The Corner

Perry, Romney, Electability

I’m impressed by Rick Perry. He’s got an effective speaking style. I like his book, Fed Up! I’ve also defended Perry against a biased New York Times hit piece. Perry still needs to be vetted on the campaign trail, but on current indications, given his extensive gubernatorial experience, sterling record on job creation, and ability to unite the libertarian and social conservative wings of the party, Perry would make a great nominee. Having said all that, I think we need to be honest with ourselves about Perry’s potential vulnerability.

The Left has been busily mining Perry’s book Fed Up! for material they can use to paint him as an extremist. It’s not a fair claim, as I’ve already argued, but there’s enough rhetorical ammunition around that the claim will be made — and made repeatedly — nonetheless. The latest example comes from Ruth Marcus. Ramesh and Michael Barone have responded to Marcus’s most explosive charge, but the fundamental controversy remains.

The easiest way for Perry to diffuse the raft of charges that will continue to be made against him based on Fed Up! would be to put forward some concrete proposals on entitlements. Perry could embrace the Ryan plan, or offer a Medicare proposal of his own. He could also express support for Social Security, while calling for a higher retirement age for people now 55 and younger. These moves would carry political risks, of course, but given the unrelenting attacks that will be leveled at Perry on entitlements, doing nothing may be riskier still.

Barring that move, Perry could still be an excellent and successful Republican presidential nominee. Yet I think it’s fair to say that, as it stands today, he’d be a riskier pick than Romney.

David Catron recently claimed that, while Perry can beat Obama, Romney cannot. While Catron makes some good points, I’m not persuaded. Even if Romney finds it awkward to attack Obama on health care, he’ll do it anyway — and it will work. In this case, the conventional wisdom is right. To the extent that the campaign is a referendum on Obama, he loses. To the extent that it becomes a choice election, Obama has a chance to win. In the public’s mind, this election is already going to be a referendum on Obama. So Romney will be treated as a clear alternative, even before he begins to criticize. On the other hand, unless Perry takes steps to diffuse the attacks on his book with clarifying proposals, he may become almost as much of an issue as Obama. That would make Perry the riskier choice.

This may be a risk well worth taking, of course. Quite possibly, the liberal caricatures of Perry will backfire. And while I don’t at all agree that Perry plans to dismantle entitlements, I do think he’s likely to pare back welfare-state overreach to an even greater extent than Romney. That’s a good thing.

On the other hand, Romney is no slouch. I’ve been reading Romney’s book, No Apology. Perry’s federalism makes him a polar opposite of Obama. In a slightly different way, however, Romney’s business experience does the same. Just about every lesson about economic productivity Romney draws out of his extensive background in business puts him dead against Obama’s regulatory state.

Yes, Romneycare was an unfortunate and failed attempt to compromise with Massachusetts liberals. No doubt, at the time Romney thought this would set him up for a successful presidential run. Even so, all of Romney’s business instincts tell against Obama’s broader plans. Romney would undo the economic damage of the Obama years and get the economy growing again. That’s what comes through loud and clear in No Apology.

It’s still early in the process. The upcoming debates will tell us a lot. Conservatives are right to be excited by Perry. He may be the solution we’ve been looking for. But the fundamental goal is, and must remain, to defeat Obama. Things could change, but as of now Perry remains the riskier bet. Flaws and all, Romney is not only the more likely winner, but a candidate with more positives than conservatives now give him credit for. On the other hand, as noted, even at slightly greater risk, Perry may well be a chance worth taking. And with the right set of proposals, Perry could go a long way toward diffusing his vulnerabilities.

What I’m really saying is that I haven’t made up my mind yet. We’ve got to get this one right. Perry’s great, but he still needs road testing, and a chance to lay out his policies. And as of now, for all his problems, Romney shouldn’t be written off. Try reading both Fed Up! and No Apology and you’ll see that our two frontrunners are both live options for conservatives.

Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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