Editor’s Note: On Thursday, January 19, CNN reported that Texas Gov. Rick Perry would drop out of the presidential race and endorse former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Back in mid-August, at the height of the GOP’s Perry-mania, Kevin Drum saw this all coming.
A few days ago I rashly said, “For the record, I don’t think Rick Perry can win the Republican nomination, and I know that he can’t beat Obama in a general election.” Unsurprisingly, a lot of people wanted to know just what made me so sure of that. So with Perry now officially in the race, I guess it’s time to explain myself.
Before I get to that, though, I have a mealymouthed caveat or three. First, if the economy is bad enough, anyone can win. And right now, the odds of the economy being bad enough are a little too close for comfort. Second, in recent years you could lose a lot of money continually underestimating the lemming-like power of the Republican Party to dive off ever-higher cliffs. Third, it’s absolutely true that you can make a pretty good case that none of the current GOP candidates can possibly win the nomination. And yet, someone will.
And there’s more. Perry is unquestionably a very good, very shrewd politician. He has access to lots of money. And he can deliver a pretty good speech. My beloved wife just finished listening to his announcement speech and told me, “He’s my favorite Republican right now.” When I grimaced, she just gave me a scary look. Scary because it’s the look that means she sees something that’s invisible to a committed partisan like me.
But enough of that. I’ve covered my ass enough. Here are the top 10 reasons why, despite all this, I think Perry is a weaker candidate than he’s being made out to be:
- Everyone looks good before they get into the race. Remember how great Tim Pawlenty was supposed to be? But just wait a few months for Perry to get beat up by his opponents, for the oppo research to kick in, for all the big profiles to start appearing, and for a gaffe or two to get some play. He’ll start to look distinctly more human then.
- He’s too Texan. Sorry. Maybe that’s fair, maybe it’s not. But even in the Republican Party, not everyone is from the South and not everyone is bowled over by a Texas drawl. Perry is, by a fair amount, more Texan than George W. Bush, and an awful lot of people are still suffering from Bush fatigue.
- He’s too mean. He’ll have a hard time pretending he’s any kind of compassionate conservative, and outside of Texas you still need a bit of that. Aside from being politically ruthless and famous for holding grudges, Perry’s the kind of guy who almost certainly executed an innocent man, never pretended to care about it, and brazenly disbanded a commission investigating it. This famously produced the following quote in a 2010 focus group: “It takes balls to execute an innocent man.” In Texas, maybe that works. In the rest of the country, not so much.
- He’s too dumb. Go ahead, call me an elitist. I’m keenly aware that Americans don’t vote for presidents based on their SAT scores, but everything I’ve read about Perry suggests that he’s a genuinely dim kind of guy. Not just incurious or too sure about his gut feelings, like George W. Bush, but simply not bright enough to handle the demands of the Oval Office. Americans might not care if their presidents are geniuses, but there’s a limit to how doltish they can be too.
- He’s too smarmy. He might be fine one-on-one, but on a national stage Perry looks like a tent revival preacher or a used car salesman. Again: This might play okay in Texas and a few other places, but it will wear thin quickly in most of the country.
- He’s too overtly religious. Even Bush soft pedaled his religious side for the masses during his first campaign and did most of his outreach to the evangelical community quietly. Outside the Bible Belt, Perry’s fire-and-brimstone act is going to be hard to take.
- Policywise, he’s too radical, even for Republicans. “Social Security is a Ponzi scheme” goes over well with a certain segment of the tea party, but not with most of the country. Nor does most of the country want to get rid of Medicare and turn it over to the states. Nor do they think global warming is a hoax, and they don’t really think all that kindly of people who muse publicly about seceding from the union. Bush was able to soften his hard Texas edge with a genuine passion for education. I’m not sure Perry can do that.
- Despite conventional wisdom, about half of the GOP rank-and-file aren’t tea party sympathizers (see Question 3G here). Of the half who are, Perry is going to have to compete with Michele Bachmann and possibly with Sarah Palin. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, has the noncrazy half of the party almost to himself. Huntsman isn’t going to provide him with any serious competition there, and Pawlenty is rapidly becoming a non-factor too. I think this is an extremely underappreciated dynamic right now. Yes, Republican primary voters tend to be more conservative than the party as a whole, but there are still going to be a lot of non-tea-partiers who vote, and they don’t have a lot of good choices other than Romney. What’s more, a fair number of tea partiers like Romney too (see Question 19 here). This is a pretty good base to work from.
- Perry’s campaign is going to be heavily based on the “Texas miracle.” But this looks a lot less miraculous once you put it under a microscope—and pretty soon it won’t just be churlish lefties pointing this out. You can be sure that the rest of the Republican field will be hauling out their own microscopes before long.
- Republicans want to beat Obama. They really, really want to beat Obama. Romney is still their best chance, and down deep I think they know it.
All that said, I might be wrong. But I’d still advise everyone to take Perry with a few more grains of salt than they have been. It’s easy for us urban liberals to just cynically assume that the tea partyized GOP will nominate whoever’s the dumbest, toughest, meanest, godliest sonofabitch in the field, but I’m not so sure. Perry may come out of the gate strong, but he might not wear well once the national spotlight is on him.
UPDATE: Why Rick Perry Can Win.