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New Republic: Rick Perry's Winning Trash Talk

Texas Republican Gov. Rick Perry speaks to supporters at the Victory  Texas and Republican Party of Texas election night watch party on November 2, 2010 in Buda,  Texas.
Ben Sklar
AFP/Getty Images
Texas Republican Gov. Rick Perry speaks to supporters at the Victory Texas and Republican Party of Texas election night watch party on November 2, 2010 in Buda, Texas.

Erica Grieder is the southwest correspondent for The Economist , based in Austin, Texas.

A not insignificant portion of the national political establishment—consisting of panicky Democrats and Republicans alike—is hoping that Rick Perry's commanding lead in recent Republican primary polls will wither under the lights of this month's multiple presidential debates, beginning with tonight's event at the Ronald Reagan Library in California. The governor of Texas may be a formidable retail politician, they reason, but as soon as he's facing sustained, aggressive questioning, and is forced to speak off the cuff about policy, he'll be exposed for what he truly is: A good ol' boy who doesn't have the brains or the manners to earn the public's trust.

This is, to put it mildly, wishful thinking. Anyone who's counting on Perry showing up this evening and tripping over himself, in the style of George W. Bush, is in for an unpleasant surprise. Perry has occasionally been a lazy debater and he is sometimes lackadaisical about keeping informed, but he has cultivated a number of rhetorical strengths.

On the issues where he has been motivated to mastery, for example, such as business and electoral politics, he typically has a commanding grasp of the facts. When I've interviewed him, I've been most concerned about economic issues, and have found him to be an articulate and nimble advocate for the Texas model, controversial though his views may be.

Perry also has a natural facility for language. Jonathan Martin, at Politico, excavated a brilliant comment that Perry made about Karl Rove back in 1994. "My brain is like a chicken pot pie," said Perry, "His is like a refrigerator that is all very organized—pickles here, salad there." A chicken pot pie, perhaps, but a lot of professional speechwriters would struggle to come up with an image so apt and evocative.

There is an illuminating comparison here between Perry and his predecessor, Bush. Both have a reputation for gaffing, but their missteps are different in type. Bush's errors were typically of execution; he would simply misspeak, muddling his grammar or his quotes. Perry's errors are typically of content rather than form. His most damaging comments to date have come in 2009, when he seemed to suggest that Texas might secede, and last month, when he said that if Ben Bernanke came to Texas, he would be treated "pretty ugly." In both cases, the public objection was about the thought being expressed more than how it was phrased.

And it's safe to assume that both times Perry was not offering sincere policy proposals, just running his mouth: Texas is not authorized to secede, and the idea that Texans would consider doing so is ridiculous; and whatever your feelings about quantitative easing, it's obviously not "almost treasonous." In general, it seems that campaign gaffes are most costly when they seem to reveal something noxious or corroborate something that voters already dislike about a candidate. Perry's trash-talking confirms that he's aggressive, but Republican voters don't particularly dislike that in a candidate. Of course, it's thuggish to suggest that the Federal Reserve Chairman should be mistreated, but Perry knew that his remarks were unlikely to count against him. Liberals predictably wringed their hands, but the only effect has been to give Perry an opportunity to cite their outrage over his secession comments as a punch line at conservative rallies.

The particular facility Perry shows when it comes to the deployment of belligerent rhetoric is reflective of Texan political culture, which tends to be more colorful and no-holds-barred than elsewhere in the country. Texans across the political spectrum expect, and accept, a streak of aggression in their political leaders. When President Bush was going around talking about smoking Osama bin Laden out of his hole, liberals elsewhere in the country may have been outraged at the breach of diplomatic protocol, but some Texan Democrats were instinctively on board. "I am such a Texan was 'Sign me up for the posse, sheriff' time for me," wrote the great liberal journalist Molly Ivins at the time. "It never occurred to me that was inappropriate language. When others pointed it out, I, like Bush, promptly became defensive."

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Erica Grieder