Texas is the gift that keeps on taking. George W. Bush, the previous governor of the Lone Star State, destroyed millions of jobs when his reckless policies as president led to the financial crisis of 2008. Now another Texas governor saddled up for a ride to the Oval Office derides Social Security as a "Ponzi scheme" and "a monstrous lie" — and presumably proposes to destroy the critical program, too.
Indeed, Texas Gov. Rick Perry was pugnacious, or as he proudly affirmed, "provocative," in his national debut as the GOP presidential front-runner on the stage of the Reagan Library Wednesday night. But the location didn't guarantee likeness. What Perry revealed there is that he's no Ronald Reagan.
At an indelibly memorable and decisive moment in Reagan's 1980 debate with Jimmy Carter, the incumbent Democrat played what he assumed was his trump card against his Republican challenger. Reagan was guilty of "campaigning around this nation against Medicare." Americans watched Reagan smile as Carter grimly lashed his record, and then with a rueful shake of his head delivered one of the most famous lines in political history: "There you go again." The Carter charge was true, but Reagan deftly sloughed it off, explaining that he had actually favored another piece of legislation that would have been "better for seniors." The Gipper offered reassurance, on this and nuclear weapons and arms control, and mainstream voters decided it would be safe to elect him president — which they soon did in a landslide.
Rick Perry has none of Reagan's grace, none of his disarming manner, none of his pragmatism.
Faced with a similar question about Social Security, Perry disdained the soothing approach of the man whose name punctuated the red backdrop behind his podium. Instead, he doubled down on the Social Security-bashing of his awkwardly timed book, Fed Up, published less than a year ago, when he assumed he wouldn't be a presidential candidate. Now he is, and surprisingly, he's still offering up the most full-throated assault on the most popular government program ever heard from any serious aspirant for the White House.
Before he announced, Perry wasn't compared to Reagan, but a different Republican president: He was criticized for being too Texas, too much like George W. Bush. The country just wasn't ready for that again. But the Bush of 2000 was, he constantly said, a "compassionate conservative." He sounded reasonable; he was reassuring. Perry comes across, in Wednesday's debate and elsewhere, as a passionate radical, unmodulated and uncompromising — no Reagan, and no Bush either.
The former front-runner, the hitherto coasting Mitt Romney, pounced. He personified the old wish that "mine enemy might write a book" as he assailed Perry for his book's claim that Social Security is "a failure." Romney praised the program and promised "to keep it working… we've got to do that as a party."
The barely disguised argument that Perry's dancing on the political third rail makes him unelectable came from a rival who until now has never been a notable defender of Social Security. It was opportunistic, but opportunism defines Romney's candidacy and his character. He is the oh-so-slightly moderate true-blue conservative who also frantically hearts the Tea Party.
His grab for Social Security was convenient; at the least, analysts said afterward, Romney now has an issue. He's been out there calling Perry a career politician, which rings hollow from a man who has tried to be one since 1993. Perry might have replied: "Mitt, I'm not sure we want to let you lose for us in 2012." Electability can cut both ways. And in any case, Romney's newfound attack is anything but certain to doom Perry in a tea-maddened party, which last year doomed its chances of controlling the Senate by enthusiastically nominating fringe fanatics.
That's why Romney feels he has to chime in on the fringe chorus. Thus his new jobs plan either has nothing to do with jobs — unless abolishing the estate tax means more butlers hired by billionaires — or could turn downturns into depressions by constitutionally prohibiting countercyclical fiscal policy. Romney's 59 proposals on jobs are mostly a far-right wish list from someone whose fondest wish is to get a job as president at any price.
Romney seconded — or thirded — the demand for the firing of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, although in less purple terms than Perry's smear of Bernanke as "treasonous." In Perry's world, Bernanke, a Republican and originally a Bush appointee, has committed the cardinal offense of threatening to frustrate the Republican strategy of running and winning by ruining the economy.
To get the nomination, Romney apparently will say anything he needs to. One of his friends assured me he doesn't really mean that much of it — that he'd be a sensible, mainstream president — which is exactly the premonition and suspicion of the alienated Tea Party-types who now dominate the Republican primaries. They just worry that Romney isn't real. And this time they're not just far-right, but right.
Perry, on the other hand, will say anything he believes, no matter how crazy. For example, the scientific consensus on climate change can be ignored because, after all, "Galileo got outvoted for a spell." (Maybe Perry still thinks the sun goes around the Earth; after all, the Bible tells us so.)
So the former front-runner is inauthentic — and the present front-runner is untrammeled. Perry marches to the strident beat of his own drum — and Romney tries to march to the beat of every drum. No wonder he looks awkward. The rest of the field is far behind — almost certainly, already also-rans. Michele Bachmann's straw poll win is gone with the Perry wind. Jon Huntsman is a press favorite — I kind of like him — which is no recommendation for his viability inside the GOP.
It's a two-way race then, and Romney's left to hope that Perry brings himself down by what he says now, or what he's written before; perhaps Republicans will decide that he can't beat Barack Obama and so they'll settle for the contrived conservative. But the general election numbers, even if they do matter to GOP voters, aren't likely to be that clear by the time the primaries peak; indeed, the ABC/Washington Post poll now shows Perry ahead of the president by one point, and Romney ahead by four. A three-point difference won't make a nominee.
Perry has none of Reagan's grace, none of his disarming manner, none of his pragmatism. I share Karl Rove's assessment that in the end, with the fall electorate, Perry could prove to be simply unelectable. More than that: Romney's not wrong that in crucial battleground states, seniors who powered the 2010 GOP victories would flee the Social Security-despising Perry in 2012.
But very probably, that won't be so in the primaries. Rick Perry remains the odds-on favorite to win the nomination in Tampa next summer. But the odds are that he can't win Florida — or the presidency — next fall.