President Perry? – Don’t Laugh. Remember Ronald Reagan and GW Bush?

by George Kennedy on August 30, 2011


President Perry – Don’t Laugh. Remember Ronald Reagan and GW Bush___Rick_Perry_by_Gage_Skidmore_3David Brooks penned an OP-ED piece – “President Rick Perry?” in the NYT on Friday, August 26, 2011 and it is intriguing reading. Brooks, a conservative, may be more supportive of this outcome of the 2012 presidential elections than many of us. I do, however, think we should take the possibility more seriously than say a president Bachmann, for example, if for no other reason than to remain vigilant regarding what is at stake for the country. Why should we take him seriously?

Image, for one thing, second, a marked shift in voter attitudes to the right since 2009, and, third, the president’s growing vulnerability within his base. It is too early to predict how the voters will respond to the president relative to the eventual Republican presidential nominee over the next 15 months – an eternity in politics. If it is Perry, as current polls suggest it might, he may self-destruct should his record as governor be subjected to more intense scrutiny. Perry polls well on electability, handling the economy, and controlling Washington spending. In fact, he is holding his own with the president in a recent Gallup poll. Bachmann we knew was a “flash in the pan”, but I think Perry, if skillfully managed, can go the distance.

Perry looks presidential to many Americans including, as Brooks notes, to “educated Republicans and less-educated ones among upscale and downscale. Most impressive, he’s winning even the Republican activists who pay the closest attention and wield disproportionate influence with primary voters.” Moreover, I believe Perry appeals to a majority of those who feel for a variety of reasons, many unstated, that one-term of the incumbent is enough. That sentiment runs the length of the political spectrum.

Perry is good looking (Clinton called him a “Good looking rascal”), charming, folksy, and gaffe-prone in a fashion similar to Reagan and Bush Jr. – gaffes of fact and substance likely to be overlooked by many voters and de-emphasized by the media for several reasons: fear of being labeled “Liberal media” by the Perry camp, Republicans and conservatives; journalists wanting to appear balanced by their corporate owners, or because Perry is a fresh face, “one of us.” Remember the price we paid under Reagan and Bush 11 for their folksy charm? Someone we could have a beer with.

The parallels between Rick Perry and two of his conservative predecessors are alarming. Republicans dislike being reminded by Noam Chomsky, (“American Decline: Causes and Consequences”) among others, that it was “Ronald Reagan’s fiscal irresponsibility that turned this country from the world’s leading creditor to the world’s leading debtor, tripling our national debt and raising threats to the economy that were rapidly escalated by George W. Bush.” Would we not experience a similar irresponsible approach to the unemployment crisis by a president Perry? A crisis that is a threat to our national economic stability. Robert Reich, Paul Krugman, and the Independent senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, remind us regularly of the threat we face should we return to the economic policies of the Bush era.

Perry projects an image more consistent with American presidential history than Obama does and that is important to many voters in the red states of the South, West, the mid-West, and the South-West. Race is still a powerful draw in this country. Conservatives and some Republican leaders not-so-subtly skirt references to the president’s mixed racial heritage by suggesting he is “different”, “not one of us”, “does not love America”, and “is not an American.”

We can expect that Perry will mangle his facts, flip-flop on big issues, and just get it wrong on subjects like Social Security and job creation, but may not be subject to the intense scrutiny I feel will be directed at the president. My view is, this next election is the president’s to win, not to lose. Brooks notes, Perry’s message is simple: “I will bring government under control” and “I will make life easier for business.” These two campaign-tested slogans interpret differently to different audiences.

To the conservatives, Perry will pursue a less-nuanced foreign policy to recapture the illusion of global dominance and American military and economic supremacy (old fashioned hegemony); less government safety net, more corporate tax breaks and a government that caters to their interests, less regulation, more offshore production, more defense spending to maintain the “defense industrial base”, and more states’ rights to define and address the concerns of the middle class: education, abortion and women’s health, workers’ rights, health care, voters’ rights and qualifications, and other quality of life issues. Stated another way, we will witness a headlong plunge into the America of the 1950s: pre-Civil Rights, pre-Voters’ Rights, pre-Women’s Rights, pre-EPA, pre-consumer protections, etc.

