Here’s what the Republicans should do for their best shot at winning the 2012 election: Add Mitt Romney and Rick Perry together, and divide them by two. Then they’d have “Mick,” their dream of a candidate.
If, in 2008, the composite ideal was divided or four (or in three) upon parts of the legacy — social conservative Mike Huckabee, fiscal conservative Romney, and defense and war-on-terror hawks McCain and Giuliani — the field in 2012 is split not on policy, but on effect and persona.
On policy, the two seem to think the same things, but who they are and how they would do them remain very different: Mitt is the head and Rick is the heart; Mitt is Al Gore, and Rick is Bill Clinton; Mitt is Clean Gene, and Rick is Robert F. Kennedy; Mitt is Ashley Wilkes, and Rick is Rhett Butler. (Who would be Scarlett remains to be seen.)
Rick has a huge, “don’t mess with me” presence; Mitt always seems tentative. Mitt seems to be trying to find what people want so he can become it; Rick could care less.
Rick as governor has been more successful than Mitt, but he cites his successes, and doesn’t explain them, while Mitt has a chart, blueprint, and multipoint plan.
Mitt strives not to offend; Rick seems to want to. On Social Security, as the National Review’s Rich Lowry said, Perry took the conventional view, and made it “radioactive” to persuadable voters.
“A political beast with retail skills and a taste for political combat … but he’ll have to appeal to the GOP’s mind as well as its heart,” Lowry said.
Mitt hails from the Midwest, and later New England, but seems rootless, and could be from anywhere. Rick is regional, and may not travel well. Rick could scare people — a valuable trait in a world with Iran and al-Qaida.
He’s already scared the hell out of the New York Times, New Republic, New Yorker, et al. If it stays there, he’s fine; if it spreads, he has trouble, and much depends upon what he does now.
Mitt is best poised to win in a low-intensity battle, in which things remain bad, but don’t get much worse, the Middle East stays just this side of chaos, the economy limps along, or sinks very slowly, and swing-state suburbanites, torn over ditching their dreamboat from 2008, find him a nonthreatening alternative to someone who hadn’t panned out as they hoped.
On the other hand, if things fall apart, if the economy dives, the Mideast heats up, Iran has the bomb, and is threatening the U.S. and/or Israel, the appeal of Big Daddy could prove irresistible, and Perry could win in a Reaganesque rout.
If Obama looks like a student, and Romney looks like a substitute teacher, Perry looks like the headmaster who comes in and brings order. Whoever coined the phrase “Wait till your father gets home” had someone like Perry in mind as the father. In times of disturbance, said Doris Kearns Goodwin, the big personality wins every time.
But the GOP doesn’t know yet which plot line to plan for, much less if Perry will prove too exciting for voters in Virginia or Florida, so it has to go on planning for every contingency, and hoping for someone who meets both.
It wants a strong presence who scares the bad people, but not the swing voters; who can turn out to deal with Iran and with China; who gets the details, and big picture; who revs up its base, while depressing the Democrats.
It wants some of one, and some of the other. In short, it wants Mick.
Examiner columnist Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and author of “Great Expectations; The Troubled Lives of Political Families.”