Memo to Mitt: Remind Voters That Perry Was a Democrat

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Melina Mara / The Washington Post / Getty Images

Rick Perry speaks to reporters on Aug. 17, 2011

I’m skeptical about Rick Perry’s sudden lead in Republican primary polling, which has some people declaring Mitt Romney’s campaign in a state of emergency. For one thing, Romney has lain awfully low this summer, whereas Perry’s been ubiquitous since he swaggered into the 2012 race this month. Perry has been the man of action this summer, and it’s hard to say just what Mitt’s been doing. Republicans are high on Perry fumes, but they may crash down once Perry’s record gets a scrub and Romney unleashes an expensive television advertising campaign.

But Romney will probably also have to take on Perry directly, as David Brooks argues on Friday. I’m not sure if Brooks has the perfect formula for an anti-Perry attack, but I do think he gets one point right: Romney should miss no opportunity to remind people that Rick Perry was a Democrat. He began his career as one, and spent six full years fighting for the enemy as a state representative. As the Texas Tribune has recounted, in 1987 Perry voted for a $5.7 billion tax hike opposed by most Republicans, and actively supported Al Gore’s 1988 presidential campaign. What could be more appalling to conservative primary voters? Possibly not even “ObamneyCare,” I’d wager. Yes, Perry was one of those conservative Democrats common to Texas, but that’s a tricky nuance to convey in the heat of a primary battle. And while Perry has built a strong conservative record since his partisan defection, a party switch is itself a kind of flip-flop that could make voters think twice.

Some people counter that Romney is a terrible messenger for this attack, and would only expose himself to counterattacks about the many, many ideological heresies and flip-flops in his own record. But everyone’s going to attack Romney on those grounds anyway! It would be classic political jujitsu for Romney to act as though Perry’s past is just as squishy. And it’s as simple as saying something like, “Back when Governor Perry was a Democrat…” Or: “Governor Perry–who, by the way, worked to elect Al Gore as president.” (No need to specify which year; if people assume that means the 2000 race, so be it!). You get the idea. If Romney’s smart, he will too.