Given the state of the Republican presidential-nominating contest, in which the party faithful’s interest in those on the field is exceeded vastly by their yearning for those hovering on the sidelines, last Tuesday was a fine day—or should I say, an even finer day than usual—to be in New York City. For if you happened to be here (as I was), you could have witnessed (as I did) appearances by two of the most enticing prospective GOP entrants: Jon Huntsman and Rick Perry. The events were different in ways too numerous to list, but what they had in common is that both were brimming with political flyspeckers, all laboring to discern the intentions of the honored out-of-towners.
The former Utah governor and ambassador to China made it easy: Huntsman declared that he would announce his candidacy officially on June 21. The current Texas governor, by contrast, kept his cards facedown—and, truth be told, how he decides to play them might well prove more consequential. The longest-serving governor in the country and in his state’s history, Perry is a figure with no small degree of political heft, not least because of his darling status among both tea-party populists and social conservatives.
But Perry’s presidential pitch, should he choose to make one, will revolve around more than God, gays, guns, and the Tenth Amendment. It will center on jobs, with his record in Texas—which has led the nation by a wide margin in creating them during the downturn, along the way becoming home to more Fortune 500 companies than all but two other states—as his proof point. And while the story in Texas is more complicated than Perry suggests, his economic appeal throws into relief a glaring conundrum of the 2012 race so far. At a time when the unemployment crisis is at once a human calamity and President Obama’s greatest area of political vulnerability, the extant crop of Republican hopefuls have presented not a single new or bold idea on how solve it. This failure is either puzzling or predictable, depending on your point of view. But what’s indisputable is that it has left a yawning void for Perry—or someone else—to fill.
That Perry, if he runs, would immediately assume the mantle of the most colorful male non-lunatic in the race was evident the other night at the Grand Hyatt, where he addressed a ballroom packed with attendees of the New York County Republican Party’s annual Lincoln Day dinner. Critics in Texas like to call him Governor Good Hair, and indeed, his hair is good—maybe even, perish the thought, as good as Mitt Romney’s. His vocal inflections carry loud echoes of George W. Bush, but his delivery is more animated (and even antic) than Dubya’s ever was. Perry’s ability to chop and serve raw red meat is on a par with Pat La Frieda’s. Speaking of his home state, he allowed, “There’s a few unhappy people there.” A well-timed beat. “Generally, we refer to them as liberals.”
When Perry finished, he was rewarded with thunderous applause—the kind of thing he has been hearing a lot of lately from audiences on the right. In talk-radio-land, the chief cheerleader has been Rush Limbaugh, who recently devoted twenty solid minutes of his daily bloviation to begging Perry to run. (Glenn Beck, for his part, has exhibited an even greater, if more nauseating, degree of ardor, blurting out last year, “Rick, I think you and I could French-kiss right now.”) In California, a Republican state assemblyman has ginned up a formal Draft Perry movement.
All these blandishments have had an effect on Perry, who, after months of disclaiming any interest in a White House bid, is now openly flirting with the idea and stoking it in the press, telling the Texas Tribune last week, “People would like to have some other options in the race, obviously.”
The natural space for Perry is in the ultraright, anti-Establishment bracket in the contest, where the top seed, after last week’s debate, is likely to be occupied by Michele Bachmann. This year, Perry enacted what he deemed “emergency legislation” requiring any woman seeking an abortion to have a sonogram first, and her doctor to tell her “the size of her fetus’ limbs and organs, even if she does not want to know.” He was a strong supporter of the Texas anti-sodomy law that was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2003. His devotion to guns is such that back home he enjoys packing “a Ruger .380 with laser sights and loaded with hollow-point bullets,” as he has boasted. And then, of course, there was the suggestion that made him a tea-party hero: that if Washington potentates continued to “thumb their nose at the American people,” Texas might have no choice but to secede from the Union.