The GOP’s new weapon

George W Bush only pretended to be a good ol’ Texas cowboy. Rick Perry, governor of Texas and most r

Texas Governor Rick Perry's arrival one recent Monday at the Iowa State Fair indicated that the race to challenge Barack Obama for the presidency - an increasingly tempting prospect - had finally begun. Until Perry entered the race, it had been defined and led by the former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who had conducted his campaign largely by hiding out between fundraising events, and had been able to convince neither Republicans nor Democrats that he's burning to lead a counter-revolution. His serious rivals had tended to fade, like Governor Tim Pawlenty or Jon Huntsman; and his strongest challenge came from Michele Bachmann, representative for Minnesota, a symbolic conservative firebrand who has stumbled on such details of policy and political fundamentals as showing up to events.

Perry, the longest-serving governor in state history, is a serious contender. He has a true conservative record that dates back to his days advocating pesticide use as agriculture commissioner of Texas, deep wells of money at hand, and retail political skills that put reporters following him in mind of Bill Clinton. And he is a dream to cover. At the state fair, he kissed babies and ate a pork chop on a stick, the local delicacy, moving from rigid cowboy pose to pose, an act that seemed to be dictated as much by recent back surgery as by machismo, but worked.

Concealed weapon

He answered question after question from swarming reporters. I asked him about his suggestion in an interview last year that he would replace social security with a system of state pensions - a stand that in ordinary times could cost him the White House - and he gamely repeated that he'd consider it.

Perry almost always plays to type, a type defined by the sympathetic Twitter parody @rickperryfacts: "Rick Perry can kill two stones with one bird . . . Rick Perry sleeps with his pillow under his gun . . . The Roman empire didn't fall, Rick Perry tripped it . . . Rick Perry's brisket is so good, he has been banned from all BBQ competitions . . . Atheists believe in Rick Perry."

He is a leading advocate for the right to carry concealed weapons, and as his own stories often feature him shooting something - a favourite one tells of him shooting a coyote while out for a job - I asked him if he was armed that day at the fair. Putting an arm around my shoulder, he responded: "That's why they call it concealed."

That night in Cedar Rapids, a reporter asked him about the Federal Reserve, our central bank. "If this guy prints more money between now and the election, I don't know what y'all would do to him in Iowa, but we would treat him pretty ugly down in Texas," Perry said. "I mean, printing more money to play politics at this particular time in American history is almost treacherous, or treasonous, in my opinion."

He may have scandalised Wall Street, but the answer played well in Cedar Rapids. By the end of the weekend, Obama's supporters - unable to fear the Republican field despite the president's woes - had woken up. Perry is straightforwardly terrifying, a gift to Obama.

Perry is a familiar figure to liberals. He was George W Bush's lieutenant governor, but you sometimes get the impression that Bush learned his shtick from Perry, not vice versa. Indeed, he is more or less what Europeans and American liberals imagined when they foamed at the mouth about Bush. While the 43rd president cultivated a Texas affect to balance out his roots in dynasty, Perry is the real deal.

Raised in a tiny farming town without a single stoplight, Perry got marks at agricultural college that weren't good enough to qualify for veterinary studies. He left with a degree in animal husbandry, and a specialty in football cheerleading that won him Texas A&M's coveted post of "Yell Leader".

His 2010 policy manifesto, Fed Up, speaks to the id of a branch of the Republican Party that's more interested in rolling back the federal government than in experimenting with federal policy. There's much in it to please conservatives - but also a great deal to worry those who would like to beat Obama next November.

Unvarnished

On matters of policy, Perry is probably to the right of any Republican nominee since Barry Goldwater's disastrous 1964 campaign. In Fed Up, he wrote that the passage of social security in 1935 required "violently tossing aside any respect for our founding principles" and suggested that federal banking, environmental and labour regulations are all unconstitutional. His staff have been forced to pull back from his jesting threats that Texas could secede from the Union. There was a reason Bush rebranded his version of small-government Texan politics "compassionate conservatism", but Perry hasn't put any sort of veneer on his views.

These stands will not trouble most Republican primary voters, but their implications may. They are targets for an Obama advertising campaign because their implications - abolishing social security, first of all - are so extreme. Merged with Perry's swagger, they could drive away key swing voters - women in the suburbs of big cities such as Philadelphia. The White House has signalled that Obama would rather run against Perry than Romney; some analysts speculate that it might even help him with early attacks on the former Massachusetts governor.

The former National Review editor William Buckley often promised to support the most conservative candidate who was electable. It's a rule Republicans have taken to heart, and Perry's chances will depend on how confident Republicans are that dissatisfaction with Obama will trump independents' concerns about Perry's style and substance. On 23 August the president reached his lowest point ever in Gallup's daily tracking polls, with approval ratings of 38 per cent. If numbers like that persist, Republican voters may just go with the cowboy.

