Rick Perry’s Lessons on Populism

Turning to the Republican presidential nominating contest, it looks like the ground has shifted decisively in Mitt Romney’s favor. But the show isn’t quite over; Rick Perry will not go down without a fight. He has a huge war chest and influential friends, and he takes personal pride in his Texas-style perseverance. Plus, looking at the numbers, there’s still reason for him to hope. Establishment figures and the chattering classes may have decreed Romney to be the nominee, but there’s meaning in the fact that grassroots Republicans are now shifting their love to Herman Cain. It’s a sign of desperation, and it speaks to their degree of distrust and dislike for their probable nominee. So Perry will continue to hammer Romney with a series of uncalibrated attacks which blend personal and political differences, conflate “character” issues with policy issues, and make for great TV. Exhibit A, from the most recent debate: “Mitt, you lose all of your standing from my perspective because you hired illegals in your home… The idea that you stand here before us and talk about that you’re strong on immigration is, on its face, the height of hypocrisy.” Romney responded to this salvo by placing his hand on Perry’s shoulder, which was definitely a boost for the ratings.

But Perry’s combativeness may prove helpful in the longterm, at least if Mitt Romney is paying attention. For, despite all of his manifold flaws, the three-term Texas governor has several strengths that bear notice—strengths that, at the moment, Romney manifestly lacks. Perry’s draw is often labeled “populism,” or the ability to foster trust by appearing to be “one of the people.” That’s a fair characterization, but it shouldn’t be a dismissive one; political populism has several different components and a long history of helping both Democrats and Republicans win elections. So, to paraphrase a question Romney and his handlers should currently be asking themselves, what makes Perry popular?

First, Perry comes from a definite place. This may sound insignificant, but it’s not; Americans historically like their leaders to be rooted cosmopolitans, comfortable on the world stage but grounded in a particular regional identity. (Perry, of course, has nailed the rootedness but struggles with cosmopolitanism.) Our last three two-term presidents have filled this need: Ronald Reagan was a national figure through his years in Hollywood but embodied the west with his folksy individualism; Bill Clinton was a Rhodes Scholar who returned to his boyhood home of Arkansas; and George W. Bush came from well-connected eastern stock but embraced Texas. There are lots of possible reasons that Americans might gravitate toward candidates who project a sense of place-ness, but here’s one: we’re the most mobile society in the world, and mobility breeds distance and distrust. In a society of strangers, it’s nice to flip on the TV and know where the person talking to you is coming from; it offers a sense of comfort. Romney does not speak to this want. He’s the candidate in the gray flannel suit, most imaginable in a skyscraper in an unnamed metropolis. In this sense, he’s a lot like Barack Obama, who comes from Chicago but doesn’t embody Chicago in the way that Mike Ditka or Richard Daley embodied it. Obama and Romney don’t epitomize places, they epitomize a way of life—the jet-setting style of the top one percent from whom most Americans feel extremely alienated at the moment. Distance in politics does not breed affection, and Romney personifies distance.

Second, and relatedly, Perry speaks not from oratorical heights, but from the ground. He’s able to boil down complex concepts into 20 words or less and throw in some punchy rhetoric on the side. This skill was on full display in a recent New York Times interview. Interviewer: “Do you fundamentally believe we should not have a progressive tax system in this country?” Perry: “I do. I think you need to have a tax system that basically is flat, fair, and simple. And that you can put on a postcard. Americans, I hope, aspire to be wealthy.” This is, of course, sadly and scarily reductive. But in a sound-bite culture, and one in which people have only a very limited amount of RAM to devote to political and economic issues, brevity and punchiness matter. They’re especially important for a candidate like former CEO Romney, who not only eschews the commonsensical language of populism but seems to naturally channel the abstruse language of the market instead.

Finally, in the same vein, Perry’s emotionalism makes him seem principled, even if you disagree with his stands. He might use angry rhetoric to rouse the base, but he doesn’t appear manipulative; he appears like he believes what he’s saying, even if what he’s saying is wrong. In this regard, Perry is like Clinton; he throws the force of his personality into his words. On providing schooling for the children of illegal immigrants: “[I]f you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they’ve been brought there by no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart.”

Perry got in trouble with the Republican base for this comment, but the most perceptive response I heard came from a friend on the left: “I wish Barack Obama would speak that genuinely.” My friend’s sentiment goes double for Romney, the businessman, who seems to be standing back and constantly calculating: what’s the best way to get these people on my side? What do I have to say this time? Such watchful opportunism does not inspire trust. It makes people feel played, and that makes them angry.

Needless to say, all of Perry’s strengths rely on visceral responses completely disconnected from facts, and if campaigns were solely about issues, none of his skills would matter. But for better or worse, elections in America are won and lost on voters’ visceral responses. For the sake of the 2012 campaign, Romney, and probably Barack Obama, should take notice. They could both benefit from embracing a more populist persuasion.

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