Will Rick Perry be the Republican Clinton?

by Jonathan Todd

At the start of May I argued that President Obama was as vulnerable to a challenger emerging as the seemingly ascendant George W H Bush was at the same time in 1991. This view was then out of kilter with the beltway view of Obama as a two term president. Subsequently the US has suffered an unprecedented credit downgrade, its economy has continued to struggle and grumbles about Obama, most recently due to his holidaying at a “millionaires’ playground”, have got louder.

Republicans are increasingly confident that Obama is Jimmy Carter. But the election will be a choice, not a referendum on Obama. They need a more convincing choice to win. As the early Republican pacesetters have not convinced, the stage remains set for a Republican Bill Clinton.

To date, tea party favourite Michelle Bachmann has probably done the best job of appealing to Republicans with misgivings, such as Romneycare and Mormonism, about the frontrunner, Mitt Romney. There may be enough such conservative voters for Romney to be defeated in January’s Iowa caucuses. The former Baptist pastor Mike Huckerbee won in this first state to vote in 2008.

God isn’t calling Huckerbee to run this time. However, God is said to have called Rick Santorum and Rick Perry, as well as Bachmann. Either they are suffering crossed wires or God’s mind is yet to be made up. God wouldn’t be the only one. The Republican race is fluid.

While Rick Perry’s backing for the three-time married Rudy Giuliani in 2008 and rumours about his own marriage are concerns for some religious voters, his leading of vast prayer meetings enables him to pitch to the religious right. That 40 percent of new US jobs since June 2009 have been created in Texas, where Perry is governor, also creates the basis – though other aspects of Texas’ economy undermine this – for appeal to those (i.e. everyone) with economic worries. A candidate able to challenge Romney for his strongest card, economic competence, and rival Bachmann for the religious right vote has a shout of being the Republican candidate.

There are various ways that this could play out.

First, Perry could crash. Karl Rove, widely seen as George W Bush’s puppet master, considers Perry beyond the pale. Perry has recently accused Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, of being “almost treasonous”, damned global warming “a hoax” and belittled evolution as “a theory that’s out there”. Perry could yet follow the likes of Donald Trump in sending shockwaves through the Republican contest only to fade away.

Second, Perry could, without actually winning it, have a more sustained impact on the race. While Romney’s already backed away from many positions that he held as governor of the traditionally Democratic state of Massachusetts, he would have to tack even further to the right under this scenario and so reduce his appeal to independents.

Third, Perry could take enough of Bachmann’s support from the right and make a sufficient dent in Romney’s claim to unrivalled economic competency to be the Republican candidate. The votes of independents are likely to determine the presidential election and Perry may be even less able to secure their support than a Romney who, as per my second scenario, has been forced to run to the right. This is probably why the White House is thought to favour a contest against Perry.

If Perry’s capacity to appeal to independents really is this limited, then the Republicans are right to look elsewhere – and they continue to encourage Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey, and Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin congressmen, to enter the race. Perry may be a “good-looking rascal”, according to Clinton himself, but he might demonstrate the impossibility of being a candidate able to take Republican votes off both Bachmann and Romney and also appeal to independents. This impossibility means that the Republicans either cannot have a candidate attractive to all their diverse wings or they cannot win in 2012.

All presidential elections come down to who offers the most compelling personification of the latest stage of the American dream and, given the resilience of American cultural and political conservatism, Perry could win by embodying something quite different from Obama. Undoubtedly, an Obama-Perry head-to-head would make epic political struggle of America’s long-running culture wars. It would be spectacular and vitriolic; re-energising Obama’s supporters after the sometimes stodgy prose of his time in office.

Those of us on the left in Europe will largely hope that the man who was our dream president in 2008 retains enough support amongst independents to remain in office. But we should also reflect that the real lesson of his time in office, for our continent, is that we must do more to build the world we want. Not rely on someone who may nominally be the most powerful person in the world and who may appear to share European values, but who, in neither respect, is so without significant constraints.

Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist.

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2 Responses to “Will Rick Perry be the Republican Clinton?”

  1. Robin Thorpe says:

    Very interesting to read about US politics for a change. I must agree with your conclusion; we must do more to build the world we want. Even were Obama not restrained by the inherent checks and balances and the much deeper divisions between the political parties in the US we would still find a neo-liberal with imperialist tendencies. As much as Obama is the preferred candidate of any left-thinking peoples, surely no-one can seriously argue that the US Democrat party is anything other than a centre-right party? We will not live to see the day where the common man is put before big business in the USA. If we wish to make our world a safer, happier place we cannot rely on the worlds most powerful nation to achieve it.

  2. JPKC says:

    At first I thought you were referring to Hilary (a.k.a. Clintona minor), and I think a comparison to her may also be relevant in this election season. While Perry is in many respects the ideal GOP man, he has too many vulnerabilities (Rove & his years as a Dem etc.). It’s also significant that Hilary similarly attempted to appeal to all groups in her party, only for her campaign to lose the momentum that a tribalist approach often gives.

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