August 24, 2019

Rick Perry and the Quest for a Consensus Conservative Candidate


As Texas Gov. Rick Perry announces he is getting into the Republican presidential race, the straw poll in Ames, Iowa is likely to splinter between GOP candidates representing different flavors of conservatism: the Old Right conservatism of Ron Paul, the New Right/Christian Right conservatism of Michele Bachmann, the establishment conservatism of Tim Pawlenty, etc.

Perry’s appeal is precisely that he is trying to position himself as a consensus conservative, one who can unite the entire movement. There hasn’t really been such a candidate in the Republican primaries since Ronald Reagan. As early as 1988, conservatives divided between the Christian Right candidacy of Pat Robertson and the supply-side economic conservatism of Jack Kemp, with some support for Pete DuPont. In 1996, Pat Buchanan, Steve Forbes, and Phil Gramm represented different strains of conservatism as they split the vote to the right of Bob Dole. The beneficiary has been the establishment candidate who can get the most movement support.

That doesn’t mean that Perry is guaranteed to win the nomination by trying to fill that role. The desire for a consensus conservative is exactly what fueled hopes Fred Thompson would run for president in 2008, but Thompson ultimately fizzled. There are chinks in Perry’s conservative armor and he tried to tailor his announcement speech to a general election audience, a compunction some of the other conservatives running for president don’t share. But it does explain why interest in Perry has persisted even as the rest of the field has fought.