Texas Governor Rick Perry chances for winning the Republican nomination are looking more imperiled now than ever, with poll numbers showing Herman Cain as the rising star, taking much of the conservative and Tea Party support that was briefly his. Beset by stories about rocks, religion, in-state tuition, and changes of heart about what he said in debates, Perry has been out of his groove and blown his initial lead.
Perry has to do two things and one last chance before the calendar and the race dynamics chew up his chances. The first is get a clear, substantive and distinguishing conservative agenda out there, to show people what they will get if he wins. The second is to articulate to show he can be a communicator of our conservative agenda - back to the main fiscal and economic issues that are his strengths.
Perry's message has to contrast with the two other real candidates in the race at this point - Cain and Romney. Taxes is his opportunity. In Romney, we have a '59-point' plan that is so many points because it is so small. It's a plan to negotiate and tinker. Cain's 9-9-9 is the hot, bold plan. But with a sales tax being added, the viability and sellability of that plan is being questioned. It's both interesting and encouraging that Perry is leaning on Flat Tax proponent Steve Forbes for advice:
Rick Perry, who will unveil his economic plan starting with an energy speech on Friday, did not get a chance to answer that question during the New Hampshire debate. But his campaign told me Wednesday that Steve Forbes is among those advising the Texas governor. Forbes, chairman and editor in chief of Forbes Media, ran for president in 1996 and 2000 and pushed both times for a flat tax, private Social Security accounts, and medical savings accounts.
When Steve Forbes proposed the Flat Tax in the 1990s, Mitt Romney got so upset about it, he decided to put an ad out attacking the proposal. Romney's capital gains rate cutoff is very "unflat tax" and locks in place our current progressive-tax complexity and burden. If Perry makes the Flat Tax the centerpiece of his economic plan, he can contrast with Romney, and then bring in other bold-yet-realistic conservative agenda items to round out a full economic program:
- Tax reform - a flatter, fairer system via the Flat Tax.
- Energy independence via drill now and 'all of the above' energy policies.
- Entitlement Reform via Social Security choice.
- Balancing the budget and controlling spending via BBA, and 'cap and balance'. Reassert Federalism by returning money and decisions to states.
- Regulation and federal tort reform - repeal Dodd-Frank, etc.
- Healthcare reform - repeal Obamacare, replace with Healthcare Freedom Act (MSAs, buy insurance across state lines, etc.)
Several items will be "gimme" items that all candidates agree on, but the Flat Tax is still out there as an idea, unowned by any candidate. When we talk about side issues, we have "lost the plot" on what 2012 should be about. When we over-focus on one idea, like 9-9-9, we focus on a tree while forgetting the forest. All of these ideas will have to tie back to "Get America Working Again", and if they do, you have a program not just for a primary, but a program to win an election and a mandate. Perry can offer a realistic "I have done conservative bills before, I can do this conservative agenda" approach that will contrast with those who havent governed, and those who have governed but not conservatively.
Is he up for it? I am hopeful that he does plan to roll out a substantive agenda and that he is talking to the right advisors.