Rick Perry: First Impressions

Yesterday, I listened twice to Rick Perry’s first advertisement. This afternoon – at the office where the internet connection is fast – I listened carefully to the first speech of  Rick Perry’s campaign. And I can say that I am both pleased and mildly worried.

The video I thought fabulous. It was low-key, gentle, soothing, and devastating. It muted the drama and appealed to the intellect, pointing to the obvious and quietly encouraging the listener to compare President Obama with Governor Perry and to judge them by their accomplishments. If Perry and his team can keep this up, he is likely to win. I am of two minds, however, about his announcement speech.

SoftDespotism.jpgOn the one hand, he sounded the right themes. The antidote to this country’s soft despotic  drift is decentralization. When Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about this question, he had his eye on France, and he was offering the American example – federalism, decentralization within the states, religion, and the nuclear family – as an antidote. As I argued two years ago in Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift, our troubles today today arise from the partial collapse of the family, from religion’s decline, and from our abandonment of federalism. Think through the implications of Terrence Moore’s first post – on the welfare state – and you will get the picture. In his speech and video, directly or obliquely, Perry touched on all three of these questions, reasserting the central importance of the integrity of the family, intimating that religion is our moral anchor, and demanding a return to federalism. If he thinks through the logic of his own commitments – and perhaps he has done so already – his instincts will be pretty consistently sound.

On the other hand, Perry was folksy throughout – and that worries me a bit. The tone of the speech and the manner of delivery were pitch-perfect for Texas. I am not, however, certain that this will play for a national audience. I do not mean to suggest that Perry should never be folksy. He comes from Paint Creek, and this comes naturally to him. Moreover, he needs at the outset to gather to him those who belong to his natural constituency – which is made up of white people who live in the countryside and in small towns. But to persuade a wider audience, Perry will have to pitch his argument to an audience that thinks itself more sophisticated. I am not arguing that the city slickers really are more sophisticated; I am arguing that they are in the grips of a powerful prejudice against people from places like Paint Creek.

You will respond that Bill Clinton came from Hope, Arkansas, and you will be correct. But Bill Clinton went to Georgetown University and Yale Law School, and he did a stint at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. He was vetted. Perry is an outsider. Even in some circles in Texas, Aggies are regarded as hicks. It is easy to see what sort of campaign David Axelrod and his associates will gin up against Perry. It will draw on the instinctive bigotry that made it so easy to demonize Lyndon Baines Johnson and the younger Bush. Obama cannot run on his record. To win, he must demonize the alternative. It is going to be ugly.

Perry is an exceedingly successful Texas politician. He comes from a place that is self-regarding in the extreme (I speak as a native of Oklahoma) and inward-looking. He has never operated outside its borders, and he may be unaware of its parochial character. If he is, he needs to wake up right away – and Mitt Romney is perfectly situated to give him that wake-up call.

Here is what Perry needs to do. He needs to anticipate the assault.

For example, if Obama’s people play anti-Texas prejudice against him, he should mock their advertisements. Indeed, he might do well to hit them hard the day they play this card – by preparing humorous advertisements ahead of time comparing Texas . . . with Chicago. They could touch on corruption, gangsters, population explosion and population implosion, political practices. And it could all be done with a light touch.

The larger problem is this, however. Most Americans – outside Texas – associate a West-Texas accent and a folksy manner with stupidity. The Obama people – and, perhaps more subtly – the Romney people may try to depict Perry as a hick. This he can head off if he has the wit to recognize the obvious: that what plays in Texas may not play as well elsewhere.

My suggestion would be that he give two or three speeches at venues associated with the conservative intelligentsia. The speeches should be low-key, gentle, and, above all else, thoughtful. In them he should outline in a manner almost academic what he intends to do and why. One could deal with defense and foreign policy. Another could focus on healthcare. A third could take economic growth and the prerequisites for economic growth as its theme. In these speeches, his purpose should be to demonstrate that he is anything but a hick, anything but stupid, and that he has thought in depth and carefully about the larger issues we face. There should not be a hint of the campaign speech in them. They should be intellectually devastating without being polemical. His aim should be to dispel once and for all the suspicion that he is just another hot dog from Texas running his mouth in predictable ways.

I mention this now in the hope that someone in Perry’s entourage reads Ricochet. What Perry did in South Carolina on Saturday was appropriate for the occasion. But there are other occasions, and most of us are not Texans. If I were the head of the American Enterprise Institute, I would get on the phone tomorrow and invite Perry to give three lectures in DC. The trick here is to get out ahead of the onslaught and to kill the appeal to prejudice before it is even launched.