The tide has been rising steadily for weeks if not months now, but with this latest love note from MSNBC, it seems that we’re about to hit the zenith of hype for Perry 2012:
Spend a few days hanging out with political operatives in Austin and you’ll come away with two things: A list of restaurant recommendations as long as the margarita menu at Guero’s Taco Bar, and a hard time arguing that Gov. Rick Perry won’t be the Republican Party’s presidential nominee.
In The State Which Must Not Be Messed With, the governor’s political skills are the stuff of legend, and the economic robustness over which he has presided is the subject of a steady stream of brags by his fans nationwide. Friends and foes allies alike are impressed with Perry’s deft negotiation of the Tea Party and business wings of the GOP. He’s a farmer’s son who spent a decade building a huge political apparatus in a state so vast that its tourism office advertises that “It’s like another country.”
And every indication — including Saturday’s prayer and fasting event in Houston — suggests he’s getting ready to take his Texas show on the road.
“Rick Perry is the best politician to come out of Texas since LBJ,” says Jason Stanford, a Democratic political consultant who managed Perry opponent Chris Bell’s gubernatorial campaign in 2006. “His abilities are probably on par with Obama’s.”
The piece eventually gets to some of the reasons a Perry Presidency might not be quite so foregone, but nowhere does it inform its readers that, for all his supreme political brilliance, Governor Perry has consistently put up mediocre approval ratings in that “other country” he calls home. And when the piece does get into the reasons to be not quite so sanguine about Perry’s chances, it does so rather poorly (emphasis in the original):
His weakness: Is the country ready for another Texas governor?
So is this man invincible in a GOP primary?
His most immediate challenge may be an inherited one. Both his current job and his gerund-abbreviatin’ twang are likely to remind Americans of fellow Texan George W. Bush, a man still solely blamed by almost half of Americans for the country’s current economic woes, per a June NBC/WSJ poll.
“I thought when I listened to him talk, I thought he was doing a parody of George Bush,” former New Mexico Gov. (and longshot presidential candidate) Gary Johnson recently said of Perry.
This, I think, is a bit lazy. Yes, Perry is a Texan and speaks as such. But that’s not the primary reason he’s going to remind voters of Bush.
More likely, Perry is going to remind voters of W. due to the manifest difficult with which he handles an interview even with the friendliest of media personalities (as seen above, when he goes into the lion’s den that is Fox News Business). Watching the man as he struggles to handle a series of — well, questions isn’t really the right word — lead-ins, one can see the blankness in his eyes, can almost hear him in his mind repeating to himself over and over the three or four talking points his advisors have demanded he intone in front of a mirror every morning.
Even if I acknowledge that most people pay far less attention to politics than I do, and are thus less likely to be able to spot an over reliance on talking points — and probably don’t know, nor care, what “talking points” even are — I think that Perry’s insincerity is going to shine through, at least to a national audience.
What he has going for him, then, is that his main rival for the nomination is perhaps the platonic ideal of phoniness. That, and the fact that the GOP’s long-term transition towards becoming Dixie-fied is nearly complete. And while I’ve a sense that the “evangelicals don’t like Mormons” trope is slightly over-used, I’ve no doubt that Herman Cain was speaking from experience when he noted that they don’t necessarily take so kindly to Mitt’s kind down there.
Still, it seems to me that a lot of the fanfare over a Perry nomination is, like that over Fred Thompson some four years ago, occurring while shockingly little attention is paid to the candidate in question himself, rather than the idea of him in his most electable form. That’s certainly part of what I see going on in this latest from Steve Kornacki at Salon, an otherwise quite good piece that nevertheless fails to take into consideration that while History rhymes, it doesn’t repeat:
Tom Jensen, who runs the pro-Democratic (but highly accurate) polling firm PPP reviewed data his firm recently collected from likely 2012 swing states and concluded that “if the Republicans nominate Mitt Romney it’s a toss up. And if they nominate anyone else it’s 2008 all over again.”
This is very dangerous thinking that ignores one basic truth about presidential politics: Candidates start to look very different — to the media and to voters — if they are able to win a major party’s nomination.
