David Brooks writes a typically sneering piece about Rick Perry in today’s New York Times. Perry’s personality, he writes, “is perfectly tuned to offend people along the Acela corridor and to rally those who oppose those people.” And he ”does very well with the alternative-reality right — those who don’t believe in global warming, evolution or that Obama was born in the U.S.”
Yet Brooks, perhaps grudgingly, admits that Perry is a real player in the Republican primaries and offers advice to Mitt Romney on how to counter the Perry surge. His suggested lines of attack are remarkably weak.
First, he suggests that “Romney could accuse Perry of being the latest iteration of Tom DeLay Republicanism.” This means accusing Perry of being “ideologically slippery,” while at the same time “unwavering in his commitment to the government-cash nexus,” that is, that Perry is a pay-to-play politician. Coming from Romney especially, the “ideologically slippery” attack would ring quite hollow. Romney has been finding his voice in the conservative political debate for some years. Many on our side believe that he has completed the conversion, but others still have their doubts. Romney, after all, was running as a pro-choice moderate Republican against Ted Kennedy only a few years before he was elected governor, and not too long ago.
While you can choose to give him the benefit of the doubt on the sincerety of his beliefs, Romney would still be a poor messenger to attack Perry’s party-switching history, especially where Perry speaks more easily to those conservatives who identify with tea-party values. As far as attacking Perry’s ethics, he is insulated to some degree by three terms as governor, but more importantly, Romney probably should remain above that sort of fray.
Brooks next suggests that Romney should “shift what the campaign is about. If voters think Nancy Pelosi is the biggest threat to their children’s prosperity, they will hire Perry. If they think competition from Chinese and Indian workers is the biggest threat, they will hire Romney. He’s just more credible as someone who can manage economic problems, build human capital and nurture an innovation-based global economy.”
Now, there is certainly a grain of truth in the notion that Romney’s best selling point is his business acumen and management experience in a troubled economy, but where does Brooks get the idea that “competition from Chinese and Indian workers” is the biggest issue facing Republican primary voters (or even Americans as a whole)? The tea-party movement that is driving much of the debate at this stage is mostly about spending and debt, and there is little reason to thing Perry can’t understand the problems that government spending have created in our economy. To the extent that employment is an issue, Perry is also insulated by the success of job creation in Texas on his watch. And to the extent that Romney wants to sell his own ability to manage the government’s role in a complex economy, the Massachusetts health-care legislation hangs like an albatross around his neck in the primaries.
Romney clearly has a great challenge on his hands with Perry, and the polls reflect that challenge. Romney does need to sell himself as a stable leader in troubled times, but more importantly, he needs to go back to explaining who he is, and what principles he stands for. If he makes a credible case on controlling spending, shrinking the deficit, bringing government under heel (which likely includes confessing error in Massachusetts), and restoring some pride in American here and abroad, Republican voters will listen.
If nothing else, Perry currently comes across as someone with a clear mission — something David Brooks acknowledges. Romney needs to make his mission equally clear to voters. Following Brooks’s advice won’t get him there.