Analysis

Rick Perry and Scott Walker: Two governors, different GOP messages

Rick Perry and Scott Walker parry over a governor's best approach to a presidential campaign

In less than a day’s time, Republican Party leaders who are gathered here heard two prospective presidential candidates' versions of an argument that will persist through next year’s primaries: whether breaking the party’s losing streak when it comes to the White House requires a candidate from outside of Washington or inside, and whether that face needs to be fresh or familiar.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, speaking at a lunch Friday, sounded a theme that was central to a speech given the night before by his Wisconsin counterpart, Scott Walker: that Republicans needed a positive vision to attract voters during the 2016 presidential campaign.

“The next two years are about a better and a brighter future and a vision to restore America’s place in the world,” Perry said.  “We must again be the party of ideas, the party of opportunities, the party of vision -- not merely the party of opposition.”

But that followed a speech dominated by its persistent and lengthy criticisms of President Obama, on issues including energy, foreign policy, immigration, the border and the economy. Apart from leaving listeners with the assumption that he was for whatever Obama was against, Perry did little to sketch out what he would have done — and how that would translate into a presidential campaign.

His speech rested on bromides like his criticism of Obama’s foreign policy:  “Time and time again this administration has chosen to abandon our friends and weaken our allies.”

Much of Perry’s speech was familiar, a reprise of the speech he delivered at the Ronald Reagan Library last October. Politicians regularly  repeat speeches, of course, but Perry’s appearance Friday came before an audience of Republican National Committee members who will hold much sway over the fortunes of the presidential field and are comparing the prospects up close.

So his delivery of a speech that seemed dated -- with its references to Russia’s actions in the Ukraine, the border crisis that has eased significantly since he first began talking about it and an economy which has improved as his criticism persists — served to inadvertently reinforce Walker’s argument the night before that Republicans needed to push the reset button.

The Texas governor, as has been his habit, touted his state's economic boom as evidence that his policies should be duplicated nationally.  He cited low taxes, “smart” regulations, an educated work force and a stop to “frivolous lawsuits“ — standards in Republican speeches for years.

“It can happen anywhere in America — it can even happen in California. It can,” he said of economic recovery. (And, economists would say, it is.)

Walker, by contrast, outlined a far broader sheaf of policy changes that he hinted would serve as a template for his presidential bid. He cited a shrinking government, changes in teacher protections that rank merit over seniority, a diminishment of rights of unions and property tax reform, to list some. The specificity seemed to give some heft to Walker’s call for a “fresh new leader” with “common sense” ideas.

The Wisconsin governor’s argument Thursday night was meant to lump many of his would-be competitors into a dustbin of the past — a group that would include former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, 2012 nominee Mitt Romney, and Perry.

Each will bring his own strengths and weaknesses into the campaign and each has the potential to be flattened by more financially sound candidates. One or the other also could find a sudden path to prominence in the race, as happened with almost every Republican prospect in 2012.

If they reflected two different approaches, they did agree on one major theme, a slightly uncomfortable one now that Republicans control the House and the Senate: the country’s disdain for Washington. 

Walker  posited that the 2014 elections were a repudiation of Washington, and as such damaged  both President Obama and a long-time D.C. resident, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Perry took to the same theme  on Friday.

“For years our leaders have been lurching from one crisis to another,” he said, adding that “We are experiencing a crisis of competence in Washington and the people know it.”

He offered no solutions except the obvious one: a Republican takeover of the White House.

For political news and analysis, follow me on Twitter: @cathleendecker

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