The Tea Partier Who Brought His Own Tea

After Rick Perry announced his official entry into the presidential race on Saturday, the Texas governor distinguished himself with a series of maybe-gaffes while touring Iowa. But that tour, which political pundits and Obama have already brushed off as a late entrant’s ramshackle opening, is barely a distinguishing characteristic of a political season that’s been dominated by embarrassment.

Newt Gingrich opened his campaign by alienating his base on Meet the Press , then failing to account for an enormous amount of money he owed to Tiffany’s, and jetting off for a cruise with his omnipresent wife, causing key members of his staff to bail on the campaign (he’s currently scheduled to spend three days campaigning in Hawaii, and his remaining staff would like you to know it also the anniversary of the day he married that omnipresent wife).

Michele Bachmann’s entry was similarly marred by errors. She received a cease-and-desist from Tom Petty at the onset of her campaign, after coming on stage to the songwriter’s “American Girl.” This came just days after she inadvertently sort of compared herself to John Wayne Gacy, and intentionally compared herself to John Wayne, who detractors were quick to point out was not a serial killer but was an open racist.

Gingrich’s campaign never recovered, and while Bachmann’s has, there was still a flutter of hope among the Republicans active in Iowa last weekend that Rick Perry would come overturn any remaining doubts they had about Republican viability in 2012. Perry arrived on the scene Saturday with all the swagger his persona implied he would, and began staking out ground immediately. He started by saying that American troops could only respect a president who had served in the military, a president like Perry but unlike Obama. The next day he brought back the old Republican accusation that Obama doesn’t love America. Then he accused Ben Bernanke of treason, and seemed to imply that he’d be lynched if he ever made it down to Texas (he probably won’t).

When asked by reporters to clarify these statements, he didn’t backtrack so much as reiterate them in a much calmer way. Did Obama really not love America? “You need to ask him,” he said. When asked if he thought the Bernanke comments were incendiary, his spokesman responded:

The Governor was expressing his frustration with the current economic situation and the out of control spending that persists in Washington. Most Americans would agree that spending more money is not the answer to the economic issues facing the country.

Meanwhile, far from damaging his campaign, Perry shot up to the top of the list along with Bachmann and Mitt Romney, to the dismay of Tim Pawlenty, who, after a collection of his own minor gaffes, dropped out the day after Perry entered. Perry’s popularity may be nothing more than infatuation with the newest thing, the way that Herman Cain’s spike after the first Republican debate subsided shortly after. But it might be more like Bachmann’s, which every day seems less fragile, maybe because she has enormous grass-roots appeal, or maybe because she’s so naturally outrageous that cameras are instinctively drawn to her.

Perry has a lot in common with Bachmann. He speaks off the cuff, he has a history of radical conservative politics, he has grass-roots appeal, and liberals hate him. He also so far seems to be granted the same pardons she is for comments that would land others in trouble. His attack on Bernanke hasn’t hurt him in the polls. Pundits meanwhile seem slightly troubled, but mostly confused;they’re not sure what kind of candidate he’s going to be. Frankly, no one is sure what kind of candidate he is. Some of that is that he’s new to the race, but some of it also is that he seems to be a confusing hybrid of the two types of Republicans running for president. Those two types here as the establishment candidates, the Romneys, and the Tea Party Fundamentalists, the Bachmanns.

Mitt Romney is the only Republican president who’s been exceptionally well behaved so far. He’s also the only one who’s been consistently able to generate news without being outrageous. If you think about that for a minute, it’s not a small accomplishment. While much of Bachmann’s continued success rode on her performing well in the Ames straw poll, Romney didn’t even compete. His frontrunner status the entire time has been assumed, because he’s the only one who seemed serious, as well as good at running a campaign (unlike Pawlenty). As the red former governor of a blue state and experienced presidential candidate, he’s got credentials as a bona fide establishment politician that, in a year where all signs indicate should be a liability, have kept him safe. Safer even than Michele Bachmann. But safer than Rick Perry? Maybe.

Maybe not. Perry has bona fide credentials himself. A post that went up on Political Math yesterday took data that certifies Texas’ strong performance throughout the recession. He’s been the very red governor of a well-performing state for 10 years. He has more claim to creating jobs than Bachmann and Romney, and as much name recognition as either. That couldn’t have hurt him when Republicans made him their white knight. Yet a few years ago he started talking about Texas’ secession from the United States. He’s as socially conservative as anyone else in the Republican presidential field, and the other day he made what seemed like a good-ole-boy threat against the chairman of the Federal Reserve. None of those things have seemed to have hurt him either. So again, no one knows what kind of candidate he’s going to be, but there’s little doubt the cameras will be instinctively drawn to him. Take some of the pressure off Romney, maybe.

As for the news that Republican tastemakers are now desperately turning toward Chris Christie and Paul Ryan one last time, two things: one, they’re not going to run, and two, if Ryan runs, he’ll be marginally more successful than Thad McCotter.

Justin Spees

Justin Spees is an intern at the Washington Monthly.