Rick Perry fell on his face shortly after entering the Republican primary race. But his main problem is not with the party Establishment. It’s with the conservative base, most likely stemming from his defense of a Texas program to provide in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants. He’s been getting crushed among tea party conservatives, with only half as much support as even Mitt Romney. A poll last week found that only 59 percent of Republicans identified Perry as having conservative beliefs, essentially identical to the proportion (58 percent) who said the same of Romney. And so Perry has set out to demonstrate that he is well and truly a nutter.
The plan has entailed multiple steps. He went hunting with Steve King, the Iowa Representative and unofficial leader of the party’s large and growing monster-raving-loony caucus. (You can find a partial sample of King’s fever dreams here and here.) The trip was a two-fer, establishing Perry’s cultural connection to the pro-gun base — something non-hunter Romney can’t match — and courting an influential right-winger.
Perry also met with Donald Trump and used the wink-and-nod formulation so many of the Party’s leaders have employed about the question of whether Barack Obama is an American citizen. This was also a deliberate choice. "It's a good issue to keep alive. It's fun to poke at him," Perry explained to John Harwood.
Perry has also seized upon the flat tax, an issue that helps him in two ways. Republican voters like the populist promise that he will sweep away loopholes and allow them a simple way to file their taxes on a postcard, which was the most popular element of the notion when Steve Forbes was pitching it in the nineties. In reality, Perry’s promise is pure bunk. His actual plan is to keep the current tax code in place, and give taxpayers the choice of instead paying a 20 percent rate with fewer deductions. He doesn’t get rid of any tax deductions. All he does is offer a tax break for richer people — most taxpayers are already below a 20 percent income tax rate — and offer people a chance to calculate their taxes twice, under both systems, to see which gives them a better deal.
The flat tax also offers Perry a chance to drive a wedge between Romney and a large chunk of the Republican money class. This is an unexplored and under-appreciated problem for the front-runner. Romney is a rich businessman, and his wealth creates a vulnerability in a potential matchup with President Obama, who will no doubt paint him as looking out for the interests of his fellow richies. In response to that vulnerability, Romney has shrewdly gone out of his way to paint himself as a defender of the middle class. He is not proposing any additional tax cuts for the rich (beyond those implemented by George W. Bush) or tax increases for the lower half of the income distribution, setting himself apart from many fellow partisans.
This has conservative elites more than a little nervous. The Wall Street Journal op-ed columnist Kimberly Strassel, who channels the GOP’s K Street wing, scolds:
Having initially fought these caricatures, Mr. Romney has since begun to exhibit all the syndrome's symptoms. He's put forth a 59-point economic plan that eliminates the capital gains tax—but only for people who earn less than $200,000 a year. He's declared, at a New Hampshire town hall (and at every other opportunity): "I'm not running for the rich people. Rich people can take care of themselves. They're doing just fine." He's developed a form of Tourette's that causes him to employ the term "middle class" in nearly every sentence.
At a town hall in Iowa Thursday, Mr. Romney took it further: "For me, one of the key criteria in looking at tax policy is to make sure that we help the people that need the help the most."
These are the sort of statements that cause conservative voters to doubt Mr. Romney's convictions. It also makes them doubt the ability of a President Romney to convince a Congress of the need for fundamental tax reform.
Perry’s embrace of the flat tax allows him to outflank Romney with the GOP money class. Romney, on account of his wealthy personal life, has to tiptoe around policies that redistribute wealth upward. Perry doesn’t have to abstain, or pretend to abstain, from waging class war. He can carry the torch of reducing the progressiveness of the tax code that the front-runner has dropped.
If Perry can make a comeback, it will take time. He has badly damaged himself with the Party’s base. His comeback strategy has to involve discrediting Romney as an acceptable conservative, then waiting for Herman Cain to self-destruct, which seems inevitable. Perry is already in the initial stages of a vicious assault upon Romney. (GOP strategist Alex Castellanos has the quote of the day: “Perry won’t just go negative. He’ll make your television bleed and beg for mercy.”) And if the base simply cannot stomach Romney, Perry will eventually be left standing.