Nearly four years ago, an old blogbuddy and sporadic poster here noted that the Republican party in its current incarnation could be divided up into three factions: Jesus! Bombs! and Money! (My objection to the Jesus! Bombs! Money! nomenclature that is that I consider the Moatdiggers as sort of a separate group, whose desire to see the Federal government issue licenses enabling the hunting of illegal aliens for sport to be the paramount inherent good overpowering even the deepest personal love they might have for Jesus! or Bombs! or Money!.)
That nomenclature is a good starting point for thinking about how, when, and where the decisive punches will be thrown in the 2012 Republican primary. I think I know enough now to make an effective prognostication.
The GOP primaries in 2012 are shaping up to be a three-day contest between Perry, Romney, and Bachmann. No one is excited about Mitt Romney; his main strength is the Money! faction. Michelle Bachmann appeals to the Jesus! faction well, but is too clearly the mirror image of Howard Dean to be taken seriously. Yes, Ron Paul will get his 10-15%, enough to be a gadfly but not enough to ever win anything of consequence or even to get a spot at the convention in which he will be given a realistic audience. And while Congresswoman Bachmann is the darling of the Tea Party movement, the bloom can come off that rose pretty quickly, and even if not I’m still not convinced that there are numerically enough Tea Partiers to keep her in the driver’s seat.
Because she’s not in the driver’s seat right now. Rick Perry, the darling of the moment, is sitting there. Perry is the one candidate out there about whom all three main factions can find something to like. Conservative. Good-looking. Plain-spoken and charming. Possessed of good retail political skills. Wired in to Christian religious leaders who are acceptable to the bulk of GOP primary voters who care about religion in the first place. And some genuinely solid things to point to from his time as governor of Texas (not immune from criticism, I note, but nothing is). Has actually held public office within the past ten years, unlike Romney; has actual executive experience in government on his resume, unlike Bachmann.
It looks to me like Perry’s race to lose. If he can avoid sex scandals; keep his nose reasonably clean with regards to fundraising; eat enough peach cobbler in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina; and avoid having a disaster take place in Texas, Perry looks like he can turn the nomination process into an annointing, the same way his predecessor did in 2000.
Which is why Marc Theissen’s column in yesterday’s WaPo was so interesting. If Romney is going to re-take the lead, he can’t just rely on experienced machinery and good fundraising skills. Nor is it enough for him to sit back and hope that Perry says or does something undisciplined that torpedoes his own campaign. Romney must throw, and land, some punches at Governor Perry — attacking on Perry’s right flank whenever possible. Here’s where the attacks will come:
- Social Security. Perry has called Social Security an “illegal Ponzi scheme.” Not going to be popular with a bunch of voters who are now relying on Social Security for their income. (Technically, this is an attack on Perry’s left flank, but Social Security is a special case.)
- Immigration. Every Governor of Texas must be somewhat soft on immigration because, let’s face it, a lot of Texas’ economy relies on it. Perry opposed the creation of a border fence in 2001. He signed laws authorizing children of illegal immigrants to attend Texas state universities.
- Size of government. Perry will be portrayed as a friend of big state government, someone who hired some ridiculous number of public employees and made some sort of cozy deal with some public sector union. I don’t know how that one will come out, but I’m sure something is in there. Perry has a long resume in public service, which I don’t think of as a detriment but some voters might.
- Electability and Florida. Finally, Romney will argue that he is more palatable to nonpartisan voters than the hyper-partisan red-meat-eating Perry, and therefore that he can beat Obama in swing states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida where Perry cannot.
The merits of these claims are one thing. The claims don’t have to be particularly true or honest; if they are, so much the better but that’s incidental. All that counts is that the punch be thrown. Perry will certainly counterpunch; Romney is particularly vulnerable on his long time out of public office and his principal achievement as Governor of Massachusetts in enacting a public health care program much like the hated Obamacare law.
I’ll add to Theissen that the calendar suggests to me several concessions on the way to the real fight. Romney ought to clean up in New Hampshire. Perry ought to clean up in Iowa and South Carolina. So that means that the decisive contests will be the fourth and fifth ones, the ones that put John McCain over the top in 2008 — Nevada and Florida. That’s where Romney has to to make his stand; he can’t win Iowa or South Carolina. If Romney can get Florida, it’ll be a Clinton-Obama style duel down to the end. If Perry gets Florida, the primary is functionally over and Perry will be the nominee.
And while Barack Obama looks vulnerable now, it’s still more than a year from the general election and Obama is a remarkably skilled campaigner and fundraiser in his own right. Remember that scene in Return of the Jedi when Yoda warned Luke to not underestimate the Emperor? Yeah, that — Obama didn’t get into the Oval Office because he lacked political ability. I think the general election will be a lot closer than optimistic GOP strategists are predicting right now; what will matter will be the delta on the GDP and the delta on unemployment numbers in October 2012 — a matter over which, as a practical matter, neither the President nor his eventual opponent will have substantial control.