‘Electability is the fool’s gold of politics,” insists David Carney, Rick Perry’s chief strategist.
That’s a foolish thing to say. Politics is about winning unless you’re Ron Paul, who runs for president merely to showcase his views. And Carney’s statement reveals that Team Perry is worried about the “electability” argument, with good reason. Perry’s chief rival, Mitt Romney, is pushing that point hard, and many Republican insiders are buying it.
In endorsing Romney, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty called him the “most capable, most electable” candidate left in the race. GOP strategist Alex Castellanos dismisses Perry: “The suburbs won’t put Elmer Gantry in the Oval Office.”
But that judgment is not shared by the Republican rank and file. Perry leads Romney by an average of 12 points among GOP voters, and in the latest CNN poll, 42 percent said Perry had the best chance of beating President Obama, while only 26 percent picked Romney.
So who’s right, the pros or the amateurs? Would Perry be Barry Goldwater, “Mr. Conservative,” who lost badly to Lyndon Johnson in 1964? Or Ronald Reagan, another conservative icon, who trounced Jimmy Carter 16 years later?
The case against Perry starts from a simple premise: He is too conservative, particularly for the moderate suburbanites who often determine elections. As Mike Murphy, a veteran Republican consultant, told The New York Times: “It is hard to see how a base-oriented Texas governor is going to be what swing states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Colorado are looking for — especially in a time where demographics are moving in a Democratic direction and moderate/independent white voters are so key to a winning GOP coalition.”
Perry’s problem is compounded by his own words, especially on Social Security, which he has labeled a “failure” and a “monstrous lie.” Romney clearly sees this issue as his rival’s main weakness and told radio host Sean Hannity, “If we nominate someone who the Democrats could correctly characterize as being against Social Security, we will be obliterated as a party.”
No first-time candidate knows what it’s like to run for president. The scrutiny will be far more intense than anything Perry has ever felt before. Every news organization in the country has teams of investigators digging into his past statements and actions. So do his Republican opponents. And explaining that past on a national stage can get pretty uncomfortable.
One example: Perry’s executive order mandating that teenage Texas girls be vaccinated against human papillomavirus, which can cause cervical cancer. In this week’s debate in Florida, Michele Bachmann hammered Perry on that issue, saying it was a violation of parental rights and a sellout to the drug company that made the vaccine and contributed to the governor’s campaign.
Perry handled the charge badly, boasting (with a slight smirk) that he had raised $30 million in campaign cash. The drug company had contributed only $5,000, and he was “offended” by the suggestion that he could be bought for such a puny sum. In Texas, he almost seemed to be saying, the bribes are a lot bigger than that.
Which brings up the whole Texas thing. Cowboys have a mixed image in American mythology. They can be rugged individualists (see the Marlboro Man), but also reckless gunslingers (see George W. Bush). Will Perry reassure people or frighten them?
Still, Perry brings a lot of strengths to the race. We like electing governors, and the reasons were clearly visible during recent debates. Perry (and the other governors) could talk about their executive experience, about decisions made and crises confronted. The legislators could talk only about speeches made and votes confronted.
In addition, we want presidents who are rooted outside of Washington, and while Perry can overdo the Texas references, they can also be a big plus. Every Republican president elected in the last half-century has come from either California or Texas, and a Texan has occupied the White House for 17 of the last 48 years.
Perry is a more dynamic figure than Romney; he fills the screen in ways his rival never does. (The only Republican who can match Perry’s TV presence is a non-candidate, Sarah Palin.) And he has a secret weapon: his ability to attract Latino votes. In running for re-election in 2010, Perry (who is more moderate on immigration than his rivals) won 38 percent of that group, while John McCain won 31 percent in 2008 (and only 19 percent among voters under 30).
We don’t know yet whether Perry is a Goldwater or a Reagan. We do know it would be foolish to write him off too quickly.
Email Steve and Cokie Roberts at firstname.lastname@example.org.