Rick Perry is a Master of Right-Wing Populism; But Can He Go National?

Whether Rick Perry will jump in the Republican presidential primaries is still not certain, but it looks increasingly likely, and if he does, the colorful three-term Texas governor will have to play up his experience and assure voters that he’s more than a charismatic rabble-rouser with a knack for stating extreme positions.

“I think he’s going to run,” said Mark McKinnon, the Texas-based Republican political strategist who carefully crafted the image of George W. Bush and steered his two successful presidential campaigns. “He’ll be formidable, particularly among social conservatives and the Tea Party set. I think he and Michele Bachmann will slug it out in Iowa and probably South Carolina.”

He would step into a race dominated at the moment by former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who has rankled conservatives recently by taking relatively moderate stances such as acknowledging the reality of global warming and refusing to sign an aggressive pro-life pledge, despite his opposition to abortion rights.

No one will worry about Perry’s conservative bona fides. “I am a firm believer in intelligent design as a matter of faith and intellect, and I believe it should be presented in schools alongside the theories of evolution,” he said last year. He’s also on record favoring the option for states to opt out of Social Security, and told a gathering of Evangelical Hispanics recently that Obama’s healthcare law made abortion a “U.S. foreign export.”

“He looks like a poster boy that could unite the social right and the economic right of the party,” said Bruce Buchanan, a professor of political science at the University of Texas at Austin who specializes in presidential politics. “He could catch fire.”

Perry’s path to the nomination would be comparable to that of Ronald Reagan, who many political observers wrote off as a lightweight extremist until he started racking up votes in the 1976 primaries. He conceded that fight to incumbent President Gerald Ford before capturing his party’s hearts and minds completely in 1980. Republicans still swoon at the very mention of his name.

“Many people in the field are describing Perry as Reaganesque,” said Rick Wilson, a veteran GOP consultant. “He’s got that happy warrior, big engaging personality, and all these things in the minds of Republican primary voters that say: this may be a guy we can fall in love with. This is a guy with charisma and poise, and a clear limited government philosophy.”

Wilson pointed to Perry’s claim that Texas accounts for half of the recent job growth in America as a “devastating message to Barack Obama,” and a great track record to run on, even though reporters are already picking apart his numbers.

“For me as a strategist, that is a home run for what voters are looking for right now. They want someone who can say, “I created jobs.””

Much like Bush before him, Perry will face questions about how much of Texas’ job growth–Perry calls it the “Texas miracle”–is the result of his actions, as the state constitution imparts relatively little power on the executive, dispersing responsibility to a litany of elected officials in Austin.

“Certainly, if you’re a regular working stiff in Texas, the miracle is a really a joke. His job growth record is not as good as George W. Bush’s and not any better than Ann Richards,” said Jim Hightower, the radio commentator and former Texas agriculture commissioner who was unseated by Perry in 1990.

The only thing unique about Perry’s economic record, Hightower claimed, is that “in his 10 years Texas has created more minimum wage jobs than all other states combined.”

In addition to proving he has the substance behind his rhetoric, Perry will have to find a way to continue to warm Tea Party hearts without alienating the moderates who disapprove of the movement and reject draconian cuts to social programs like the ones Perry has instituted to balance the budget in his state. Part of that may be shifting from pretentious provocateur–Perry publicly flirted with secession at a Tea Party rally in 2009–to more of a dog-whistler, as Bush successfully did with Evangelicals, slipping Biblical references into speeches that only those paying close attention would notice.

But if Perry does mean to be president, this is surely his best shot.

“He was way ahead of the Tea Party stuff. He brings to the table, right now, a set of attributes that are bound to be attractive not only to Republican voters but to party leadership. He can appeal to the very conservative grassroots, but at the same time the business community is gonna be comfortable with him,” said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Political Project at UT-Austin.

As the debt ceiling fight sends ripples through financial markets, however, roping in the business community could be a problem: In last fall’s gubernatorial contest, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson, a George W. Bush ally, challenged Perry in the primary, stacking her retinue with former presidential advisers and a large swath of big-money donors. Of course, Perry eventually won with ease.

“Perry has been systematically underestimated for the duration of his statewide career in politics,” Henson pointed out. “He’s left the political road littered with defeated opponents who underestimated him.”

And like any good conservative politician, Perry is a master of right-wing populism, turning factual errors or outrageous remarks into positives by lampooning the “elites” in the media who take notice. Right now, he’s clashing with the White House over the impending execution of Mexican national Humberto Leal — the White House wants to delay and let him get in touch with a Mexican lawyer so they can set a good precedent for Americans arrested in other countries. Perry, of course, will not consider anything resembling a sign of weakness.

“Every time the media and Perry’s opponents have seized on something and thought it would make him look ridiculous, he’s used it to strengthen his standing with the base,” Henson remarked.

But Hightower is skeptical Perry will be able to stand up to the increased scrutiny that inevitably comes with a presidential bid:

“I can’t imagine how he’s going to cope with the kind of inquiry that national media people are going to make into his ineptness.”


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