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posted: 8/17/2011 5:00 AM

The Texas gipper

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Watching the emergence of Rick Perry over the weekend was instructively nostalgic. Here again was a governor declaring for the presidency and some very wise people cautioning us on the air and in print that what worked in Texas might not work in the nation. Perry is too conservative, too much a cowboy, too religious and, while we're at it, too handsome. This, more or less, was what was said about Ronald Reagan. He's nearly on Mount Rushmore.

Perry stands a pretty good chance of being the next president of the United States. Like Reagan, Perry is gaffe-prone (he once suggested that Texas could secede from the Union) and, again like Reagan, appallingly conservative on social and economic issues. But the similarity that matters most is that both men were elected governor of mini-nations -- California and Texas.

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Texas is the second-most populous state -- a bit more than 25 million people. It is not merely the West, which Perry personifies, but the South and the vast suburbanized rest as well. It is a big part of America, and Rick Perry is the longest-serving governor in the state's history. It's just plain folly, as some have already suggested, to think that he cannot campaign effectively in the rest of the nation. This man was born for the stump.

I can think of no reason why anyone who, for some unaccountable reason, supports Michele Bachmann will not move over to Perry. He is her equal in social issues, which is her strength, but he is a much better campaigner -- as he showed the other day in Waterloo, Iowa. He retailed a GOP dinner, going from table to table, while Bachmann made a Lady Gaga entrance -- rock music, lights, phalanx of security -- and just perfunctorily met with the ordinary people she claims both to be and to represent. Perry, who actually looks like a president (also the late Rory Calhoun), will raise far more money and breeze by her. Au revoir, Michele.

That leaves Mitt Romney. He is like one of those odd animals left behind by an ice age or shrinking oceans. Nature adapted him to a different political climate. He is his father's son, a pragmatic Republican. He is moderate on social issues and actually knows how to make money and create jobs. But his very moderation, not to mention his exotic Mormonism, makes him suspect in the tea partyish Republican Party. Every time he pledges never ever to raise taxes even a teensy-weensy bit, I imagine his fingers are crossed.

Not so Perry. He occupies the cultural and intellectually empty heartland of the Republican Party. He vows to diminish Washington's influence -- a conservative applause line but a moronic policy. What America desperately needs is more, not less, Washington -- more economic stimulus and more national education standards.

Perry has characterized Texas as one huge job-creating machine, but what lured jobs from other states cannot work on a national level -- unless we drain Canada. What does create jobs -- well-paying jobs, in fact -- is education. But while Perry has hardly been oblivious to the importance of education, he nonetheless opposes national standards. This is catastrophic. America trails China, South Korea, Japan and other countries in math and science, and our huge minority population does about as well as school kids in developing nations.

Perry has exactly the wrong approach. He says the federal government needs to stop "dictating" school policy when this is precisely what needs to be done. He says "government doesn't create jobs," when in fact it can and does. He blasted the stimulus programs, yet without them the American economy and its financial institutions would be much worse off. He repeats bromides about small business, but what small businesses really need is not tax relief but orders from big business.

Reading up on Perry's record is an intriguing exercise. It is full of contradictions showing a subtlety that is not reflected in his rhetoric. He has done from Austin what he would not want done from Washington -- a bit of industrial policy and a robust support of education. In this sense, he is again like Reagan, who did raise taxes and did compromise with congressional Democrats and did, his rhetoric notwithstanding, not let his opposition to abortion rights deflect him from his larger goals.

The White House now has plenty to worry about. Of course, Perry may turn out to be no Ronald Reagan. But then he doesn't have to be. After all, Barack Obama has turned out to be no Barack Obama.

Richard Cohen's email address is cohenr@washpost.com.

$PHOTOCREDIT_ON$ 2011, Washington Post Writers Group $PHOTOCREDIT_OFF$

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