Is Rick Perry the Best of the Worst?


The Republican presidential field looks less like an assemblage of candidates than a collection of fatal mistakes and irreparable flaws, with occasional embodiments of one or more of the Seven Deadly Sins.

Mitt Romney? A flip-flopper who inspired Obamacare. Tim Pawlenty? A too-bashful critic of Romneycare, with a sleepy persona. Newt Gingrich? Serial adultery and terminal hubris.

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Herman Cain? A rousing speaker with a future in talk radio. Rick Santorum? Not many politicians warm up for a presidential race by losing a Senate seat in a landslide. Michele Bachmann? Only one House member has ever gone directly to the presidency (James Garfield, in 1880).

Jon Huntsman? Service in the Obama administration is no way to gratify Republican voters. Ron Paul? A libertarian in a conservative party whose 2008 race yielded a paltry handful of convention delegates.

All this explains why a 2012 race is now tempting Rick Perry, the three-term governor of Texas whose liabilities come with some assets: a record of fiscal frugality and economic growth, a flair for channeling anti-Washington sentiment, a proven fundraising capacity and an appealing biography (hardscrabble farm upbringing, Eagle Scout, Air Force pilot).

It helps that he delivers a good speech and looks like the lead in an old Western movie. Not for nothing did the late liberal columnist Molly Ivins dub him “Governor Goodhair.”

As that unshakable nickname suggests, though, many people in the Lone Star State — and not only liberals — see Perry as a photogenic lightweight who got his office only by the luck of being first in the line of succession when Texas Gov. George W. Bush was elected president.

In 2006, he won re-election with just 39 percent of the vote in a four-way race. One opponent, musician and humorist Kinky Friedman, used a slogan that was a sly poke at Perry: “How hard can it be?” Only 9 percent of Texas Republicans say they would support him for president. He has not worn well with those who know him best.

Perry has a tendency to make people ask, “Did he really say that?” — as when he indicated an openness to secession, and when he dismissed a TV reporter with, “Adios, mofo.” There is also the implausible yarn he tells of going for a run one morning without his security detail and, when a coyote threatened his dog, drawing his pistol and blowing the varmint away.

His biggest shortcoming is that most Americans don’t ache with nostalgia for the last time a former Texas Republican governor occupied the White House.

That concern is accurate but not clearly disqualifying.

When President George H. W. Bush lost badly in 1992, after all, it was safe to assume the country wouldn’t elevate another member of the family to the White House anytime soon. No novelist would have dared to invent a winning black presidential candidate with a name like Barack Hussein Obama.

Perry’s flaws are mostly the sort that other GOP candidates wish they had. His ostentatious disdain for federal interference is a tea partier’s dream. His high-octane ideology makes an advantageous contrast to the suspicious moderation of Romney, Pawlenty and Huntsman.

He inspires trust on the Christian right while getting valentines from the Wall Street Journal’s editorial writers. He could quickly cut off the air supply of the other conservatives in the race.

And the general election? Perry’s conservatism is too strong a brew for mainstream tastes, and his cowboy swagger will evoke unwanted memories of George W. Bush. In a normal election year, those handicaps would be insuperable.

But 2012 is not looking normal. If the economy remains sluggish and unemployment high, Americans are apt to be more weary of Obama than of his immediate predecessor. Ronald Reagan’s alleged extremism didn’t look so scary next to the economic chaos and foreign-policy humiliations of Jimmy Carter’s presidency.

Democrats (and some Republicans) thought Reagan a smiling dunce. But the simple themes he enunciated were a welcome tonic when prevailing policies seemed to be failing.

Perry has the advantage of being able to claim that his state accounts for more than 37 percent of all the jobs created since the recession officially ended, which could make a vote for him feel more pragmatic than ideological.

As he considers his prospects, Perry may recall the old joke about the hiker who didn’t need to be faster than the grizzly bear — just faster than his hiking buddy. Perry’s flaws loom large, unless you compare them to anyone else’s.





  • Steve Chapman

    Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune, where he has been a member of the editorial board since 1981. He came to the Tribune from The New Republic magazine, where he was an associate editor. He has contributed articles to Slate, The American Spectator, The Weekly Standard and Reason, and has appeared on numerous TV and radio news programs, including The CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, and National Public Radio’s Fresh Air and Talk of the Nation. Born in Brady, Texas, in 1954, Chapman grew up in Midland and Austin. He attended Harvard University, where he was on the staff of the Harvard Crimson, and graduated with honors in 1976. He has been a fellow at the American Academy in Berlin and the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and has served on the Visiting Committee of the University of Chicago Law School.

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