Texas Gov. Rick Perry, like President Obama, should learn quickly that no single speech can revive a sagging political operation. In Perry’s case, yesterday's effort to roll out an economic agenda was of course complicated by his own birther plunge. Even his surrogates are now deluged.
Poor Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, fresh from a huge reelection win and appearing on CNN to talk about Perry’s economic plans, got cornered by Wolf Blitzer. The exchange went like this:
BLITZER: You’re a major supporter of Governor Perry. Do you believe the president of the United States was born in Hawaii?
JINDAL: Absolutely. Wolf, I’ve said for the last many years, I’ve always believed he was born here. I have no questions about where he’s from. i’ve got more questions about where he’s going. The reality is president was born here. He is the president of the United States. The real debate about whether he deserves a second term is his handling on the economy. The reality is the only way we’re going to grow the economy is to cut government spending. We’ve had three years. We’ve tried the opposite. The results have been a disaster. You’ve got a debt up to $15 trillion. Unemployment over 9 percent. Government spending has increased and yet private-sector jobs have not recovered.
BLITZER: So, why does your candidate, Governor Perry, refuse to say what you just say? Instead, he told this to CNBC this morning on this whole birther issue. [plays interview clip]
BLITZER: Why does he do that? Why doesn’t he just say what you said, Governor?
JINDAL: You’ll have to ask him. The bottom line, though, is this election is about a difference in two approaches. . . .
What the heck did Bobby Jindal ever do to deserve that?
But on the speech itself, it’s fair to say that Perry got a lukewarm reaction. The Club for Growth (which actually liked 9-9-9, while most every other think tank and conservative tax guru panned it) was delighted. But that was the exception. It wasn’t bad; it just was not a game-changer (even without the distractions). The National Review editors were quite representative:
Like Romney’s economic plan, Perry’s has nothing to say about housing or the financial industry, and not much to say about health care for young and middle-aged people. On the subjects he has chosen to tackle — taxes, spending, and regulation — Perry wants to go in the right direction: toward less of each.
But his plan reads like a second draft. He has chosen to avoid the political liabilities of a flat tax by forgoing its distinctive advantages of simplicity and low compliance costs. The hybrid tax system he would create would in no important sense be flat, and Perry seems unwilling to spell out the cuts necessary to get spending in rough balance with the amount of revenue it would collect. Republicans should try for something better.
In other words, the plan is not so awe-inspiring that it makes enough of a difference. National Journal explained: “For conservatives, the plan does not make the tax code any simpler. It leaves intact the current tax system, while allowing taxpayers to opt into a second plan with lower tax rates. . . . And, while it shifts the political conversation toward the more traditional view of the flat tax and lowers rates for rich people and corporations, it’s not an all-out consumption tax that focuses on raising revenue through purchases rather than income.” A couple flat-tax gurus told National Journal they were underwhelmed.
Moreover, according to the plan’s own research firm, Perry’s flat tax scheme would raise between $1.7 and $4.7 trillion less in revenue from 2014 through 2020 than the current code, making its passage about as likely as 9-9-9.
None of the other campaigns — with the exception of Newt Gingrich, who tweeted an offer to talk flat-tax plans — bothered to comment on Perry’s plan. The Romney camp, in the equivalent of a yawn, sent out during the day its usual lists of new supporters from various states.
However, it isn’t just that the Perry plan itself was short of a “wow.” The reason, I suspect, that Perry did not get rave reviews is that it was not responsive to his problem, which cannot be solved by a scripted conservative economic address. Voters don’t think he’s a tax hiker or a big spender. He’s alienated conservative audiences by his position on immigration, his alarming rhetoric and his substandard (or downright wacky) performances when he’s off script. The interview on CNBC was more revealing (and hence more damaging) than the speech was soothing to potential supporters.
Once you’ve crossed a threshold with voters either because you’ve given the impression, rightly or wrongly, that you are foolish (Dan Quayle) or unsteady (Howard Dean) or in over your head (Obama), it is very, very hard to get them back. Not impossible. But improbable.