Ben Smith writes for politico.com

This article first appeared in the 29 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Gold

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Emmanuel Macron's power struggle with the military

Reminding your subordinates that you are "their boss" doesn't go as far as listening to their problems, it may seem.

This is the sixth in a series looking at why Emmanuel Macron isn't the liberal hero he has been painted as. Each week, I examine an area of the new French president's politics that doesn't quite live up to the hype. Read the whole series.

It had started well between Macron and the army. He was the first president to chose a military vehicle to parade with troops on the Champs-Élysées at his inauguration, had made his first official visit a trip to Mali to meet French soldiers in the field, and had pulled a James Bond while visiting a submarine off the Brittany coast.

It’s all fun and games in submarines, until they ask you to pay to maintain the fleet.

“Macron wanted to appear as the head of armed forces, he was reaffirming the president’s link with the military after the François Hollande years, during which the defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had a lot of power,” Elie Tenenbaum, a defence research fellow at the French Institute for International Relations, told the New Statesman. The new president was originally viewed with distrust by the troops because he is a liberal, he says, but “surprised them positively” in his first weeks. Olivier de France, the research director at The French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, agrees: “He sent good signals at first, gathering sympathy.” 

But the honeymoon ended in July, with what Tenenbaum describes as Macron’s first “real test” on defence: the announced cut of €850m from the army’s budget, despite Macron’s (very ambitious) campaign pledge to rise the defence budget to 2 per cent of the country’s GDP by 2025. A row ensued between the president and the French army’s chief of staff, general Pierre de Villiers, when the general complained publicly that the defence budget was “unbearable”. He told MPs: “I won’t let him [Macron] fuck me up like that!”

Macron replied in a speech he gave to military troops the day before Bastille Day, in which he called soldiers to honour their “sense of duty and discretion” and told them: “I have taken responsibilities. I am your boss.” After the general threatened to quit and wrote at length about “trust” in leadership, Macron added a few days later that “If something brings into conflict the army’s chief of staff and the president of the Republic, the chief of staff changes.” That, Tenenbaum says, was the real error: “On the content, he was cutting the budget, and on the form, he was straightening out a general in front of his troops”. This is the complete opposite of the military ethos, he says: “It showed a lack of tact.”

This brutal demonstration of power led to de Villiers’ resignation on 19 July – a first in modern French politics. (de Villiers had already protested over budget cuts and threatened to quit in 2014, but Hollande’s defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had backed down.)

Macron did his best to own up to his mistake, assuring the military that, although this year’s cuts were necessary to meet targets, the budget would be rised in 2018. “I want you to have the means to achieve your mission,” he said.

But the harm was done. “He should have introduced a long-term budget plan with a rise in the coming years right away,” says de France. “It was clumsy – of course he is the boss, everyone knows that. If he needs to say it, something is off.” The €850m will be taken out of the army’s “already suffering” equipment budget, says Tenenbaum. “There are pressures everywhere. Soldiers use equipment that is twice their age, they feel no one has their back." The 2 per cent GDP target Macron set himself during the campaign – a “precise” and “ambitious” one – would mean reaching a €50bn army budget by 2025, from this year’s €34m, he explains. “That’s €2bn added per year. It’s enormous.”

Read more: #5: On immigration, Macron's words draw borders

Macron has two choices ahead, De France explains: “Either France remains a big power and adapts its means to its ambitions” – which means honouring the 2 per cent by 2025 pledge – “or wants to be a medium power and adapts its ambitions to its means”, by reducing its army’s budget and, for instance, reinvesting more in European defence.

The military has good reason to doubt Macron will keep his promise: all recent presidents have set objectives that outlast their mandates, meaning the actual rise happens under someone else’s supervision. In short, the set goals aren’t always met. Hollande’s law on military programming planned a budget rise for the period 2018-19, which Macron has now inherited. “The question is whether Macron will give the army the means to maintain these ambitions, otherwise the forces’ capacities will crumble,” says Tenenbaum. “These €850m of cuts are a sign than he may not fulfill his commitments.”

If so, Macron’s row with the general may only be the beginning.  It didn’t help Macron’s popularity, which has been plummeting all summer. And the already distrustful troops may not forgive him: more than half of France’s forces of order may support Marine Le Pen’s Front national, according to one poll. “It’s hardly quantifiable and includes police officers,” Tenenbaum cautions. All the same, the army probably supports right-wing and hard-right politicians in higher numbers than the general population, he suggests.

James Bond would probably have known better than to irritate an entire army – but then again, Bond never was “their boss.”