Rick Perry entered the Republican primaries with Texas-size swagger and prairie-shaking thunder from the right. After just a few days of pyrotechnics, Karl Rove, minister of the dark arts for the last Texas president, reproved Perry as "un-presidential."
Perry's spin doctors, and a brace of commentators, promptly put the criticism down to personal animus. Clearly Rove has reasons to dislike the governor who succeeded George W. Bush, and who by 2007 was assailing Bush's record in Austin, and then in 2011 his signature domestic achievement in the White House, "No Child Left Behind."
But Rove has a reason that goes beyond bad blood.
Perry has fast become a phenomenon, a magnet for media coverage — and according to a Rasmussen poll, he's the instant front-runner, leading Mitt Romney nationally 29 percent to 18 percent. And the 13 percent for Michele Bachmann surely see Perry, not Romney, as the second choice. (Rasmussen, whose numbers tend to have a partisan tilt, does have a Fox-like feel for Republican voters.) So for Rove, Perry is "un-presidential" precisely because he looks like a probable nominee — and it is highly improbable he could win the presidency. Rove has plenty of company in this assessment; the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal pointedly doubts that Perry "will sell in the suburbs of Ohio, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, where the election is likely to be decided."
To be fair, Rove himself seeded the ground for the rancid tea harvest that fuels Perry's appeal. In 2004, Rove aided and abetted the smearing of John Kerry, a genuine war hero in Vietnam, to prop up Bush, who wasn't exactly diligent about his stateside National Guard duty. There is a straight line between the Swiftboat lies and Perry's smarmy statements that he can't say whether Barack Obama loves America but does see the president as "the greatest threat" to this country. Huh? How about terrorism?
For Rove, Perry is "un-presidential" precisely because he looks like a probable nominee — and it is highly improbable he could win the presidency. Again and again, Rove has also advanced Republican economics, really low politics in disguise, which blames spending for economic stagnation, and flacks policies that would ruin the recovery in order to retake the White House. But Perry ventured a final step off the cliff of reason into the valley of paranoia when he arraigned Federal Reserve Chairmen Ben Bernanke, a Bush appointee, as "treasonous" for leveraging monetary policy to encourage growth and jobs. That leveraging is not a liberal idea; it is the entirely sensible prescription of the conservative icon and Nobel Prize economist Milton Friedman. Perry's comment was incendiary, literally McCarthy-esque, and it's this specific offense that drew Rove's fire.
He too may welcome stagnation or recession in 2012, but he understands the dangers of being blatant about it — not least, the unhappy reaction to Perry's anti-Fed broadside from a business community that nourishes Rove's own Republican money machine. Rove has been entirely happy to exploit the politics of paranoia, but he's not ready to see the GOP captured by it, with the inmates running the asylum and alienating voters who aren't on the true-believing fringe.
That's the danger Bachmann, another Rove target, represented until Perry stomped onto the campaign trail as bull elephant in boots. In a few days, he's been willing to mount almost any charge — not only against longtime far-right demons like the Fed, but against the latest fantasy plots that agitate extremists — notably, climate change. Not content with mere denial, Perry conjured up another conspiracy: "Scientists have manipulated data so they will have dollars rolling into their projects."
Romney has been characterized as "weird"; in fact, he's awkward and inauthentic. It's Perry who's weird. Never in the history of presidential politics has any serious candidate so swiftly impressed so strange a presence on the race. There's a new oddity every day. The latest: Evolution "is a theory that's out there — it's got some gaps in it" — and so, he says, public schools in Texas teach both evolution and creationist fables. Perry then refused to answer a question about "why he doesn't believe in science."
All this is effective — not with the Republican establishment, not with the mainstream — but with the shrunken universe of primary voters who in their fervor threw away control of the Senate by nominating candidates like Christine (I-am-not-a-witch) O'Donnell.
The Perry appeal is intense, but limited. He has no coherent economic plan; rather he boasts about his record as a job creator in Texas. It turns out that between 2007 and 2010, the state lost 178,000 private sector jobs; the new jobs came in the public sector, 125,000 of them — fueled by the federal stimulus he denounced as he raked the money in.
His partisans claim an advantage for him as the only Southerner in the race, but his brand won't appeal in the changing South, in places like Virginia and North Carolina, where a PPP poll shows him running 8 points behind Obama. And then there's Florida, where Perry's radical notion that Social Security and Medicare are unconstitutional — and states should be able to opt out — would make him radically unacceptable to senior citizens. He could also pose as a Westerner. But in Colorado, which withstood the GOP tide of 2010 by choosing both a Democratic senator and a Democratic governor, Perry loses to Obama by 13 points.
Perry, who's previously spoken of Texas seceding from the Union and who's proposed repealing the 16th and 17th Amendments — the income tax and the popular election of senators — could have general election trouble even in marginally red states. While people may feel the country is on the wrong track, they won't rally to someone who will take America completely off the rails. So Rove's right: Perry's wrong for the GOP.
This leads establishment Republicans to gravitate grudgingly toward Romney, who's now the former front-runner because he has employed the classic and historically failed approach of just trying to hold on to a lead. He's "tortoise-like," one of his aides rationalized to Politico. A strategist who has worked with Romney added that for him to prevail, "Perry needs to make some mistakes." That's a recipe for spending tens of millions of dollars on a run-up to a withdrawal speech.
Rove's verdict on Perry and Romney's persistent lack of resonance with the GOP faithful are eliciting calls to look beyond both of them — and certainly beyond Bachmann. Rove himself has suggested that the field is not settled. Maybe the GOP could take up Romney's malaprop idea that corporations are people — and just remove the middle man by nominating News Corp.
Right now in a painful economic time, the kind that has always stirred paranoia in America, Rick Perry is an updated replay of Huey Long in the 1930s, a William Jennings Bryan in reverse. In Bryan's words, it is Perry who would "press-down upon the brow of labor [a] crown of thorns." The Texan may exploit the flame of anger to win the primaries, only to see himself and his party consumed in November.
For Rove, who already sees that reality, I offer only half a defense; in 2012, Republicans may reap the whirlwind of what he's sowed in the past decade. But he is smart — and he obviously does worry that it would be stupid for the GOP to settle on Perry. A secessionist is not the right candidate to run against the first African-American president.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Watch out, China — America is working on dogfighting drones
- How liberals are unwittingly paving the way for the legalization of adult incest
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- How the Simpsons/Family Guy crossover revealed the worst of both shows
- Why America won't have enough money to battle ISIS
- The troubling persistence of eugenicist thought in modern America
- Why the Chinese military is only a paper dragon
- 6 things the happiest families all have in common
- Libertarianism's terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea
Subscribe to the Week