Perry’s Popping-Off Problem

Rick Perry this week roared away from the pack. Gallup had him the party favorite, with 29% of Republicans and Republican-leaning Independents saying they’re most likely to support him. Next came Mitt Romney with 17%, Ron Paul with 13%, and Michele Bachmann at 10%. All the rest were single digits except for “no preference,” which got 17%.

On top of that, Mr. Perry got the much-coveted Kinky Friedman vote. The political gadfly and musician, who in 2006 ran as an Independent against Mr. Perry, wrote in the Daily Beast that he didn’t always like the Texas governor. It had in fact been his plan to, upon death, be cremated and have the ashes thrown in Rick Perry’s hair. But now he sees Mr. Perry as “a good, kind-hearted man” with a solid economic record. Mr. Friedman admitted he’d vote for Charlie Sheen before Barack Obama, but asked: Could Perry fix the American economy? “Hell yes.”

Mr. Perry’s primary virtue for the Republican base is that he means it. He comes across as a natural conservative, Texas Division, who won’t be changing his mind about his basic premises any time soon. His professed views don’t seem to be an outfit he can put on and take off at will. In this of course he’s the anti-Romney. Unlike Ms. Bachmann, he has executive experience, three terms as governor of a state with 25 million people.

His primary flaw appears to be a chesty, quick-draw machismo that might be right for an angry base but wrong for an antsy country. Americans want a president who feels their anger without himself walking around enraged.

Mr. Perry’s announcement speech on Aug. 13 was strong and smart. Biography: He’s the son of tenant farmers from Paint Creek, a town too small to have a zip code, in the Texas plains. The meaning of the biography: The American dream lives on. “You see,” he said, “as Americans we’re not defined by class, and we will never be told our place. What makes our nation exceptional is that anyone, from any background, can climb the highest of heights.” He laced into the incumbent: “Now we’re told we’re in a recovery. Yeah. But this sure doesn’t feel like a recovery to more than 9% of Americans out there who are unemployed, or the 16% of African-Americans and 11% of Hispanics in the same position.” The recovery is really a “disaster.”

Then, stingingly, “[The president’s] policies are not only a threat to this economy, so are his appointees a threat. You see he stacked the National Labor Relations Board with antibusiness cronies who want to dictate to a private company, Boeing, where they can build a plant. No president, no president should kill jobs in South Carolina, or any other state for that matter, simply because they chose to go to a right-to-work state.” Mr. Perry was speaking in Charleston, so the Boeing reference had local resonance: But what appears to be the Obama administration’s attempt to curry favor with unions by stopping a Boeing plant may have national resonance, too.

Mr. Perry’s now-famous gaffes, for which he’s been roundly criticized, are said to suggest an infelicity of language. But they look more like poor judgement. On Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke: “If this guy prints more money between now and the election, I dunno what y’all would do to him in Iowa, but we would treat him pretty ugly down in Texas. Printing more money to play politics at this particular time in American history is almost treasonous in my opinion.” On the subject of secession: “We’ve got a great union. There’s absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that.” On President Obama’s patriotism—in response to a question from this newspaper’s Danny Yadron, who asked Mr. Perry if he was suggesting that Mr. Obama didn’t love this country: ‘I dunno, you need to ask him.’” On Mr. Obama’s lack of military service: “The president had the opportunity to serve his country I’m sure, at some time, and he made the decision that that wasn’t what he wanted to do.”

The secession reference was off the cuff, not spoken in a speech that had been fully thought through. Still, to refer blithely to secession, even in that context, as anything but tragic—which both it and the potential reasons behind it would be—suggests a lack of reflection, a lack of gravitas, a carelessness. As for Mr. Bernanke, he is an earnest public servant who is either right or wrong in his assumptions and decisions, but certainly not treacherous or treasonous.

Why does this kind of thing matter? Because presidential temperament has never been more important. We can’t escape presidents now, they’re all over every screen, and they set a tone.

And the nation is roiling and restive. After Mr. Obama was elected, the right became angry, feisty, and created a new and needed party, the tea party. The right was on fire. The next time a Republican wins, and that could be next year, it will be the left that shows real anger, with unemployment high and no jobs available and government spending and services likely to be cut. The left will be on fire. The only thing leashing them now is the fact of Mr. Obama.

So there will be plenty of new angers out there. It probably won’t be helpful if the next president is someone likely to add to the drama with a hot temperament or carelessness.

In 1980 the American electorate was so disturbed by economic disorder that it took a big leap. The leap was Ronald Reagan, the most conservative president since Calvin Coolidge was elected in 1924. Ronald Reagan was not the moderate in the GOP field, he was not the “establishment candidate.” It took a real leap to get to him.

The public was able to make the leap for two big reasons. He represented a conservatism that could be clearly asserted, defended and advanced, and which marked a break from the reigning thinking which had gotten us into trouble. And he was a person of moderate temperament and equability. He was good natured, even-keeled, competent and accomplished. Just because he wanted to do some “radical” things didn’t mean he would allow a spirit of radicalism to overtake his personality or essential nature.

And this was important in 1980 because Mr. Carter, at the end of the campaign, tried to paint Mr. Reagan as an angry cowboy with crazy ideas. You don’t want that guy with his finger on the button.

It was a serious charge. People would listen, and consider whether there seemed to be truth in it. Then Mr. Reagan would walk out on the TV screen and give a speech or an interview and people would see this benign and serious person and think, “He isn’t radical. That’s not what radical looks like.”

They only leapt toward him after they looked.

In 2012, the Republican candidate will be called either mean or dumb, or both. Certainly, his politics will be called mean. And if the candidate is Rick Perry, people will look at him and think: Hmmm, is there something to the charge?

He should keep that in mind as he pops off. If there is a deeper, more reflective person there he’d best show it, sooner rather than later. This is the point where out of the corner of their eye, people are starting to get impressions.