Memo to Mitt Romney: You Have to Attack Rick Perry, and Here’s How to Do It

Editor’s Note: This “memo to Mitt Romney” is reprinted from Bill Galston’s column on The New Republic website.




Every successful presidential campaign faces at least one defining moment when choices spell the difference between victory and defeat. Your first one has come earlier than just about anyone expected, and much depends on how you respond.

Up to now, you’ve pursued a steady-as-you-go, above-the-fray strategy, ignoring your Republican rivals and training your fire on President Obama. And for six months it worked well enough to keep you in the lead. Your campaign ignited little passion, but a majority of the party was willing to settle for you if no one better came along. And no one did: Many Tea Party favorites declined to enter the race, as did potential challengers for mainstream Republican support such as Mitch Daniels. And it was hard to regard the people in the race who excited the most grassroots enthusiasm—Michele Bachmann, Ron Paul, Herman Cain—as plausible Republican nominees. You were on track to grind out an uninspiring victory.

Then Rick Perry changed everything. Within two weeks he has established himself, not just as the Tea Party’s champion, but as a figure who could potentially unite all the party’s factions, including the business community that constitutes your base. Perry is a mortal threat to your candidacy. What should you do? 

It will be tempting to keep on doing what you’ve been doing. After all, you’re comfortable with it, and you’ve gotten good at it. Some of your advisors will say that changing tactics now would give off an air of desperation. Others will say that your best course is to allow Perry—volatile, undisciplined, the distilled essence of Texas—to self-destruct. After all, he has already used the language of treason to denounce a third round of quantitative easing. Surely there are many more unguarded moments to come. So let’s let others help him take himself down, while we do as little as possible to antagonize people whose support we hope to get down the road.

Seductive, isn’t it? And dead wrong. Perry’s entrance into the race has highlighted your key weakness: People still don’t know who you are and what you stand for. They’re yearning for clear, strong, unapologetic leadership, but they don’t know where your red lines are. And efforts to placate opponents—such as fudging your long-held views on climate change—will only make matters worse.

But Perry’s emergence also gives you a unique opportunity to define yourself—against him. If you take it, you have a fighting chance of prevailing. If you duck it, you’ll lose, just as Tim Pawlenty did when he booted away his chance to take you on.

How should you do it? Well, to the extent that the Republican nominating contest is a rational process, it’s a search for a candidate with three characteristics. The nominee must be competent to serve as president, reliably conservative, and electable. You’re never going to be able to make your party believe that the longest-serving governor in Texas history isn’t fit to serve as chief executive. And despite some facts to the contrary, it won’t be any easier to challenge Perry’s conservative credentials. That narrows it down to one option: You must persuade the decisive portion of your party that Rick Perry is too extreme to be elected president.

Here’s your theme: Rick Perry wants to repeal the 20th century. I don’t. And neither do the American people.

That terrain of battle offers a target-rich environment. Where to begin? With Perry’s stated desire to repeal the 16th amendment? With his opposition to the 17th amendment, based on the odd view that taking the power to elect senators away from state legislators and giving it to the people of each state somehow amounts to a national power-grab? Maybe. But if I were you, I’d begin with Social Security. Here are Governor Perry’s considered views on the subject:

Certain [New Deal]programs massively altered the relationship between Americans and their government with regard to critical aspect[s] of their lives, violently tossing aside any respect for our founding principles of federalism and limited government. By the far the best example of this is Social Security … . Social Security is something we have been forced to accept for more than 70 years now … . By any measure, Social Security is a failure. (Source: Rick Perry, Fed Up!, pp. 48, 50, 62)) 

So … Perry believes that Social Security is (a) unconstitutional, (b) an undemocratic imposition on an undefined “we,” and (c) a failure, however you look at it.

To be sure, there are real problems with Social Security, and lots of us have spent a good deal of time figuring out how to address them. In the long term, significant adjustments are necessary and unavoidable. But if you can’t figure out how to refute Perry, you don’t have the political intelligence to be an effective candidate. And if you’re not willing to say it, starting in September’s debates, you don’t have the guts to be an effective candidate. And you won’t be your party’s nominee.

Why should you pay any attention to me? After all, I’m a lifelong Democrat, even though my credentials have been questioned from time to time. Two reasons. First, I’ve been through six presidential campaigns, five of which went down to defeat in deeply instructive ways. When it comes to failure, I know what I’m talking about.

The second reason goes to my motives. Because I regard you as the most electable Republican with a serious chance of winning his party’s nomination, this memorandum might appear to be what the lawyers call an argument against interest. Why then would I give you what I sincerely regard as good advice? Answer: If the current mood of economic desperation persists for another year, which it might, then candidates who wouldn’t be electable in ordinary circumstances might capture that mood and ride it to victory. Not to put too fine a point on it, but a Perry presidency would be a catastrophe for the country. Not only does he have bizarre views on just about everything that has happened since the 1890s; if you think American politics is hyper-polarized now, just wait.

Bottom line: I’ll vote against you and do what I can to assist President Obama’s reelection effort. But I also want to take out an insurance policy: If Obama loses, I want the country to be in hands I regard as responsible—even if I’ll end up opposing most of what you propose.

In the end, what I think doesn’t matter that much. But I strongly suspect that millions of Americans feel the same way, even if you won’t be hearing from them in the next few months.