How Right-Wing Extremist Rick Perry Passes Himself Off As A Regular Guy--And How That Could Win Him The GOP Nomination
Texas's Republican governor, Rick Perry, has an unenviable reputation – if you're the sort of person who pays attention to long-time governors who haven't been competing for the attention of the Washington press corps for years. He's widely seen as kind of stupid, possibly vindictive, "unencumbered by conscience", overly religious, ultraconservative and even, given his start as a Democrat, a flip-flopper.
But in the 2012 race, he could well be a game-changer.
The GOP field has, by any estimation, spiralled completely out of control. Whoever leads the polling at any given minute is largely a function of how much attention – even negative attention – they're getting in the mainstream press: from Donald Trump to Herman Cain to Representative Michele Bachmann, there's hardly a major contender (other than former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty) who hasn't had their moment atop the polls in the last several months. And yet, few of those who make it to the top, other than former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, has much, if any of the mainstream appeal that will be required to unseat the incumbent president, low approval ratings or not.
Perry's reputation, though hardly pristine, could help winnow the field. His prayer event last weekend gives him credentials on the religious right to rival Bachmann; his brief flirtation with secession puts him squarely in competition for neo-libertarian votes with Representative Ron Paul; his love of tax cuts and business-friendly environments rivals Cain's; and his full head of hair gives Romney a run for his money. He hates same-sex marriage, loves the death penalty, talks down a centralised federal government (even as, apparently, he wants to lead it) and is not one to shy away from criticising the current administration or its signature achievement, the healthcare reform bill.
Unlike Romney, the wealthy scion of a political family, Perry has a compelling (and more understandable) personal history: unlike Newt Gingrich, he's still married to his high-school sweetheart and, like former President Bill Clinton, he battled his way out of poverty to the governor's mansion. While he began his political life as a conservative Democrat, he's been a Republican since 1989 and owes his political fortunes, in part, to former George W Bush adviser Karl Rove and to Bush himself, under whom he served as lieutenant governor. He's made no major flip-flops on social issues like abortion, unlike Mitt Romney, and doesn't have a track record of serving in the House and taking advantage of the ability to use that position to steer tax dollars to the state. And though he recently came under fire when his love of decentralised government butted up against his opposition to same-sex marriage, that does, actually, happen to be the position taken by none other than former Vice President Dick Cheney.
While much of the press has been courting a case of whiplash by running from one popular candidate to the other, attempting to paint them as too fringe to win in a general election, Perry (like former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin) has largely kept his head down and his potentially off-putting policy prescriptions to himself, and let his fellow socially conservative compatriots battle it out among themselves.
That, it seems, is about to change – and the person most scared should be Romney.
Romney, about whom the most "fringe" thing is his membership in the Mormon church, is widely seen – including by the Obama administration – as the candidate most likely to be still standing after the bruising primary season, and to whom disaffected independents might be most likely to flock. He's a Republican from a liberal state who passed an almost uncontroversial universal healthcare bill; he's got a politician's looks, attractive (and seemingly normal) children and only one marriage under his belt; and his most long-time conservative credentials are on the economic side.
But he faces significant obstacles on his own side. Social conservatives view warily his reconsidered position on abortion rights; his religious preferences give, among others, evangelicals pause; Tea Partiers aren't keen on his universal healthcare legislation; and he ran a state still referred to by conservatives as "Taxachusetts".
Perry has none of that baggage, and all his own hair. He's likely to unite the social and religious conservatives who view the chances of some of the current darlings with a modicum of suspicion; he will pull economic conservative votes from Romney; and he knows how to use his Texas drawl to make at least a few independents wonder if he isn't just a regular guy like them. And, as two consecutive Clinton and two consecutive Bush administrations showed, American voters love electing "regular guys" – even if that which makes them seem "regular" is little more than a carefully-scripted simulacrum.