The first week of the Rick Perry presidential campaign has put the Republican establishment in a full panic. Perry has defined himself as a full right-wing stereotype, an over-the-top George W. Bush impersonator. Much of the tension between Perry and party elites in Washington has been portrayed as the continuation of a longstanding grudge between him and the Bush circle. But the opposition of the Bush circle mostly reflects the fact that the Bush circle dominates the GOP establishment these days; Karl Rove, in particular, sits at the nexis of a massive fundraising and message operation that is essentially a shadow Republican Party. And the party has seen enough of Perry to worry.
Jonathan Martin and Jake Sherman have a great report about Congressional Republicans openly fretting about Perry's out-of-control campaign style:
In a series of interviews, uncommitted Republican members praised the Texas governor’s economic record but called his suggestion that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke is guilty of treason a serious misstep and said that kind of inflammatory talk could scare off swing voters.
House Republicans from heavily suburban districts were particularly uneasy about the Bernanke remark and Perry’s refusal to say whether President Obama is a patriot. These members, some of them facing potentially tough re-election campaigns next year, urged the White House hopeful to stick to core issues of jobs and spending.
“You can’t be calling Bernanke a traitor and you can’t be questioning whether or not Barack Obama loves America, that type of thing,” said Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee and veteran Long Island incumbent. “I’ve been with Perry a few times, and I can see how he could project, again, if it’s done the right way. But no, if he continues this, he’ll have a tough time.”
Rep. Charlie Bass (R-N.H.), who lost his seat in the 2006 Democratic sweep only to win it back in last year’s Republican resurgence, represents the Boston suburbs that line his state’s southern border and bridled at the Bernanke statement.
A lot of liberals consider Perry a formidable candidate because, after all, it wasn't long ago that another swaggering, anti-intellectual, culturally divisive Texas governor won the White House. But it's worth recalling that Bush ran in 2000 as a moderate -- a compassionate conservative who would continue the basic thrust of the Clinton policy agenda, only with a more bipartisan touch. Even in 2004, when he had largely abandoned that pose, Bush was not running around questioning evolution. It's not just that Perry is a regional candidate. He's a very conservative one. A PPP poll earlier this summer showed that President Obama would run slightly ahead of Perry in Texas -- not because he's popular there (he trailed other GOP contenders) but because Perry is extreme even for Texas. I wouldn't take this poll as to mean that Obama could carry the state, but I would take it as a sign that Perry does not wear especially well.
Hence the party's panic. The current presidential field puts the Republican Party in a terrible bind. The putative front-runner, Mitt Romney, is wildly vulnerable to attack from the right, while Perry and Michelle Bachmann wear their conservatism on their sleeve in a way that repels swing voters. That is the context in which to understand the establishment's fervent desire to draft Paul Ryan into the race.
Some liberals say the notion of a Ryan candidacy is nuts, because his economic program is too extreme or because his resume is too light. Those are valid objections. But Ryan has created a public persona for himself that commands unassailable prestige within the Republican Party and turns political reporters into fawning groupies.
Conservative talk radio host Michael Medved, who reports that literally every conservative he knows wants Ryan to run, sums up the political benefit:
Ryan offers the ideal combination of conservative substance and moderate style. I’ve argued for years that the perfect formula for a unifying GOP nominee isn’t to split the difference between the so-called moderate and conservative wings of the party, or between the establishment and the Tea Party. Today’s Republicans remain a party of unequivocally conservative principles (as evidenced by near-unanimous GOP congressional votes against all elements of the Obama big-government agenda). Most Republicans, however (like most of their Democratic and independent neighbors), prefer a moderate, nonthreatening style to the explosive personality of some rhetorical bomb-thrower. Reagan exemplified the necessary blend to perfection: his clear-cut, unwavering conservative values won wide acceptance because they matched a sunny, agreeable, easygoing disposition. Mike Huckabee captured some of the same magic with his classic formulation: “I’m a conservative, but I’m not angry about it.” George W. Bush succeeded with a similar presentation, positioning himself in 2000 as a rock-ribbed religious right-winger who nonetheless respected the other side as a nice-guy “compassionate conservative” and a “uniter, not a divider.” The least-effective Republican nominees get the formulation exactly backwards: Bob Dole and John McCain, both admirable war heroes with impressive Senate records, worried righties (with their imperfect conservative credentials) and everyone else (with an edgy, occasionally angry and explosive, personal style). This year both Perry and Bachmann offer plenty of conservative substance, but without the reassuring moderate style; Romney provides the suave, comforting moderate style, but his Massachusetts record leaves Tea Party partisans uncertain of his conservative substance. Among this candidate crop, Ryan alone (with Pawlenty and Mitch Daniels out of the race) could provide the right formula in terms of both tough solid principle and agreeable personality.
If you think the substantive radicalism of Ryan's agenda is more of a liability than the on-the-surface craziness of a Rick Perry, you have a much higher estimation of the electorate than I do.