By Elvin Lim
Rick Perry’s star is on the rise. And the reason is that he is as authentically conservative as President Barack Obama is apologetically liberal.
Already some polls are showing him edging ahead of previous frontrunner, Mitt Romney. This is not a post-announcement bounce, but a game-changer in the Republican race. This is a man who has won every one of the 10 elections he has ever ran in, because he picks his battles and possesses an impeccable sense of timing. Unlike Donald Trump or Sarah Palin, who flirt with the media because they like the attention, Perry is in it to win — and he may well.
A simple compare and contrast with Mitt Romney suggests why. Whereas Romney has to manufacture a personality, Perry breezes through with his authenticity. Romney’s gaffes embarrass him; Perry’s asides endear him to his base even more. Whereas Romney represents the country-club Republicans ascendant in the last century, Perry represents a modern conservative grass-roots movement recharged by its reconnection to its Confederate past. Romney can’t say very much about his Mormonism, but Perry is pretty aggressive about his Evangelism. Perry’s anger at Washington is real and full-blooded; Mitt Romney appears to want to just get there.
A Republican field that now reveals more shades of Perry than it does of Romney confirms this tale. If 2012 were a year for a Romney candidacy, Ron Paul would be out, and Tim Pawlenty would be in. Jon Huntsman would be on the cover of Newsweek magazine, not Michelle Backmann. Karl Rove’s opinion of Perry would be damning, not flattering. In nomination races, one rule stands out: whoever wears the Teflon wins the prize.
Put yet another way, Perry is practically everything Obama is not. Talk about a contrast. Perry went to Texas A&M, Obama to Columbia and Harvard. Perry earned a commission from the Air Force; Obama was a community organizer. Perry wants to make Washington irrelevant, Obama lives there. And you can bet that Perry’s going to be telling us that he helped create jobs in Texas, and Obama hasn’t created many for the country. The only major thing that seems to connect them is a mutual disdain for George Bush — but even there Perry appears, yet again, to be the right person, with the right attitude, at the right time.
So this leaves us with the question of whether it would be Romney or Perry who clinches the nomination. That depends on whether Romney can enact the part of political outsider better than Perry who authentically already is. Ours is unmistakably the era of outsiders. An expanded electorate since the 1970s with no patience for establishment candidates has picked Reagan and Clinton over George H. W. Bush, Bush over Gore, Obama over Hillary Clinton.
Now the only thing Perry has to do is to prove that he can raise money at least as well as Romney can, and nearly as much as Obama will. Finally, the race is on.
Elvin Lim is Associate Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com and his column on politics appears here each week.