I had a flashback on Tuesday when President Bill Clinton gave a speech to a group of firemen in Midtown Manhattan and called Gov. Rick Perry of Texas a “good-looking rascal” whose anti-government platform was “crazy.”
That rhetorical sleight of hand—raising an alarm about Perry’s potential attraction to voters while simultaneously smack-talking him--reminded me of a conversation I had in mid-2001 with a Clinton staffer.
At the time, the ex-president was newly settled in Harlem and putting together his globe-trotting, post-White House agenda. His successor, George W. Bush, was wallowing at the start of his first term with mediocre poll numbers. There was open talk among Democrats about Bush looking like a beatable, one-term incumbent.
But the staffer, an acquaintance, said this was the advice he’d heard Clinton giving to various Dems about President Bush: "Do not underestimate the guy. He's a canny pol. We need to beat him like a drum." Meaning, criticize him relentlessly. Meaning, soften him up while you have the chance because you never know what events might intervene to flip the equation. Cut to: Bush on the pile at Ground Zero a few months later with bullhorn and, as it turned out, re-election firmly in hand.
Perhaps Clinton is now sending a similar signal to his party about Perry: the Texan’s flavorful ideology and flagrant religiosity may make him a marginal character to us, but be careful. His campaign has the potential to take off. Get your shots in early.
It may be that Gov. Perry has Bill Clinton worried.