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The Perry approach -- campaign first, have ideas later

By Gloria Borger, CNN Chief Political Analyst
updated 2:43 PM EDT, Thu October 27, 2011
Republican presidential candidate Gov. Rick Perry outlines his flat tax plan Wednesday in Gray Court, South Carolina.
Republican presidential candidate Gov. Rick Perry outlines his flat tax plan Wednesday in Gray Court, South Carolina.
  • Borger: Traditionally presidents have run for office based on long-held beliefs
  • She says candidates such as Rick Perry are running first, putting out plans later
  • Perry's new tax plan seems like a gimmick designed to help him regain lead, she says
  • Borger: She says Romney developed ideas before he started his campaign

Editor's note: Gloria Borger is CNN's chief political analyst, appearing regularly on shows such as "AC360," "The Situation Room," "John King USA" and "State of the Union."

Washington (CNN) -- Call me crazy, but I recall when presidential candidates ran for the high office because they had things to say. The notion went like this: I have ideas that I think will be great for the country. I have thought about them, vetted them with experts, spoken about them throughout my career. I have refined them, many times, even changed some. And now I think it's time to run for the presidency, armed with those ideas to present to the nation.

So imagine my surprise when, at a recent debate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry turned to Mitt Romney and, with a certain amount of disdain, sniffed, "Mitt has had six years to be working on a plan. I have been in this for about eight weeks." In other words, I'll get back to you.

Gloria Borger
Gloria Borger

So, is it really a bad thing that Romney spent years working on ideas -- changing some, obviously -- to prepare for another presidential run? Or is it actually worse that Perry first had a team of consultants and strategists, and then got to work on the ideas part of the program?

Ronald Reagan didn't have to cram a belief system into a new 10-point plan to save the country, because he knew what he believed -- and refined and road-tested his plans -- before he ran. Neither did Bill Clinton, who did have a 'Putting People First' plan, which contained ideas on welfare reform and education that he had spoken about for years. Both men had beliefs -- and of course, ambition -- before they had presidential campaigns. How quaint.

This time the process is oddly perverse. A large chunk of the Republican party base is looking for a candidate to fill their own belief system: fiscal and social conservative, tough on immigration, tax-cutter, and on and on. They could go with Romney -- and probably will, in the end -- but they're skeptical about his bona fides. They didn't like him last time around, and they're afraid to like him this time.

Reagan didn't have to cram a belief system into a new 10-point plan to save the country, because he knew what he believed--and refined and road-tested his plans--before he ran.
Gloria Borger

So they're auditioning. The tea party activists have become the GOP's theatrical directors. Michele Bachmann played well in Philly, but never made it to Broadway. Perry looked right for the part, but blew his lines. And Herman Cain, well, he's very entertaining.

They're looking for the sort of artistic perfection which, as we have all learned, is not necessarily a presidential trait. They like Cain's 9-9-9 tax plan, but he's too unreliable on the abortion issue. They may like Perry's new optional flat tax, but cringe at his more liberal views on immigration that allow the children of illegal immigrants to get in-state tuition in Texas. And what about Bachmann claiming, without any proof, that the HPV vaccine can cause mental retardation? Not exactly a presidential move.

When Perry entered the race as the fave du jour, it wasn't because of his specific ideas, or his specific record, or his specific abilities: It was because the GOP base had a slot to fill, and they thought he was the guy to fill it. He was conservative, after all. Then he appeared on stage, and somehow appeared smaller than the role demanded.

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He began the campaign with an energy plan -- predictable from the governor of Texas. But when pressed for more, he finally delivered a flat tax -- an updated version of the Steve Forbes flat tax that never quite caught on enough to get him nominated when he ran in 1996. It's an idea Perry has always said he liked, but now he apparently owns it, having cooked up his own version on the fly.

There's a strange whiff here of back-of-the-envelope campaigns. Cain has a tax plan that catapulted him to the lead, then Perry tries out another catchy plan to regain the lead. "It's a gimmick in response to a gimmick," says Vin Weber, a Romney adviser.

So could it be that Romney's problem is that he isn't gimmicky enough for these tryouts? He's got a serious, boring, 59-point (how un-gimmicky is that?) plan for the economy that does not include a silver bullet to fix all. He does not believe there is one.

Yet if you asked Romney to recite all 59 points, I bet he could do it. I bet he has actually thought a great deal about each one. As he learned the hard way the last time around, presidential politics is a different kind of drama: You can't win the lead by reading other people's lines.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gloria Borger.