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Monday, June 20, 2011

RICK PERRY: A NEW VOICE OR BUSH REDUX?

The latest buzz in the Republican presidential nomination saga is the possible candidacy of Texas Governor Rick Perry. The speculation has occurred partially because of an apparent enthusiasm vacuum in the current GOP field of announced candidates.

 Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, while leading in all the polls is confronting resistance among both the party's social conservatives in the ranks of the "religious right", and among fiscal conservatives in the Tea Party. Current Tea Party favorites, Michelle Bachmann and Ron Paul still haven't shown strong poll numbers among the wider "Republican voters" category. (RCP Average: Romney 24%: Bachmann 6.3%: Paul 6.9%), although the "pundit consensus" is that Bachmann's numbers will "surge" after her perceived strong showing in the recent New Hampshire Republican candidate debate.

Governor Perry's attraction in a lack luster field is thus understandable. Perry has credentials which in resume' form diminish those of the other candidates. The only exception would be former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. But Gingrich had significant "style issues" involving ethics charges while Speaker and then multiple marriages. More recently his campaign staff resigned en masse in an apparent group conclusion that his chances were improbable to non-existent.

Perry has been the governor of Texas for ten years, the longest serving governor in Texas history. Prior to that he served in the Texas House of Representatives and was Texas Agriculture Commissioner. He was elected Lt. Governor in 1999 and assumed the governorship in 2000 when George Bush became President. He has since served as Chairman of the Republican Governors Association and is in line for a second term.

At a time when leadership and the ability to make tough decisions is more important than ever, this "executive experience" stands out against Romney's one term as Massachusetts Governor, Tim Pawlenty's two terms as Minnesota governor and Bachmann's one term in the Minnesota Senate and two terms in the U.S. House. In addition, Romney still wears the albatross of his Massachusetts health care program which with it's coverage mandate seems to resemble the major characteristic of ObamaCare which is much maligned among Republican conservatives. Pawlenty is currently struggling with the pundit inspired impression that he is a mild mannered technocrat not up to presidential challenges. Bachmann is more of a cheerleader than a quarterback with a library full of wacky statements that would make a successful campaign against Obama difficult if not impossible. The 76 year old Ron Paul is much admired among the hard core anti-government libertarian wing of the Republican party but remains essentially a fringe protest candidate, a kind of Dennis Kucinich of the Right. Paul and Bachmann's influence in the race is more likely to be to pull the more moderate and more electable candidates to the right during the primary battle.

Rick Perry fits the bill as both a social and fiscal conservative already, and one who has serious political credentials. He is opposed to single sex marriage and is pro-life. He supports tough law enforcement, including the death penalty. He questions global warming, as would be expected from a governor of a state economically dependent on the production of fossil fuels. He has overseen new tort reform legislation which makes frivolous medical malpractice lawsuits less likely and physician’s malpractice insurance premiums much less expensive. He has also supported significant health and education initiatives while remaining a fiscal conservative supporting Texas’s current no state income tax status and low property taxes. The result has been a business friendly climate in Texas for years and one that has allowed Texas to weather the recession storm much better than other states. By one estimate 48% of the nation’s job creation since 2009 has occurred in Texas.

All these attributes led to his invitation to speak at the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans on June 18th. His speech consisted of straight forward conservative fundamentals and its enthusiastic reception may have significantly changed the Republican nomination process.

However, it remains to be seen how Republican primary voters will evaluate the relative importance of ideological purity and the ability of a candidate to defeat Obama in a national election in which independents and moderates play a crucial role. Would moderate and independent voters in Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania, the so called “battle ground states” see Perry as the reincarnation of George Bush? In politics perception is often reality. There is no question that in 2008 this worked both in favor of Obama and against McCain. Obama was perceived as having a level of competence based on his education, intelligence, and speaking ability that wasn’t supported by his thin resume’. McCain was partially the victim of “Bush fatigue” among voters who “perceived” little difference in both his foreign policy and domestic policies to those of the former president.

Certainly those on the political Left will not be ready for another conservative Texas governor and Perry could expect a lot of hostile comparisons. The “Bush swagger” is not apparent but the drawl and the conservative philosophy remains. Perry, like Bush, is from the plains of west Texas; Bush from Midland, Perry from Paint Creek. Both appeal to religious conservatives; Perry has declared a National Day of Prayer and invited all the country’s governors to attend. He is outspoken in his opposition to gay marriage, abortion, and fetal stem cell research.

Perry however, can seek to put some space between himself and Bush in terms of their personal background. While Bush was raised in west Texas, he was the heir to a dynasty of eastern establishment Republicans. Unlike Bush’s reputation for youthful excesses Perry was an Eagle Scout as was his son. Bush went on to Yale and Harvard, Perry graduated from Texas A&M with a degree in animal science. Bush flirted with military service in the Texas Air National Guard but dropped out. Perry served six years on active duty in the Air Force flying C-130 aircraft. Still Perry was Bush’s Lt. Governor and their association politically, culturally, and ideologically won’t be ignored by both their critics.

In terms of the nomination battle, a Perry candidacy would probably initiate a higher level of enthusiasm among likely Republican voters as a whole. As a fiscal and social conservative with better credentials, he would likely most take support away from Bachmann and Paul and finally and thankfully, remove Palin from the political scene. He would be expected to do better in religiously conservative Iowa than in fiscally conservative New Hampshire where Romney has significant regional loyalty. He has yet to speak about foreign policy, however, barring some major gaffe, Perry would be a formidable candidate in the nomination process. These early primary states, while not predictive of the nominee usually have the ability to reduce the field by affecting low performers ability to raise money. Thus Perry could be a major player whether he ultimately prevails or not.

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