Take Perry, whose entry into the GOP race seems imminent. A case can be made that he’d be particularly vulnerable to Democratic attacks in a fall campaign. He’s publicly flirted with the idea of Texas seceding from the Union and has a speaking style evocative of George W. Bush, whose presidency most Americans still want to forget. (There are other potential liabilities too.) It is possible that, if Perry were the nominee, Democrats would be able to exploit all of this and cause him to perform several points worse than a generic Republican nominee would. And those several points could make the difference between reelection and one-termdom for Obama.
The problem, though, is that Perry really isn’t known on a mass level yet. Sure, the political world knows all about him, and Republican leaders and activists across the country have been watching him closely for some time. But he hasn’t received the kind of media exposure that comes from winning a presidential nomination. So he’s easy to dismiss now as a Bush-sounding Texan with secessionist tendencies. But if he wins the GOP nomination and if Obama continues to be a vulnerable incumbent, Perry will at least have a chance to make a different impression on voters — and the media could end up helping him.
We’ve seen this happen before. Bill Clinton was considered utterly unelectable in early 1992, even after he fought off Paul Tsongas and Jerry Brown to lock up the Democratic nomination. Polls showed more than 60 percent of Democratic voters wished they had another candidate and believed Clinton would lose to George H.W. Bush (even though Bush’s own approval ratings were low, thanks to the economy). The pessimism of Democrats was palpable: Here we have this great chance to beat Bush, but we’ve wrecked it by nominating a draft-dodging adulterer who will be torn to shreds by the GOP attack machine.
But as the nominee, Clinton had an opportunity to change voters’ minds. And with the economy floundering and Bush’s numbers in decline, he also had a chance to convince the media to rethink its caricature of him. When the Democratic convention wrapped up in July, he was more than 20 points ahead of Bush, and he never trailed in a poll the rest of the way. […]
The story was similar for Ronald Reagan in 1980. At the outset of that race, he was the Republican Democrats most wanted to face. Supposedly, Reagan’s extreme Goldwater conservatism would be too much even for voters who badly wanted to throw Jimmy Carter out of the White House. Whoops.
The key for Clinton in ’92 and Reagan in ’80 was that economic anxiety was high and swing voters were inclined to vote the incumbent president out — and to give his challenger the benefit of the doubt. It surely helped that both men were unusually gifted communicators, but those communication skills would likely have been for naught in a different, less favorable political climate.
To a significant degree, I think he’s providing a wise and valuable contribution to the conversation here. Politicos and their groupies (that means us), have the tendency of forgetting that the rest of the world doesn’t see things through our jaundiced eyes. We have to remember that to a shocking degree, many voters have no idea who the nominees for the Presidency even are until just weeks before the day of reckoning. So, yes, a nominee Perry will potentially have an opportunity that Obama’s now lost — the chance to define himself on his own terms.
But I’d still caution against buying Kornacki’s line here top-to-bottom for two reasons:
1. If Obama is able to continue raising the kind of money he’s been thus far — and if it’s true that Democratic groups are now being assembled to exploit the Citizens United-sized hole in campaign finance laws in such a manner as to at least dilute the work of similar groups on the GOP side, there’s the chance that Perry’s window for self-definition may be preciously short. This is a truth that Karl Rove well understood when he was tasked with mounting a reelection campaign for a tepidly popular candidate during a volatile and uncertain time in the country’s history.
2. Barack Obama is many things, but when it comes to electioneering, he ain’t H.W. and he ain’t Jimmy Carter. Perry may be able to present himself as a reasonable and likable enough guy, but he won’t have the luxury, as Reagan and Clinton did, of running against a stiff, uncomfortable, and clearly defensive natural-born-bureaucrat-in-politicians’-clothing. And, frankly, even if Perry is a talented performer, I’ve never had any cause to think him of the same level as Reagan or Clinton, two of the most natural pols in recent American history.
Long story short, if I were Mitt Romney, I’d be nervous. But I think all of this hubbub about Perry says much more about the boredom and dissatisfaction of the GOP primary electorate — and the political media — with Romney than it does about the Governor of Texas’s real chances of being yet another Lone Star Commander-in-Chief.
(x-posted at Flower & Thistle)