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.
Yet Perry clearly grasps the potential power of marrying his cultural-conservative bona fides to his state’s economic record. In his speech in New York, Perry began by noting that someone had recently told him that he was “kinda job-obsessed. I said, ‘Yup, and the numbers back it up.’ In the last few years … we’ve created more jobs than all the other 49 states combined.” He joked about how, though he was happy to be speaking in Gotham, his “personal favorite reason” to leave home was to “convince a company to move their headquarters to the State of Texas.” And also about the irony of replacing Donald Trump, the originally scheduled speaker at the dinner: “He’s known for saying, ‘You’re fired!’ ” Perry said. “We’re known for saying ‘You’re hired!’ That’s what we do in Texas!”
Telling the tale of Texas will, however, only get Perry so far. What he would need to do next is explain how it happened in a way that would set him apart from the existing GOP candidates—and this is where he runs into problems. At last week’s debate and more broadly, the solutions to the jobs dilemma being peddled by Romney, Bachmann, and Tim Pawlenty are the very epitome of same old, same old: the familiar conservative catechism of cutting taxes and reducing regulation. Which just happens to be the same formula, with a little bit of tort reform tossed in, that Perry argues has turned Texas into a teeming jobs machine.
Now, to be fair, Perry’s argument goes a wee bit further than that. He maintains that the key to job growth nationally is a radical form of federalism that would allow every state to compete with ruthless abandon for corporate investment—to compete, in other words, to out-Texas Texas. To many critics, this sounds like a recipe for an abysmal race to the bottom; they point out that the state, in addition to creating jobs, is also one of the most polluted in the country, has the highest percentage of residents without health insurance, and ranks 43rd in high-school graduation.
In the Republican primaries, none of this might matter much. Nor might some of the more out-there views Perry has expressed regarding the Constitution: In his book Fed Up! Our Fight to Save America From Washington, he contends that the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Amendments—which allow for the Feds to collect income taxes and for the direct election of U.S. senators, respectively—are both big mistakes. To many tea-partyers, in fact, these positions might look more like badges of honor than marks of shame.
And yet, despite all the factors auguring a run, Perry remains further from hurling himself into the fray than some assume. Though he has said he is now “thinking about” getting in, he has also said that his contemplations are not “too far into any type of formative thought process.” (If the way Perry talks about thinking makes you wonder about his capacity for thinking, you are not alone.) What that means, according to people close to the governor, is that Team Perry has not even started any rigorous evaluation of the elements that he would weigh in his decision—in terms of fund-raising, organization, and so on. Perry’s advisers also caution that the odds are no better, and possibly worse, than 50-50 that he will wind up in the race.
Which, if you think about it, isn’t really all that surprising. Running for president is a hellish business, even for those who have wanted desperately, achingly to be commander-in-chief since they could lace up their shoes. And that emphatically does not describe Rick Perry—a man who, unlike so many Republicans who claim to be anti-Washington but in fact would love nothing more than to call 1600 Pennsylvania home, genuinely seems to despise the place and everything it stands for.
Yet even if the governor does stay out, this moment of highly pitched pining for Perry has revealed something important. Not just that Republicans are unsatisfied with their current field but that one of the key things fueling that discontent is the absence on the part of the candidates of a set of prescriptions remotely commensurate, substantively or politically, with the scale of the jobs crisis. Of course, as distressed as this makes Republicans, it is, no doubt, a source of comfort for Obama—except that he has no big ideas on jobs, either, which is why he continues to be at risk of winding up unemployed himself.