Two generations alive today (Generation-X – 1964 and Generation-Y – 1990) did not experience the rigidities, restrictions and social conventions that defined this period in our history. I did! The 50s were halcyon days to conservatives in both parties and a president Perry would be philosophically attuned to congressional legislation and state-sponsored initiatives that would fashion an America of yesteryear. To these conservatives and a great many Americans, A president Obama must not happen again soon.

To those voters supporting Perry, bringing government under control means no more than the convenient, non-factual sound bites regurgitated by Republican leaders on the Hill and Republican presidential candidates as mantra: attacking the national debt, not the unemployment crisis, is the key to revitalizing our economy and we have to get it under control; the government should be less intrusive in our lives; managing the government is analogous to managing your household budget; and, we cannot tax the job creators. The average voter inclined to vote against their own interests lacks an understanding of the foundational role of government (at all levels) in the society they take for granted.

They are unlikely to engage Perry and the conservatives on the need for more cuts in defense spending; the beneficial effects of additional government stimulus given weak and declining consumer demand; specific proposals to create jobs in the near term rather than balanced budget amendments, the abysmal record of the “job creators” to create jobs following two Bush tax cuts, and, the necessity for more revenues if the deficit is to close in the short term. Politicians foster this skewed image of government for purely personal political reasons: They want a dumbed-down electorate.

The Democrats and this White House bear some responsibility for the surging Perry phenomenon and the rightward shift in voters’ attitudes simply because of their tradition of principled timidity against the highly effective Republican attack machine, fear of being labeled by Republicans as anti-defense, liberal tax and spenders, even anti-American. Democrats fight by Marquis of Queensbury rules and Republicans bring brass knuckles; Democrats take principled stands and Republicans employ the power play. They want to win – at all costs, congressional poll numbers notwithstanding.

Democrats prefer to live to debate another day. They cede the high ground to the Republicans for framing the national issues’ agenda and the terms of debate. Moreover, there is the Democrats fabled unwillingness to stand up for whatever passes for conviction. For example, they believe in a positive role for government to make our society more humane yet are unwilling to become advocates for positive government. It is also true that many Democrats, and most Republicans, have financial links to their corporate and Wall Street benefactors they, too, are loathe to sever.

This brings us to the president’s reelection. The Obama campaign machine is formidable and I do not underestimate his team’s ability to mount an aggressive, billion-dollar campaign against whoever the Republican nominee is. The president is, after all, at his best when he is in campaign mode. However, in 2012, he will personify a broken, ineffectual Washington. He also will have a track record that dispirited his 2008 base (white women, independent voters, Latinos, and, now African Americans) and emboldened his detractors. He will also have to refashion the Obama “brand”: the “adult” in the room”, a decent human being, but increasingly viewed as valueless as the leader for our times. In an article “Obama’s Team Is Blowing It”, the author notes, “adults get credit when the household is running smoothly and the kids are well behaved and pulling good grades. With none of those things happening, the adult in the room is precisely the last thing to want to be. But they (the Obama team) refuse to change gears.”

I don’t have the answer to this dilemma but the president will have to define who he is, what he represents in specific program and policy terms that is credible and offers hope to the rest of us and, ideally, will inspire us to return him to “finish the job”, as he likes to say. Like it or not, image does matter, not always content, not always process. Reagan, the actor, mastered the art of the image, the well-timed phrase (“There you go again!”), the soft gesture (the grandfatherly-smile with head cocked jauntily to one side) and, yes, we bought it! The president’s continued deference to his Republican detractors and critics weakens his appeal, especially during difficult negotiations.

Image inspires because it means what people want it to mean. When artfully crafted, image will move a nation. Republicans know this all to well and the Perry image-makers will soon kick into high gear once he learns to avoid the unscripted moments. The real question going into this campaign season is, what are the Democrats and the president going to do about it? I do not rule out the possibility that Rick Perry could be our next president.

George Kennedy

George Kennedy is a retired senior Foreign Service officer with extensive international experience. He holds a B.A. from the University of Oregon and two graduate degrees from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. Mr. Kennedy was a political advisor to state and federal officials and has authored strategy pieces for Members of Congress and presidential candidates. He serves on the Advisory Board for the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Arizona.

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