At a time when the Republican field was limited to Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Michelle Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, and Gary Johnson (Newt Gingrich and Jon Huntsman still had not announced), it looked as if the Republican nomination would be wide open for a man like Rick Perry.
Perry had everything going for him. He was the highly successful governor of the State of Texas where he presided over an economy that was the source of nearly as many new jobs as all of the other forty-nine states combined. He came across as a tough, no nonsense, straight-from-the-shoulder kind of guy who commanded the respect of friends and foes alike. He was a social and fiscal conservative with strong Christian values and a belief in hard work, perseverance, and personal responsibility.
Unlike Mitt Romney, and unlike his fellow Texans, the Bushes, he was not an elitist. He was a man of humble beginnings who grew up on a West Texas cotton farm. He could relate to the “common man.”
He demonstrated a firm belief in limited government and a strong record of spending restraint in state government. Most important of all, as the governor of one of our two top energy-producing states, he had a firm grasp of energy issues; energy independence would be at the top of his policy agenda.
He was a strong, decisive leader and an experienced chief executive; he was the perfect man for the job. As the BBC has suggested, “If there was a factory producing Republican presidential candidates to order, it would probably have conveyor belts full of Rick Perry prototypes. The Texas governor ticks many of the boxes on the party’s wish list.”
Finally, after many months of testing the waters, Perry had an excellent launch in a speech in South Carolina. Stressing the need for change, he insisted that the required change would not come from Washington. Instead, he said, “It will come from the windswept prairies of middle America; the farms and factories across this great land; the hearts and minds of God-fearing Americans… We do not have to accept our current circumstances. We will change them. We’re Americans. That’s what we do. We roll up our sleeves, we get to work, we make things better.”
It may have been the high point of Perry’s campaign because, from that day forward, it has been all downhill for him. Neither he nor his handlers appear to understand exactly who and what he is. Watching the Perry campaign unfold from a distance, one couldn’t help but wonder if he was making his own strategic campaign decisions, or if he had somehow managed to hire the most incompetent team of handlers and advisors he could find.
In his second debate we learned that he supported the Texas law which gives in-state tuition breaks to the children of illegal aliens, a taxpayer-supported gift worth approximately $80,000 that is not available to citizens in any state other than Texas border states. When confronted by moderators and the other candidates he was clearly unprepared to address the issue. Instead, he maintained that those who oppose that policy are somehow “lacking in heart.” It was a blow that knocked much of the wind out of his conservative supporters.
But his greatest error, perhaps a fatal one, has been his approach to Mitt Romney. Inexplicably, someone must have convinced him that, since Romney was leading in every national poll, the only way he could win the GOP nomination was by tearing down or eliminating him. But that was a complete miscalculation. He and his advisors seem not to understand that, as a bona fide conservative, the segment of the Republican Party available to him is in the range of 75-80% of likely Republican voters. While the moderate wing of the party, those most likely to support a Romney candidacy, represents only of 20-25% of the party… or less.
In other words, the attack on Romney was totally unnecessary, totally counterproductive. Since Romney was dealing with a much smaller universe, all Perry had to do was to make himself more appealing to conservatives than Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Michelle Bachmann, or Rick Santorum. That was Perry’s path to the White House and he totally ignored it. Instead of plotting a course to the GOP nomination by capitalizing only on his own strong points… dealing with Romney as a competitor of little consequence whom he was certain to defeat… he veered sharply from his course to go into all-out attack mode.
His performance in the most recent debates, especially the Las Vegas debate, was absolutely shameful. Standing immediately to Romney’s left, he attacked Romney for having hired an illegal alien to do his lawn work at his Massachusetts home. Seeing Romney’s reaction, it was clear that he was just as shocked to hear the allegation as the rest of us were to hear it. Romney responded by saying, “Rick, I have never hired an illegal alien in my life.”
Romney readily admitted that the lawn care contractor he hired in Massachusetts was found to have one or more illegal aliens in their employ. When he learned of it he took steps to have the contractor dismiss all illegals who might work on his property. And when the contractor either refused or failed to do so, Romney cancelled his contract.
But the damage was already done. The unnecessary and unfounded charge resulted in a shouting match between Perry and Romney that was an embarrassment, not only to the other candidates, but to conservatives and Republicans generally.
After a meteoric rise to the top of the polls, Perry’s stock among conservatives has fallen just as quickly and he now finds himself struggling to maintain his support in double digits.
And finally, in a recent speech in New Hampshire, Perry appeared to be unusually “affable” in his remarks, causing many who saw the performance to suggest that he may have had a bit too much to drink.
However, the New Hampshire Republican who organized the event, Jennifer Horn, later called a press conference to defend Perry’s conduct. She told CNN that there was nothing about Perry’s conduct, on stage or off, “to suggest he was under the influence.”
Another New Hampshire Republican, Kevin Smith, who invited Perry to speak at the dinner, told a reporter for The Hill that Perry drank “only water” while there. Smith described Perry as being “loose and passionate.”
Whatever the truth of the matter, it seems clear that Rick Perry possesses a number of unattractive characteristics to that are just now coming to the fore. Nevertheless, whether we know enough about him to make firm judgments, or not, it is clear that not much of what he has done since entering the race for the Republican nomination has been beneficial to his cause. His unrepentant position on in-state tuition for illegal aliens in Texas and his less than stellar performance in the debates… especially his unnecessary and counterproductive attack on Mitt Romney… have caused him to lose much of his early support among conservatives. And with Newt Gingrich making major strides in the race, it is not likely that he will be able to recover.
So what would cause a man of such exceptional talent and experience, with the ability to hire the most capable strategists in the business, to self-destruct so quickly in his quest for the presidency of the United States? How could such a man not know how to conduct himself in a debate with other Republicans?
His performance so far brings to mind the sort of personal attacks that are typical of what one might expect from a Democratic candidate, not from a Republican. While Republicans may differ sharply on the issues, it is rare for them to make cheap personal attacks on their opponents… Republican or Democrat. It is one of the principal characteristics that distinguish Republicans from liberals and Democrats.
Understanding that Perry was a lifelong registered Democrat until 1989, we might be excused for concluding that, while it may be possible to take the man out of the Democrat Party, it may not be possible to take the Democrat out of the man.