When Gov. Rick Perry returns to Austin this weekend, he’s likely to return to a hero’s welcome. He launched his campaign in a flawless rollout in South Carolina last weekend, captured the top spot in Rasmussen by double-digits, and is off to a dominating start in the GOP primary. Perry’s welcome will take all of that into account, as well as something else: Those of us who have watched him campaign have seen him blitz like this before, and in the past it has been a prelude to a long, entertaining campaign and ultimate victory.
The first week since Texas Gov. Rick Perry announced his run for the presidency has gone something like this: Perry says something provocative, media pounces, Obama reacts, and Perry either re-states what he said or ups the ante by saying something new and just as provocative. The media wonders aloud whether Perry is able to stay on script and establishment Republicans like Karl Rove toss out warnings that Perry may have gone too far. All of that misses the possibility, which I treat as fact, that Rick Perry knows exactly what he’s doing and this first week has gone exactly as he expected.
What many, and I include Rove and Huckabee and his other critics in this, don’t seem to understand is, this is how Rick Perry campaigns. And wins. He understands the media and his opponent better than they understand themselves. The media that fretted when Perry shot a coyote last year missed the fact that most Texans reacted to that same story with something along the lines of “The governor packs heat and protected his dog while jogging? Cool.” Perry is using the media’s own elitism and lack of connection with mainstream America against it, and against Obama, turning both against each other.
Take the Bernanke comment, for example. Perry gave a little Texas talk and said it would be just about treasonous for the Fed chairman to just print more money to deal with the national’s fiscal problems. While what Perry said struck some as over the top, it focused all of the GOP primary attention on him and pulled the media into covering him, immediately. And on substance, for whatever that’s worth in today’s politics, Perry has a strong point. The comment also established a marker: Rick Perry will not govern in the ineffectual way Obama has. The remark followed up on his very successful rollout, in which Perry laid out his vision and to a great extent laid into Obama’s. The Bernanke comment, then, is a follow-up hit on the current administration’s failed policies, delivered in a way that forces the media to start treating the race as Obama vs Perry, not Obama vs Romney or, maybe more importantly at this stage, Obama vs Generic Republican.
Perry’s comment about the military preferring a commander in chief who served in the military worked in a similar way. Obama has a famously thin skin. The media can’t help but take a comment like Perry’s and ask Obama directly about it. Obama’s quip that Perry should be given the benefit of the doubt was a lame try to mask the fact that what Perry said is unarguably true — all other things being equal, military members would tend to prefer a president who served over one who didn’t. That’s just a fact, and one for which Obama has no real response since he did not serve and Perry did, as a pilot in the Air Force. Perry’s comment draws that distinction out and sets Obama up for future hits on that key difference in their backgrounds (and, by the way, a difference that separates Perry from most of the GOP field as well). Perry followed that up with yet another jab, on Obama’s failed policies. Bam-bam, Obama has just been hit twice by Perry from two directions — background and success in office — for which he has no response, and in which Perry holds obvious superiority.
Who is controlling the conversation between Obama, the media, and the voters here? Rick Perry is. And Perry is showing that unlike all of the other GOP candidates, he is hitting Obama in ways that force him to respond. Perry can’t and won’t be ignored because he knows where and how to hit.
This is the same kind of thing Perry and his campaign did last year to Democrat gov nominee Bill White. Like Obama, White thinks very highly of himself, and like Obama, White also has a very thin skin. That combination makes for an opponent you can box into responding on your command. So Perry playfully jabbed at White throughout the entire campaign, always getting under White’s skin, forcing the media to cover the attacks and ask White about them, and ultimately forcing White to respond to Perry rather than advance his own agenda. Toward the end of the 2010 campaign, White was responding directly to minutiae just as prominently as he responded to the Perry camp’s major attacks, wasting valuable campaign airtime and looking petty and defensive.
Based on Perry’s first week, he has something similar in mind for Obama. It’s likely to work, because neither Obama nor the media can help themselves.
More: Perry’s statement on Bernanke was not a poor choice — it was an effective tactic to highlight and spark discussion about a substantive problem with Obama policy. Which, as Ed notes in his post, has happened.