Notebook

September 1, 2011 1:52 am

A campaign of would-be outsiders

The anti-establishment game makes the centre a lonely place, says Richard McGregor

The barnstorming Texas governor, Rick Perry, has portrayed himself as an insurgent assailing the political establishment since entering the Republican race to challenge Barack Obama in 2012. “I have never been an establishment figure,” he said in one interview. At first glance, this should give pause. Mr Perry has prospered politically as the longest serving governor of one of the richest states in the US with the backing of wealthy businesses. How does an avowed conservative present himself as an outsider?

In truth, his pitch is par for the course. The phenomenon of establishment politicians styling themselves as anti-establishment candidates is well-entrenched. George W. Bush, a son of privilege, ran as an outsider by campaigning against “elites”, a term of political abuse which sometimes seems to refer to anyone who has read a book.

In Australia, John Howard still identified himself as the archetypal “Aussie battler” after more than a decade as the conservative prime minister. More to the left, Canada’s Jean Chrétien customarily reverted to being the “little guy from Shawinigan”, despite leading three straight majority governments.

Mr Perry does have some anti-establishment credentials. In Texas, disdain for Washington is part of the political DNA. He has also distanced himself from Mr Bush, whom he succeeded as governor, pointing out that his one-time patron went to the Ivy League university of Yale, while he attended the state’s rougher-and-readier agricultural school.

Now, Mr Obama is getting in on the anti-establishment game. The Wall Street Journal, reporting on the president’s recent trip to the Midwest, said the president was “campaigning as Mr Outsider” with his attacks on Washington.

Banx illustration on Tesco

No Prada for Perry

All of this makes the centre a lonely place, especially for Republicans. Just ask Jon Huntsman, Mr Obama’s former ambassador to Beijing, who is struggling to break into double digits in the polling for the preferred Republican candidate for 2012.

A spread in Vogue magazine’s September issue featuring a sumptuous photo of Mr Huntsman at home in Washington is unlikely to help his cause.

As well as being about as alien a media outlet as possible to the Tea Party-heavy Republican base, the magazine is edited by Anna Wintour, who is also an Obama supporter. Ms Wintour is one of 25 to 30 donors who have raised a collective $500,000 for Mr Obama, prompting jokes, such as “the President Wears Prada”.

Mr Huntsman, already tainted by serving Mr Obama in China, is perversely centrist by the standards of today’s Republican party. He has stood by his belief in global warming, while other candidates fled from previous positions, and even captured attention by stressing his belief in evolution, something that Mr Perry is equivocal on.

No prizes for guessing the headline on the Vogue story: “Jon Huntsman – The Outsider.” No wonder the centre cannot hold.

An evangelical test

Mitt Romney, until recently the clear Republican frontrunner, is also feeling the heat from Mr Perry. This week, he said he would attend a candidates’ forum in South Carolina convened by senator Jim DeMint, one of the strongest backers of the Tea Party in Congress, after earlier saying he couldn’t make it.

South Carolina is more than just an important primary state for Republicans. It could also test whether the Christian evangelicals can come to terms with Mr Romney’s Mormon religion.

Many evangelicals have long considered Mormons not to be real Christians. They also have a more secular concern. The Mormon church is the fastest growing religion in the US, and thus a formidable competitor. Mr Romney’s supporters think his religion, with its history of polygamy, does not worry voters. In South Carolina, we may find out whether they are right.

Darth Vader’s back

One Republican who has never pretended to be in the centre is Dick Cheney. When Matt Lauer of the Today show introduced the former vice-president, who is promoting his autobiography, he said he had been described as many things, including the “most divisive” leader in a century. “You left out Darth Vader,” was Mr Cheney’s deadpan reply.

richard.mcgregor@ft.com

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