On Monday we wrote that Texas Gov. Rick Perry had seized — at least temporarily — on the issue of President Obama’s citizenship not because he genuinely believed that the president wasn’t born in this country but because he wanted to send a signal to Republican activists that he wasn’t afraid to stand up to this president early and often.
But, in the immortal words of David St. Hubbins, it’s such a fine line between clever and stupid.
And, Perry’s continued willingness to address the issue — he did again today for the third time — runs the real risk of falling into the latter category.
Perry’s latest attempt to clear things up came in an interview with Florida super-reporter Adam Smith in which he said that the birther comments came from him “just having some fun with Donald Trump” (oh that old saw!). Prodded on whether he believed Obama was an American citizen, Perry responded conclusively: “I have no doubt about it.”
That’s likely to close the book on this episode. But it’s not without negative consequences for Perry. Here’s two:
1. Establishment jitters: Perry has struggled since entering the race to convince the Republican establishment — professional political operatives, many big-dollar donors etc — that he is a safe pick to be the party’s nominee against what is widely acknowledged as a decidedly vulnerable incumbent president. This birther episode won’t help him answer those questions.
“He is refreshing doubts that he has the abilities and discipline to be a good candidate against Obama,” said Republican media consultant Alex Castellanos, who worked for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in 2008 but is unaligned in this race. “And, if you don’t have the abilities and discipline to be a good candidate, how can you convince people you are up to job, not only of defeating Obama, but being a good president?”
Perry and his team will, undoubtedly, dismiss the importance of establishment support. And, they’re right to a point. But only to a point. The establishment — in both parties — drives the political conversation in Washington, which radiates out into cable news coverage and beyond. And news media coverage influences donors. It can be a vicious cycle if you are on the wrong side of it.
2. Message muddle: After a steady dip in national polls — the latest New York Times/CBS News survey showed him at just six percent in a 2012 primary matchup — Perry needed to spend this week talking about the flat tax proposal he unveiled on Tuesday.
Instead of talking about that proposal, which is drawing considerable positive buzz in Republican circles, Perry wound up having to answer questions about his thoughts on Obama’s citizenship.
Some in GOP circles blame the media for focusing on the birther issue but remember that it was Perry who opened the door to that conversation with his comments to Parade magazine and his follow-up interview with CNBC’s John Harwood.
Message discipline — the ability to say what you want to say (and, as importantly, not say what you don’t want to say) is an essential piece of running a winning campaign for any office but particularly in a presidential race where every utterance is highly scrutinized.
As one unaligned senior Republican strategist put it in an email exchange with the Fix: “ [Perry] has a shot, but it’s time for F-O-C-U-S or else he’ll be G-O-N-E.”
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