The election is still thirteen months away, but in certain coastal circles, the quadrennial wailing has erupted right on schedule: “If that man gets in the White House, I’m moving out of the country!” This time that man is Rick Perry, who might have been computer-generated to check every box in a shrill liberal fund-raising letter: a gun-toting, Bible-thumping, anti-government death-penalty absolutist from Texas. And this time the liberals’ panic is not entirely over-the-top. Perry isn’t a novelty nut job like Michele Bachmann. He’s the real deal. It’s not implausible he could win his party’s nomination and prevail in enough swing-state nail-biters to take the presidency. He could do so because the times and the politician are in alignment. A desperate and angry country is facing the specter of a double-dip recession with zero prospects of relief from a defunct Washington. Perry is the only viable declared candidate—as measured by organizing savvy, fund-raising prowess, poll numbers, and take-no-prisoners gubernatorial résumé—hawking an unambiguous alternative to the failed status quo.
The important thing to remember about Perry is that he’s anathema to Mitt Romney, Karl Rove, and many conservative pundits no less than to liberals. His swift rise does not just reflect his enthusiasts’ detestation of Barack Obama. Perry’s constituency rejects the entire bipartisan Establishment of which Obama is merely the latest and shiniest product. For two decades, the elites in both parties and in the Beltway media-political combine have venerated a vanilla centrism, from Bush 41’s “thousand points of light” to Clinton’s triangulation to Bush 43’s “compassionate conservatism.” They’ve endorsed every useless bipartisan commission and every hapless bipartisan congressional “Gang of Six” (or Twelve, or Twenty, not to mention the new too-big-not-to-fail budget supercommittee). Perry, by contrast, is a proud and unabashed partisan. If he’s talking about gangs, chances are they’re chain gangs, not dithering conclaves of legislators. He doesn’t aspire to be the adult in the room, as Obama does, but the bull in the china shop of received opinion. Despite all the flak from political gatekeepers of most persuasions, he didn’t back down from calling Social Security “a Ponzi scheme” and “a monstrous lie” in his first national debate. Indeed, he touched the third rail of American politics and lived. Gallup found that his stand didn’t hurt him a whit among GOP voters. Though most commentators across the spectrum awarded the night to Romney, a CNN survey found that more Republicans by far came away feeling that Perry had the better chance of beating Obama. They, unlike Washington’s political aristocracy, may actually know what’s going on in America.
Whether Perry snares the big prize or not, he could prove a shock to the system tantamount to Barry Goldwater in 1964—and just as misestimated now as Goldwater was then. In Before the Storm, Rick Perlstein’s landmark 2001 book on the origins and triumph of the conservative insurgency, we’re reminded of how Washington’s wise men thought Goldwater’s landslide defeat signaled the decisive end to his movement. James Reston, the New York Times’ reigning sage, spoke for them all when he declared that Goldwater had “wrecked his party for a long time to come and is not even likely to control the wreckage.” But as Perlstein points out, “After the off-year elections a mere two years later, conservatives so dominated Congress that Lyndon Johnson couldn’t even get up a majority to appropriate money for rodent control in the slums.” The premature obituaries for the right, in Perlstein’s judgment, constituted “one of the most dramatic failures of collective discernment in the history of American journalism.” What those journalists in the D.C. bubble failed to discern was that the bipartisan national consensus over the central role of government—which had held firm through the Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations—was kaput. The Reagan revolution was in the wings.
Should Perry get the GOP nomination, he could capsize like Goldwater on Election Day. That’s the universal prediction of today’s Restons. But maybe he won’t. Perry would have a cratered economy to exploit, unlike Goldwater, who ran in a boom time when unemployment was under 6 percent and the GDP was up 5.8 percent from the previous year. Whatever Perry’s 2012 electoral fate, his lightning ascent is final proof, if any further is needed in the day of the tea-party GOP, that a bipartisan consensus in America is as unachievable now as it was after 1964.
This is the harsh reality Obama has been way too slow to recognize. But in his post–Labor Day “Pass this jobs plan!” speech before Congress, the lip service he characteristically paid to both Republican and Democratic ideas gave way to an unmistakable preference for Democratic ideas. Soon to come were his “Buffett rule” for addressing the inequities of the Bush tax cuts and a threat to veto any budget without new tax revenues to go with spending cuts. When he tied it all up in a Rose Garden mini-tantrum pushing back against the usual cries of “class warfare,” it was enough to give one hope. No, not 2008 fired-up hope, but at least the trace memory of it. Should Obama not cave—always a big if with this president—he might have a serious shot at overcoming the huge burdens of a dark national mood and flatlined economy to win reelection.