Reagan debate shows promise, peril of Rick Perry

Rick Perry essentially introduced himself to America’s voters Wednesday evening, showing both why he’s a candidate to be reckoned with, but also why there remain in the minds of some serious questions about how he’ll fare in a general election.

As the dust settled from the brawl at the Reagan Library, much of the attention remained focused on Perry’s spirited defense of his views on Social Security. The Texas governor did not back down from labeling the program a “scheme.” He also called it a “monstrous lie.”

“It is a Ponzi scheme to tell our kids that are 25 or 30 years today you’re paying into a program that’s going to be there,” Perry said. “Anybody that’s for the status quo with Social Security today is involved with a monstrous lie to our kids, and it’s not right.”

Perry at times has struggled to reconcile the profoundly conservative positions he takes in his book “Fed Up” with his new role as a candidate. And Wednesday, even as he was sounding the alarm about Social Security, he was reassuring prospective beneficiaries that they had nothing to worry about.


Mitt Romney, Perry’s top rival, was all too eager to pounce on Perry’s remarks.

“Our nominee has to be someone who isn’t committed to abolish Social Security, but is committed to saving [it],” Romney said.

His campaign blasted out a mailer Thursday detailing Perry’s past remarks on the program, including one in which he called it a “failure” and suggested states take over the program.

Expect much more of that. Perry’s attempt at finessing his position on a program that is popular with an overwhelming number of Americans is a Texas two-step he’ll have to continue perfecting if he wants to win the White House. Some observers were not impressed.


“Perry made explicit views, such as on Social Security, that will very likely haunt him in the weeks and months ahead,” said Thomas Mann, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “His front-runner status was built on a house of cards and he will struggle to retain it.”

But others thought Perry was the debate’s clear winner, mainly because of a muscular, shoot-first style that plays well with the Republican base.  

“His total liberation from the constraints of reason give Perry a chance to represent the Republican id in a way Romney simply cannot match,” wrote Jonathan Chait of the New Republic, who likened Perry to his fellow Texan, George W. Bush, calling him an “alpha male.”

On issues, most of Perry’s perceived vulnerabilities were addressed Wednesday. He was pressed on his decision to institute a vaccination program for young girls against HPV. He was pushed on his views on climate change. (That resulted in one of the evening’s pure head-scratching moments when Perry appeared to compare his skepticism about global warming to Galileo’s views on heliocentrism.)

Romney tried to pull back the curtain on Perry’s job-creation record in Texas, suggesting that the governor benefited from his state’s fundamental economic strengths (low taxes, oil and gas) more than anything Perry has done.

Perry largely escaped heat over his immigration stance. When the topic arose, he spoke of securing the border in Texas, and avoided any reference to the undocumented workers who help prop up the state economy.  That too is likely to come up again soon.

All in all, Perry committed no gaffes and did little to harm his position in the still unfolding race. But Romney was able to do what he needs to do: establish a political narrative that has him as the potential electable alternative to the Texan.

Romney was dogged, as well, however. While Perry took his shots, the former Massachusetts governor was also repeatedly assailed by a feisty Jon Huntsman, who was trying to elbow his way into Romney’s political space.  At one point, he rapped Romney’s job-growth record by comparing it to his own record in Utah with a simple “47 just ain’t going to cut it, my friend, not when you can be first.”


Huntsman also seemed to be making the moderate argument against Perry late in the debate when he made an appeal for rationality.

“In order for the Republican Party to win, we can’t run from science. We can’t run from mainstream conservative philosophy,” Huntsman said. “By making comments that don’t reflect the reality of the situation, we turn people off.”

It’s hard to say whether Perry turned anyone off Wednesday, but Huntsman has defined the challenge that awaits him as the campaign rolls forward.  For the moment, the Texas governor has captured the imagination of much of the party’s conservative base, but it’s a long race—and a big country. Even bigger than Texas.