international analysis and commentary

Rick Perry, the Texas candidate for the Republican nomination

84

A few months after Rick Perry entered the race for the Republican presidential nomination, the main points in his political agenda became more clear, as well as his strengths and weakness as a candidate.

The first issue put forward by Perry was obviously the economy. The Texas Governor focused his message on job creation by emphasizing that under his leadership the Lone Star State has created new jobs despite the economic crisis, and today has an unemployment rate much lower than the federal one. He has claimed that low taxes and fewer regulations have attracted business in Texas, and has proposed this traditional conservative model also at the federal level. He has also linked other issues to the economic theme, such as energy. Perry recently argued that increasing the exploitation of US energy resources, including coal in federal lands such as Alaska’s Artic National Wildlife Refuge, could create 1.2 million jobs. For the same reason Perry endorses the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would transport 700,000 barrels of Canadian oil through the US to the Texas gulf coast each day. With regard to the federal budget and debt, Perry has criticized the Bush and Obama stimulus packages and has pointed out that the Texas model – balanced budget and no deficit in recent years and through 2012 – must be applied at the federal level.  

A second issue which characterizes Perry as a traditional conservative candidate is his opposition to the “big government” model. He has argued that several powers and competencies, including those of the social security system, should move from the federal to the state level, in accordance with a strict interpretation of of 10th Amendment of the US Constitution. Perry’s criticism of “federal intrusion” into everyday citizens’ lives has addressed not only Obama’s healthcare reform (which he has pledged to repeal), federal bailout and congressional earmarks, but also agencies such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the Department of Homeland Security.

Perry has also addressed illegal immigration – partly due to criticism he received from the conservative right wing. In fact, the Texas Governor confirmed that he is in favor of granting citizenship in the long term to illegal immigrants already present in the US, and defended the Texas law which guarantees tuition to their children. This approach is rooted in the Texas context, where 48% of people under 18 is Hispanic, the economy is strictly interconnected with Mexico and other Latin American countries, and the society is becoming increasingly bilingual. Perry has counter balanced his “soft” stance on illegal immigration by pushing the issue of border security, and by affirming that military action cannot be excluded in principle by the US in dealing with drug trafficking cartels in Mexico (an option already utilized with some positive results in Colombia).

On the basis of this agenda, Perry has steadily occupied the political space that both Michelle Bachmann and Sarah Palin competed for as a starting point for their electoral campaigns. Although Perry is not 100% on the side of the Tea Party, as his stance on immigration and his cautious attitude toward dismantling federal powers demonstrate, he is certainly the GOP candidate closest to the radical, active and vocal Republican right wing. He is also a social conservative on issues such as abortion and gay marriage, something which appeals to the Christian right. This stance may be a double-edged sword for Perry. On the one hand, it helps to mobilize party activists who usually play a key role in the primaries, and who have guaranteed Perry good numbers in the polls over the past few months – despite the fact that he entered the campaign later than other candidates. On the other hand, such positioning left many moderate Republicans skeptical about both the content of Perry’s political platform and his ability to beat Obama in the general elections. In fact, criticisms have already been made – even by Republican candidate Mitt Romney – on Perry’s proposed cuts to education and Medicare, with the support of a large part of the GOP establishment.

As for the biographical and personal aspects of Perry as a candidate, both present political strengths and weaknesses. The pros do include his ability to connect with the average Republican, something Mitt Romney has not demonstrated so far. His personal story is really in line with the American Dream, where the son of farmers can succeed thanks to hard work, tenacity and his own merits. It is also in line with the Tea Party wave of anti-government libertarianism which is now growing across American society.

At the same time, Perry’s charisma has shown strong limits in recent months. For example, according to most opinion makers and recent polls, he has performed poorly in televised debates with other Republican candidates, as he does not appear prepared on a number of issues. Generally speaking, critics note that  his proposals are vague and in some cases flawed, his statements are sometimes contradictory, and his style is too “muscular”. This may reinforce the perception that he lacks what is needed to stand up against Obama – something that all Republicans, Tea Partiers and moderates care about at the end of the day. This perception may also be reinforced by the fact that after the George W. Bush presidency, the electorate may experience a kind of “Texas fatigue” in considering another candidate from Texas who is proudly a ranchman, a hunter, pro-life and ultra-conservative. In any case, Perry has been able to raise a considerable amount of funds in the last three months – 15 million dollars compared with Romney’s 14.7 million – and this continues to make his electoral campaign a credible challenge to the Romney candidacy.