From Bluster to Blunder

Does Rick Perry have the discipline to revitalize his campaign?

Rick Perry
Rick Perry

Photograph by Scott Eells-Pool/Getty Images.

If Rick Perry is going to reboot, he’ll have to take one of them out of his mouth. Just before introducing an economic plan intended to reverse his campaign’s slide, he engaged in his second flirtation with birtherism in just a few days. While the issue of Obama’s birth was not important and a distraction, he told CNBC’s John Harwood, “It’s a good issue to keep alive. It’s fun to poke at him.”

The same could be said about Perry’s hunting camp, I suppose. Good issue to keep alive. Facts? Who cares. This is fun! You’d think a guy who has had questions raised about whether he’s a racist might root around for his fun in other pursuits. But there’s no need to get up on a high horse to think Perry’s dalliance is cockeyed. Even a committed birther (nice hat! tinfoil?) can see how it’s unwise to embrace this distraction at the moment you’re trying to be treated seriously. Going birther may not affect a single vote, but it’s a symbol of a lack of discipline. And discipline is a quality Perry will need if he’s going to haul his campaign out of the tar pit it’s in.

In the latest CBS News poll, Perry is fifth among the contenders with 6 percent. Tea Party voters have thrown him overboard: 30 percent once supported him. Now only 7 percent do. He’s doing equally poorly in the early primary and caucus states. To help fix this, Perry has brought on a slew of seasoned campaign hands. If only they’d gotten there a few days sooner: Ixnay on the irtherbay. Perry’s embrace of the issue has flushed out Republican governors like Haley Barbour and Jeb Bush, who have told him to knock it off.

Every campaign is a tug of war for a candidate’s true self. “Let Reagan be Reagan” was the cry during the 1980 campaign, when Reagan’s handlers were accused of making him act like a standard-issue candidate, hiding his true warmth and character. (Reagan ultimately shook up his staff, not unlike Perry has just now.)

Perry has not wanted for authentic moments. They’re what’s killing him. His instinct—whether it was to call opponents of his tuition plan for immigrants heartless or to falsify the story of the HPV vaccine—were not the product of over-management. At the debates he conveyed a direct message from his gut: I’m sleepy and don’t want to be here.

Perry’s economic plan, which centers around a 20 percent flat tax, is a possible vehicle for renewal. It’s potentially more popular among conservatives than Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan. It allows him to blow off stupid side issues and say he wants to talk about more important things. Republican voters are not fixed in their views. Only 19 percent of those surveyed in the CBS poll say their mind is made up. He can use the plan to talk about his Texas record. Mostly it’s meant to be a vehicle to convey his conviction, boldness and sense of leadership. That’s why he could wrap up his speech introducing the plan with the rousing call “Let’s be the land of the free again!”  He can try to convey some of the twinkle and authenticity he did when talking about bedeviling Obama with birther talk on this issue people actually care about.

Whether Perry can do any of this will depend on whether he can stop fishtailing and stay focused on his new message. (After two days and flirting with birtherism Perry finally tried to put a nail in it Tuesday.) He doesn’t just need to stop coining new distractions. He needs to stay focused. He has to execute with some precision. Kinda-sorta getting the point across is not going to lift him out of the hole he’s in.

Perry likes to talk about his boldness. Of course, the really bold thing for him to do would be to play against type. When confronted with birtherism or anti-religious bigotry or questions about Obama’s patriotism, he has exchanged candor for what he would call “shape-shifting nuance.” It would be bolder to shun politics for a second. Humphrey did that in 1960 when he said he didn’t want votes from people who didn’t like Kennedy because he was a Catholic. McCain did it in 2008 when he defended Obama against the hecklers in his crowd. Newt Gingrich gave an eloquent defense of religious differences in the last debate. Of course those candidates lost, or are likely to. So maybe those are bad lessons. It’s much more fun to win.