Rick Scott & Rick Perry: A Tale of Two Ricks in Palm Beach

Daniel Gross on which Republican governor was preaching moderation at the International Economic Forum.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” So begins Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. On Monday in Florida, I witnessed a Tale of Two Ricks: Rick Scott, the former hospital executive who rode to the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee on the Tea Party wave, and Rick Perry, the veteran governor of Texas who was Tea Party before the Tea Party existed.

For Perry, a product and comfortable inhabitant of a political monoculture, it’s still the best of times. For Scott, who leads a state that has been trending Democratic, 2014 could prove to be the worst of times. And their demeanor, rhetoric, and talking points shed light on the conundrum facing the Republican Party: the guys who are locks for reelection think they and the party are doing just great and don’t need to change one bit, and the guys who are trying to shift to the center are in political peril.

Perry and Scott were the lunchtime entertainment at the International Economic Forum of the Americas in Palm Beach on Monday. And the two were a study in opposites: there was Perry with his Texas twang and Hollywood hair, gray suit and orange-ish tie, totally comfortable in his own skin and persona. And there was Scott, he of the bald pate and the indeterminate accent, wearing a conventional deep blue suit and red tie, and tightly wound.

The session had all the makings of a bromance. As the moderator, Leigh Gallagher of Fortune, struggled to get a word in, the two traded compliments and gentle jibes about fishing (apparently Scott caught more in a recent contest) and jobs growth (Texas has added 400,000 jobs to Florida’s 128,000 in the past year). “All the things we’re trying to do, Governor Perry has been doing—reducing regulations, reducing taxes,” said Scott. “They’ve been doing it and it worked.” Talking about Florida’s unemployment rate, he turned to Perry: “You’ve been below the national average for a long time.” Perry was by turns cheeky and magnanimous. He spoke of the recent recruitment of a company that makes hair-care products—“which you don’t know anything about,” he told Scott—and then gave a 30-second brief for Scott’s reelection. “I love this guy. What he’s done here in 3 1/2 years has been nothing less than stunning,” Perry said. “Floridians would be foolish to get rid of a guy with this record.”

But when they talked substance, a stark difference emerged. Perry, like many Republicans who hail from Southern states, sees no reason to moderate his views as a result of last November’s elections. The Republicans did just fine in Texas in 2012, in the state and national elections. Texas today is effectively a one-party state, and the rising Hispanic wave remains in the distance. And so, having failed spectacularly in the primaries, he’s essentially doubling down.

Texas is growing rapidly, thanks to energy, immigration from points south, and migration from points east and west. But Perry sees it all as testimony to the wisdom of his brand of Republicanism. He continually harped on the need to let people keep more of the money they own. He relished poking the eyes of anybody to the left. He spoke of a recent tour of California and some radio advertisements Texas had run in the state in which Perry urged businesses to consider moving. Gov. Jerry Brown of California wasn’t amused, calling the ads “barely a fart.” “I don’t apologize to a governor of another state for coming in and laying out another version,” said Perry. At another point he noted: “I want to drive a debate in this country about red state vs. blue state policies, because it will force an uncomfortable conversation in California about whether the policies they were putting in place are in the best interest of the citizens.”

Perry then went out of his way to bash Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, whose economy-boosting actions Perry had likened to treason in 2011. Thanking prior speaker Gerald Corrigan, a former Federal Reserve governor, for his remarks about monetary policy, Perry noted: “It makes me smile greatly to hear someone say that the most important thing that the Federal Reserve can do is be involved in price stability, and not do all this other stuff.” In case anyone didn’t get his drift, he added: “I just want to take this gratuitous shot at Bernanke.” Nobody laughed.

And when Perry spoke about his state’s desire to issue long-term bonds to bolster its infrastructure, he noted proudly that Texas operates its own electric grid. “We’re not connected to the rest of the federal grid, because we don’t want the federal government interfering in it.”

Scott, who rode the Tea Party wave into office in 2010, had a much different mien. There were no smacks at the Obama administration, or the teachers, or other governors. He didn’t utter the word “Republican.” He spoke of Florida’s tourism industry, its links to South and Central America, and the state’s often-glorious weather. Scott must have stipulated that he didn’t want to talk about Obamacare or health care—areas he knows a great deal about—because the topic didn’t come up. It would have been interesting, though. In February, Scott executed a 180-degree turn and became one of the few Republican governors to accept and embrace the Medicaid expansion that comes with Obamacare. It made sense—Florida has lots of uninsured poor people, and the state’s massive health-care industry welcomes the new cash. (Perry, who presides over a state with an embarrassingly high rate of uninsured people, of course rejected the Medicaid expansion out of hand.) Instead of viewing the federal government as a meddling foreign agent, Scott spoke of it as a partner. He noted with pride that his state had struck a deal last year with the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up the Everglades.

The liberal blogs love to refer to Scott as Lex Luthor. But Scott is personable and ambitious; he’s not a sociopath. As the 2014 election approaches, he is rushing to the center as fast as he can. After generally expressing indifferences to complaints that minorities had an unnecessarily difficult time voting in the last election, in January he proposed an expansion of early voting and other reforms. In February he proposed giving teachers a big raise.

Scott faces the same challenge that many Republicans in coastal areas do. He’s no dummy. Running a hard-right campaign may have worked in 2010, but it didn’t work in 2012 and is not likely to work in 2014. The climate and the electorate have changed. Modulating your tone and positions is something you have to do when you live in a two-party state. While Republicans control both houses of the state legislature, and 17 of the state’s 27 congressional seats, Florida has voted for Democratic presidential candidates in the last two cycles, and has a Republican and a Democratic senator. The broad electorate is purple, and trending more blue with each passing day. A recent poll showed that Scott would lose a hypothetical 2014 race against Charlie Crist, the former Republican governor who is now a Democrat, by 12 points.

One of these Ricks is likely to get rolled next year.