Rick Perry’s Missing Piece in the 2012 Presidential Policy Wars

Wounded by the debates, the governor needs to unveil his plan for America, says Jill Lawrence.

In public at least, Rick Perry is among those writing off his stumbling debate performances as a verbal problem—as in, he’s not a slick, smooth talker like President Obama or Mitt Romney. But Perry would be less of a piñata, and sound more like a president, if he had laid out a full platform.

In his three debates so far, the governor has attacked Obama and Romney, defended himself, explained himself, and talked about Texas. But the biggest missing piece is his blueprint for America.

When Perry is under fire over some aspect of his Texas record, he hasn’t pivoted to signature plans for jobs or foreign policy. A spin through Perry’s website underscores the problem. Under “Jobs,” we find five paragraphs of conservative boilerplate. The most detailed sentence refers to “low taxes, reasonable regulations, a predictable civil litigation system and an educated workforce.”

Moving along, there are six paragraphs on fiscal responsibility, hitting on similarly broad themes (tax cuts, spending cuts, balanced budgets); three generic paragraphs on foreign policy (he believes in American exceptionalism and defending our borders); and two paragraphs on health care (he would repeal Obamacare and create more jobs).

It’s not as though every other candidate has a detailed economic plan. Michele Bachmann has just one paragraph of economic remedies in the issues section of her website. The word “jobs” doesn’t even appear on Rick Santorum’s site except in reference to his own job as a husband and father. But former governors Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman and former pizza CEO Herman Cain have released proposals that, agree with them or not, detail how they as president would try to blast the country out of its economic torpor.

Romney has a 59-point, 160-page “Believe in America” plan that’s available online and as a free Kindle book. Huntsman’s “Time to Compete” plan, which won praise from The Wall Street Journal editorial board, is available as a 12-page PDF (PDF) (I could not locate it on the confusing Huntsman site but it did turn up in a Google search). Cain’s 9-9-9 plan (PDF) (9 percent business flat tax, individual flat tax, and national sales tax) is bannered on his homepage.

In a fix like this, having just jumped into a major political race, many candidates would be able fall back on books they’ve written about their lives, their ideas, and their beliefs. But the opposite is true of Perry and his 2010 book, Fed Up! Turning over Social Security and Medicare to the states, questioning the constitutionality of the income tax and direct election of senators—all are ideas that will get him into trouble on the campaign trail. Perry needs something to talk about besides the book—for instance, how he’d change entitlements and export his jobs success in Texas to other states.

Dave Carney, Perry’s top strategist, says the campaign plans to roll out major policy initiatives. “This fall we will have a series of them. We will announce them on our timeline,” he said by email. Carney reminded me that Perry has been in the race for less than seven weeks. “Folks are not yet paying attention and our plans are for the benefit of the voters, not the chattering class,” Carney said, and added: “Question for you. Last time anyone mentioned point 34 of Romney’s plan at your water cooler?”

Perry is scheduled to give a speech Friday in Atlanta to the Georgia Public Policy Foundation called “Taxes, Torts and Texas: The Key Policies Supporting the Growing Texas Economy.” The venue and 15-minute time slot suggest it is not a major address, but it’s a good bet Perry will have a full-fledged economic plan by Oct. 11. That’s the date of a Washington Post/Bloomberg News debate on jobs, taxes, deficits, and debt.

Barry Wynn, a former South Carolina GOP chairman who visited Perry in Austin in July and is leaning toward supporting him, calls Romney “the prime-time candidate” and Perry “not near as polished.” Perry needs to show improvement on style and substance and demonstrate he can talk “artfully” about the future, Wynn told me. “People are worried that maybe he really hasn’t spent the hours, weeks, days really looking at all these issues and being able to make well-considered opinions,” he said. “It’s certainly important that he is able to rise to that occasion.”

John Feehery, a Republican strategist, says Perry has let himself be limited by the debates instead of pushing a “game plan” for the American economy. “He needs a plan to define himself outside of the debates and outside of Texas. He’s got to get off this ‘I’m the governor of Texas’ and start running for president,” he said.

So far Perry has not transcended his longtime identity. Take, for example, his references to drawing jobs from other states. His campaign has publicized quotes about his “hunting trips” to other states to lure their companies to Texas. And at the Orlando debate last week, Perry noted that he and Florida Gov. Rick Scott are in competition to attract jobs. Texas “was the No. 1 state for relocation for five years in a row, and we plan on keeping it that way, Rick,” he said. The audience chuckled—but running for president in Florida by promising to drain jobs from Florida is a tough sell.

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Right Turn blogger Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post has been advising Perry for weeks to focus less on Texas and Obama, and more on policy and what Perry would do as president. “Bluster can take you only so far,” she writes. RedState.com founder Erick Erickson says Perry “needs to get a comprehensive economic plan out soon” and take several other urgent steps if he wants to stay viable in the race.

In March 2007, a Democratic candidate forum on health care (PDF) underscored the advantage of having proposals you can talk about fluently. Hillary Clinton had ideas and expertise stemming from her years of work on health care, and John Edwards had already issued a detailed health-care-reform plan for the campaign. Obama was new to the issue and had to field a question about the dearth of information on his website.

“Well, keep in mind that our campaign now is I think a little over eight weeks old,” Obama said, adding later, “We have a plan that we are in the process of unveiling.” The New York Times summed up his performance this way: “Senator Barack Obama of Illinois appeared less conversant with the details of health policy and sometimes found himself on the defensive, trying to explain why he had yet to offer a detailed plan to cover all Americans.” Two months later, Obama had a plan. That’s a bit of history Rick Perry might study.