Bedford, New Hampshire—I’m on vacation, but I couldn’t resist driving over to the Bedford Village Inn this morning to hear the newest Republican candidate for president, Texas Governor Rick Perry, at the regular “Politics and Eggs” get together. I thought that, with one exception, Perry came off pretty well—enough to make him a formidable challenger to Mitt Romney. He also didn’t position himself so far to the right that he would become an easy target in the general election.
Perry has rugged Marlboro Man good looks, but he is not a commanding figure. He is stocky and, unlike Romney or Barack Obama, of only medium height. He has, however, a deep, commanding voice that bespeaks conviction, whether he has any convictions or not, and a pleasing, informal style that suggests he is speaking off the cuff even when he isn’t. I wondered whether he would modify his Southern drawl for a New Hampshire audience. Instead, he opened with a “you all” and dropped his g’s (he promised to “be sittin’ and listenin’ to the New Hampshire voters), and said New Hampshire’s motto, “Live Free or Die,” reminded him of “little place in Texas called the Alamo,” but about a quarter of the way into his appearance, he had largely dropped the drawl and was pronouncing his g’s and was boasting about Texas’s economy rather than flaunting its culture.
New Hampshire Republicans are generally business conservatives. There is a small, vocal, anti-abortion constituency, but they don’t sway Republican primaries. Perry did not mention abortion once, and outside of occasionally using the term “blessed,” did not conjure up images of a revival tent. He focused on jobs (“get America working again” is his campaign slogan) over taxes, the debt, and anything else. His recipe for jobs and economic growth were the usual Republican panaceas—cut, cap, and balance, deregulate, and (a Texas favorite) eliminate frivolous law suits. He said he would not have signed the measure raising the debt ceiling, but only after saying that, if he were president, “it wouldn’t come down to that.” He promised he would be a “pro-business president.” He walked back his comment about Ben Bernanke being “almost treasonous.” Now he merely wants “transparency” at the Fed.
He made one interesting foray into a cautious populism when someone asked him about General Electric having paid no federal taxes in 2010. He insisted that corporations “pay their fair share,” when “small business is struggling to keep their doors open.” That doesn’t suggest that he would turn his back on GE; but it does show he is politically sensitive to popular hostility toward “big business.”
The only time where he went off half-cocked was when someone asked him about global warming. I couldn’t hear the question, but the questioner seemed to be suggesting that there was no such thing as man-made global warming. Perry took aim at scientists, saying that a “substantial number of scientists have manipulated data” to get “dollars coming to their projects.” He insisted that there had always been global warming, but that human beings were not contributing to it then or now and that growing numbers of scientists were coming forth to agree with him. (I’ll watch for the transcript of these remarks, and if I have a chance, will transcribe my own tape of what he said.) Suffice it to say, however, that he went on and on about it. That may not be good politics among New Hampshire Republicans who, I would guess, are closer to Romney on this issue. (Romney says that humans do contribute to global warming, but rejects cap-and-trade as a way of dealing with it.)
All in all, though, Perry came off pretty well. I am not saying that his economic program will be good for America or (like his promise to create a balanced budget his first year) is even feasible. But he is going to have an impact on a Republican electorate—and possibly a fall electorate—that is looking for someone who sounds like a tough leader (whether or not he is), positions himself as an outsider to Washington, and focuses single-mindedly on getting the country back to work.
John B. Judis is a senior editor for The New Republic.