With the decision by Paul Ryan to forgo a presidential run, there is much discussion about Republican elites’ desire to find a wonky choice for president. But pundits and liberals eager to paint the GOP field as deficient may be overstating the case.
For those who remember the 1980 election, Jack Kemp was thought by many smart conservatives to be the brainy leader of the movement. It turned out that Ronald Reagan’s combination of conservative values and superb political skills made him the best equipped candidate to lead the movement, capture the White House and enact conservative policies. The lesson: The candidate with the smartest, most forward-thinking vision is not always able to be the Republican nominee. And that can be a good thing.
The question now becomes for conservatives not who is sort-of-like-Ryan, but who can win and bring a reform agenda into the White House. It is quite possible that either Texas Gov. Rick Perry or Mitt Romney can do it. It requires, however, each to stretch beyond his comfort zone.
For Perry, there are legitimate questions as to how much he contributed to the Texas job miracle. Ross Douthat argues, “When Perry became governor, taxes were already low, regulations were light, and test scores were on their way up. He didn’t create the zoning rules that keep Texas real estate affordable, or the strict lending requirements that minimized the state’s housing bubble. Over all, the Texas model looks like something he inherited rather than a system he built.” Perry needs to explain why that is wrong, remind voters of the policies he deployed and make the case why that’s a formula for success at the national level.
Ronald Reagan was tagged as a dumb actor when in reality he had thought, spoken and written on the great issues of the day for decades. Perry might not have the same flair for conservative policy, but certainly he can speak about how conservative ideas benefit ordinary Americans. To do this and to avoid turning off suburban voters, business leaders and conservative smart guys he must, to be blunt, start sounding more presidential and less like a talk show host. In short, Perry will sound smarter if he uses the rhetoric of a reformer not a rightwing blogger.
Romney has wisely scheduled a speech on jobs for early September. He should follow that up with major addresses on entitlement and tax reform. His smarts are not at issue, but his convictions are. In laying out his plans he is going to have to convince Republican voters that his policies stem from an overarching vision about liberty, free markets, and American exceptionalism.
You can imagine either candidate “growing” during the campaign — not as liberals use that term (to become less conservative), but as conservatives do. Who can project a larger purpose and a more uplifting conservative message? Whoever can do that, I would suggest, will be the nominee.