Jacob Heilbrunn

Who's Afraid of Rick Perry?

Texas Gov. Rick Perry's run for the presidency is stirring up all kinds of angst among both Democrats and Republicans. For Mitt Romney, he represents the threat of the outsider, the authentic populist out to topple the establishment candidate. For Democrats, he seems to epitomize all the stereotypes of the ugly American—the swashbuckling Texan, one step away from aiming his chewing tobacco into a spittoon and complaining about furriners. Perry's latest comments about it being a kind of mandate from heaven to defend Israel are raising new hackles.

He announced at a pro-Israel rally in New York that "as a Christian, I have a clear directive to support Israel." Well, that clears that up. In case you were wondering. Politico reports that Perry has traveled to Israel more than any other candidate, including President Obama himself. He says that Israel might be able to help Texas cope better with drought issues. There are a lot of similarities between Masada and the Alamo, he minuted as well. It's also the case that some of Perry's allies in the evangelical community are intent on converting the Jews en masse.

Perry is adept at sounding themes that appeal to the right when it comes to Israel. But will he actually succeed in persuading traditionally Jewish Democratic voters to vote for him—a strategy, as the New York Times reports, that the House GOP is pursuing as well, in part by soliciting, and deferring to, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's views? Unlikely. Many of them are elderly and are concerned with preserving Social Security. Nor is it clear that younger American Jews are all that hawkish on Israel.

What about Perry's other foreign-policy stands? Are they pure neocon? Not exactly. In TPM, Benjy Sarlin suggests that Perry is having some difficulties staking out a position that's dramatically different from Obama's. Perry said that the outcome of the Libya intervention was "cause for cautious celebration." Cautious? That's not a word the governor often employs. It suggests hesitation, waffling. On Afghanistan, he's been fuzzy too, talking at some moments about the cost of intervention, suggesting that the number of troops could be lowered. Sarlin says,

Romney’s campaign went after Perry last week for playing both rhetorical sides of the Afghanistan issue in their recent debate.

“I think the entire conversation about, how do we deliver our aid to those countries, and is it best spent with 100,000 military who have the target on their back in Afghanistan, I don’t think so at this particular point in time,” Perry said at the time, calling for a transition to Afghan forces.

But the next day, after criticism from the hawkish Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), an unnamed adviser told Foreign Policy that Perry had gotten caught up in the “dynamic of the debate,” which featured more anti-war candidates like Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul, and that “a precipitous withdrawal is not what he’s recommending.” But the same adviser also mentioned that Perry might entertain using only 40,000 troops in Afghanistan—far below numbers either Obama or his generals have suggested is doable so far.

What all this suggests is a candidate who is a work in progress. This should come as no surprise. Most campaigns contain groups of advisers who disagree with each other. Witness John McCain's conflict between realists and neocons, though McCain landed firmly on the neocon side. One thing is certain: Perry is brilliantly playing to the conservative gallery. The more Democrats protest, the more popular he is likely to become inside the GOP.