Last month, I laid out the reasons why I thought Texas Gov. Rick Perry was the clear Republican front-runner. I’ll take it one step further: Perry would be a very formidable nominee against President Obama, and he poses a stronger threat than most Democrats realize and many Republican strategists acknowledge.
The hits are already out. Democrats are looking at Perry’s states’ rights, anti-Washington manifesto Fed Up! as a gold mine for opposition researchers, eager to pounce on his claim that Social Security is akin to a Ponzi scheme. They think that his skepticism on climate change makes him seem extreme, even as Obama halted implementation of antismog regulations in a last-ditch attempt to help create jobs. Most view Perry’s aggressive defense of Second Amendment rights as a general-election loser; never mind that Democrats haven’t touched the gun-control issue since Al Gore’s failed 2000 presidential campaign, and for good reason. All of the conventional wisdom couldn’t be more off base.
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Perry has proven throughout his long career that he’s a canny political observer, and he picked up on the anti-Washington mood enveloping the country long before the smart set in Washington did. On the campaign trail, he may be toning down the language from his book, but if anything, his broad themes of bureaucratic incompetence and government overreach offer a striking contrast to Obama’s agenda and get at many of the anxieties facing Americans today. If Obama could point to a record of job creation, Perry’s musings wouldn’t have the same resonance. To an electorate registering historic levels of pessimism about the future, Perry looks more like the candidate of change—and, perhaps, hope.
Polls show that voters care about jobs and the economy, first and foremost. Perry can point to his record as Texas governor, one of the few states with a record of job creation during the recession. Whether he’s responsible for that record is a debatable point, but politically, it is a clear winner. Second on the list is concern over government spending, and Perry’s book is a virtual treatise against excessive federal spending.
Perry will have to address his views on entitlements, but his vulnerabilities on that front pale in comparison to Obama’s vulnerabilities on the economy. Only 35 percent of senior citizens approve of the president’s job performance, according to Gallup, one of his worst-performing demographic groups. With seniors so down on the president, it’s hard to see Perry’s book quote being a game-changer.
For a case study, look at two special elections that are coming up this month, one in a solidly-Democratic New York City district and one in a rural, Republican-leaning district in Nevada. In both elections, the Democratic candidates have lambasted the Republican nominees for supporting entitlement cuts and holding extreme views on the social safety net. In the decidedly liberal confines of Queens and Brooklyn, the Republican candidate has actually embraced such controversial views, and even said he opposed a bill that provided benefits to victims of 9/11.
The Democrats’ attacks haven’t resonated. Instead, dissatisfaction with Obama is so great that the Republican candidate in Nevada is poised to win in a landslide, and the Democrat is barely getting help from the national party. And in the special election race to replace former Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner in New York, polls from both sides show a close race.
If the historic 2010 midterms demonstrated anything, it was a massive pushback against Obama’s big government policies—the stimulus and health care reform in particular. Obama saw his 2008 election as a mandate for a more activist government, and his policies created a resistance that is still churning today. Grassroots insurgencies don’t happen in a vacuum. But Democrats are still grasping at polls that show that the tea party is unpopular, even though the antigovernment sentiment that fueled the movement is as powerful as ever. The White House misread the tea party movement from the start, and it seems to be misreading it to this day.
Just look at the president’s decision last Friday to suspend antismog standards, something that goes against the environmental record his administration has proudly stood for. This was a profound concession: Obama is either conceding that excessive regulation can hamper economic growth, or he’s acknowledging the political pitfalls of an activist government. And if the political pendulum has swung so much to the right that even Obama is cutting back environmental protection for the hope of economic growth, it suggests that Perry’s antigovernment views aren’t limited to cranky conservatives.
The other major asset that Perry brings to the table in a general election is immigration. The Republican nominee’s ability to connect with Hispanic voters, concentrated in battleground states like Nevada, Colorado, and Florida, is critical to winning the White House in 2012 and beyond. Perry brings a track record of Hispanic outreach in Texas, and he carried 38 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2010 against Democrat Bill White, in line with George W. Bush’s performance as governor.
More notably, while campaigning to win the conservative Republican base, he has carefully avoided the strident anti-immigration rhetoric that often characterizes the party’s loudest voices. He came out against a border fence—virtual heresy among elements of the right—and didn’t back down from his support of allowing illegal immigrants to receive in-state tuition in his state. Perry’s team is playing long ball, and it recognizes the importance of the Hispanic vote and his unique ability to win enough of them over.
Pair Perry on the presidential ticket with an up-and-coming Hispanic running mate such as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida or New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, and the Hispanic vote is squarely in play. Gallup found Obama’s approval among Hispanics down to 44 percent. If Obama can’t win over a clear majority of Hispanics, ball game’s over.
With his book, Perry opponents believe they have a gold mine of opposition research, but it hardly raises an eyebrow compared to past presidential nominees. Jimmy Carter was eager to face Ronald Reagan, who recorded commentaries arguing that Medicare would lead America down a path to socialism. Bill Clinton avoided military service, admitted to smoking pot (without inhaling), and had to deal with rumors of extramarital affairs during the 1992 campaign. Both won in landslides against presidents facing rough economic times.
With an economy this weak, and with little expectations of it improving, the Democrats would need a scorched-earth culture war campaign painting Perry as an extremist to prevent his capturing the White House, and even that might not be enough. To quote Democratic strategist James Carville: “It’s the economy, stupid.” If the economy doesn’t show signs of improving pronto, Democrats could be staring down the face of President Perry in 2013.
This article appears in the Sep. 7, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.