If your job was to protect Gov. Rick Perry from political attack, you’d probably protect his front, his back and his left flank — the directions from which you’d expect his foes to attack.
You could ignore his right, right?
Perry is supposed to check all the boxes there, collecting superlatives from social conservatives, Tea Partiers, fiscal conservatives, evangelical Christians, home schoolers, economic development types — you name it.
But the first part of the presidential race isn’t a general election, and it is fundamental politics to attack your opponents’ strengths and weaknesses.
Perry’s strength has been his conservative bona fides. U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison found that out last year, when she tried to gather the remaining moderates in the Texas Republican Party and run Perry out of the Governor’s Mansion. Debra Medina, a longtime Ron Paul supporter with some claim to Tea Party support, joined in. Neither challenger landed a serious punch, and Perry won without a runoff, then easily beat Bill White in the general election.
Front, back, left — but not right.
Now Perry is in a national race, and guess what? Suddenly his right flank is exposed.
Late last month, he wandered into a box canyon on federalism and gay marriage, drawing fire from some White House wannabes. First, Perry said New Yorkers had every right to approve same-sex marriage, asserting their state’s opinion on an issue the federal government has left to the states.
“Our friends in New York six weeks ago passed a statute that said marriage can be between two people of the same sex,” Perry said. “And you know what? That’s New York, and that’s their business, and that’s fine with me. That is their call. If you believe in the 10th Amendment, stay out of their business."
His supporters gulped.
Later, Perry said he thinks the federal Constitution ought to outlaw gay marriages. His states’ rights supporters gulped.
If this was an episode of The Three Stooges, he’d have a paint can over his head and another on his right foot.
It’s probably more a teachable moment than a sticky predicament — a crash course in the difference between Texas politics, at which he’s quite accomplished, and national politics, where he’s playing big for the first time.
That adventure prompted a conversation about Perry’s conservative credentials. It’s a weird conversation from a Texas perspective, where Perry has had exactly two credible primary opponents in two decades, and it’ll be interesting to see him working a new problem.
Talk of his endorsement of Rudy Giuliani in the 2008 presidential race is bound to complicate things.
During that campaign, Mike Huckabee came to Texas to ask his fellow governor for a cup of sugar — would the southern evangelical Republican please support his southern evangelical Republican brother from Arkansas?
Perry went instead with Giuliani, who has previously taken what are, for today’s Republicans, dangerously liberal positions on same-sex marriage, abortion and gun control.
Bloggers and other chatterers are already writing and talking about a Perry-Giuliani ticket, one of those balanced-ballot concoctions that asks the political diners if they’d like some octopus on the plate to offset the sweetness of the strawberries. Sometimes a strange pairing works — try praline bacon at Elizabeth’s next time you’re in New Orleans — while sometimes it merely alarms the diners.
Everybody in the presidential race is trying to pick off voters, and every contestant has some appeal. Michele Bachmann is after the Tea Party folk and social conservatives. Ron Paul wrote the handbook for small-government conservatives. Rick Santorum is after the social conservatives. They can each be expected to shoot at Perry or anyone who comes poaching for votes. Their ammunition will be anything that attaches to the opposition that is offensive to those voters.
It’s a two-step. First, attach Perry to Giuliani. Second, use Giuliani’s positions to raise doubts about Perry’s.
They can couple it with Perry’s own goofs, starting with his states’ rights flip-flop.
But it could work the other way, too. Rick-Rudy bumper stickers, anyone?