MACON, Ga.—The Republican primary contenders, who started out as three members of the House and a near-miss 2010 candidate for governor, did not account for David Perdue. In July 2013 the former Dollar General and Reebok executive—he shares a last name with first cousin Sonny Perdue, Georgia’s most recent governor—entered the Senate race with a simple message and plenty of money. He was “the outsider.” He would try to pre-empt a Mitt Romney-ing of his record by releasing 10 years of tax returns. He was a conservative, who thought the national debt was crushing America, and he’d campaign on that.
He would also be tripped up by jargon, as seems to be happening in the final stretch of early voting before the May 20 primary. In an interview with the Macon Telegraph, Perdue was asked if the debt could be reduced by cutting spending or increasing revenue. “Both,” he said. After being told that this was a “euphemism” for tax hikes, Perdue averred then plowed ahead, saying that in the business world “I was never able to turn around a company just by cutting spending. You had to figure out a way to get revenue growing.”
1, 2, 3—outrage. Even though Perdue had signed Grover Norquist’s tax pledge, promising that he would vote for no net tax hike, the “revenue” line was pulled and tugged by his opponents. Perdue, said Rep. Jack Kingston, had called to increase taxes. “David Perdue’s tax increases will only hurt our economy,” he said, referring to a candidate who has not proposed any tax increases. “David Perdue sounds like a man who’d raise taxes,” said Erick Erickson, editor of Red State and a radio host in the state who’s endorsed several candidates. “CEO’s make really crappy senators because they feel compelled to cut deals and transcend the rubes of party politics to prove their own statesman like qualities.”
I caught up with Perdue at a stop on his ongoing bus tour, in the town of Milledgeville, at a seafood restaurant across the water from a coal plant slowly being closed down by regulations. He confirmed that he opposed tax hikes, thought they hurt the economy, and wanted to balance the budget by demolishing “redundant agencies,” not with a tax hike. The “revenue” spat was baffling to him—he’d never thought of “taxes” and “revenue” as synonyms.
“We have the political language and the real-world language,” he said. “In my world, revenue is what you do when you grow businesses. My thesis is: We’re not going to solve this debt crisis until you get the economy growing. If you get the economy growing, you increase the tax base—or as I said, grow revenue—without a tax increase. All this hoopla that’s happened today is over that one comment, but I’ve been saying this for a year.”
Perdue’s opponents portray his “CEO candidate” approach as a liability, as proof that the guy is arrogant and does not color in the lines of conservatism. A Perdue strategist, trying to explain how wrong this was, told me about a moment earlier in the campaign when the candidate was asked whether the Consitution was a “living document.” Hey, he liked the Constitution, and of course it was “alive” and well! He said yes, and a gaffe was born (though didn’t really hurt him), because he didn’t know the lingua franca. It is not enough to agree with a voter. You have to make it sound like you don’t even have the capacity or language to disagree, because if you do, you might wind up at a negotiating table owned by the wrong guys.