Let’s start in reverse order: I agree with Paul Rahe that Rick Perry looks preferable to the protean Romney, but surveying the wreckage of the GOP field this morning, it seems to me Romney has moved to within an ace of nailing the nomination. I wish it were not so, and I wish Perry well, but there are good reasons to believe he will fall short, though he may well become the front-runner for 2016 if Obama is re-elected next year (sigh).
The standard line on Republican presidential politics is that the party always nominates the crown prince, the next in line from the last time. (Or, as the saying sometimes goes, Democrats fall in love with out-of-nowhere candidates—McGovern, Carter, Obama—while Republicans fall in line.) There is a good lesson in the different characters of the two parties that can be gleaned from this contrast—a contrast that bears some relation to the substantive differences between the two parties. Democrats fall easier for demagoguery and flashy rhetoric, and seem to care less about electability, experience, or familiarity with the American people (hence, Obama). Yes, large portions of Republicans often swoon for the flashy person—hence Bachmann right now, Pat Buchanan and Steve Forbes in past primary seasons—but notice that such folks never come close to the nomination. (The one exception would be Barry Goldwater, and he is the exception that proves the rule, it seems to me.)
Instead, most Republican nominees are people who have run seriously once before, gone through the ordeal, and—most importantly—made their mistakes and learned from them. Think Nixon in 1960 and 1968, for example. Reagan had run in 1976, of course, where he made several strategic and tactical mistakes that deprived him of winning. Bob Dole melted down in 1988, lashing out at George H.W. Bush after his loss in New Hampshire. George W. Bush is a partial exception here, but he’d been intimately involved in his father’s campaigns, and knew the drill cold. The point is, the Republican Party likes their nominees vetted by going through the ordeal once. Democrats, not so much.
The point is, no matter how many times you’ve run for senator or governor, running for president is a whole different universe. Perry is about to get the most thorough proctological exam of his life, and the Texas story, an asset in many ways, will get distorted by the media and Perry’s Republicans rivals. (I’m already getting e-mails with astounding and salacious allegations about Perry.) The supreme test will be how he handles the madness, especially the unexpected and unfounded charges that may gain traction. The media and eastern elites hate Texas, and will go out of their way to distort the Texas story and portray Perry as a freak. I’d look for early attacks from unusual quarters.
For example, I have long noted that every year the EPA data would show that California had the highest air pollution levels in the nation, except in election years, when Texas somehow had the worst air pollution. Funny how smog in Texas was only worse in election years, I’d say. But we knew it was George W. Bush’s fault. Never mind that it was never true: Gore and the media ran with it. (In fact, air pollution in Texas had been—still is—falling fast, while it had been rising in guess which state? Tennessee, home state to a certain Democratic nominee in 2000. Think you could ever get the partisan media to notice this? What a silly question.) It is entirely possible that this whole story will go into re-runs, especially since Perry has been trying to stand up to the EPA’s latest assault on the energy industry in Texas.
Perry might be able to surmount the usual first-run shortfalls of Republican candidates, but he’s come late to the show, and it would seem he was undecided about running until he saw the vacuum in the field because of the non-candidacies of Daniels, Christie, and Paul Ryan. This doesn’t augur well for a successful campaign. And as of this morning it looks like Bachmann and Perry may cancel each other out for the “not-Romney” position in the field, now that Gov. Pawlenty has withdrawn.
Meanwhile, Romney has gone through this before, and so far is running a steady, relatively mistake-free campaign. In this respect he reminds me of Nixon in 1968; there wasn’t much real grassroots enthusiasm for him (but he was thought better than a fellow named “Romney” in that race, as it happened), but he was acceptable to the party. I’m not optimistic Romney’s steady approach will suffice to beat Obama.
The same calculus here applies to a late entry by Paul Ryan or Gov. Christie, though I can make out a slightly better case for either of them than Perry. But only slightly.