obama by only 47 percent to 45 percent at a time when only about half the country knows much about him. Mr. Romney, who going into this fall was far better known to the general public, nosed out Obama by a couple of points in the Gallup survey.
Perry also isn’t backing down on his more controversial statements. He told an audience in Ottumwa, Iowa, in August that he stood by his book. “Social Security is a Ponzi scheme for young people,” he declared. “The idea that they’re working and paying into it today, that the current program is going to be there for them, is a lie. It is a monstrous lie on this generation, and we can’t do that to them.”
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