Texas Governor Rick Perry has a problem.
You see, since becoming the newly-minted national frontrunner for the Republican nomination for president in 2012, he now finds himself standing in a red jumpsuit before four bad-tempered bulls: his rivals in the Republican field, the Republican establishment, the national mainstream media, and the Obama White House. Compounding his woes is the fact that he faces these foes with a hefty albatross around his neck: He is a white man.
In 2008, one of then-candidate Obama’s greatest electoral assets was the history-making nature of his campaign to become the first rich, Ivy League-educated, Protestant, male president who also happened to black. This cycle too promises to be historic, as we have Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann vying to become the first truly fringe president, Georgia pizza tycoon Herman Cain vying to become the first president to have his own gospel album (it’s true!), and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich vying to run the worst winning campaign since William McKinley campaigned from his front porch.
But the history-making only reaches veritably transcendental proportions when the candidate is a member of an oppressed minority. Election 2008 also-rans Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and ex-Alaska Governor Sarah Palin can both attest to the fact that running against a member of a historically disenfranchised group is an exceedingly difficult task.
So what is Governor Perry to do? He could attempt to emulate the politics of working-class white victimization that the Grand Old Party has perfected to an art form since the Nixon Administration. But as rural America continues to shrivel into an increasingly cantankerous, backwater husk with declining electoral relevance, this class of identity politics may prove inadequate in 2012. Luckily for the governor, he does have one other potential victim card in his hand.
As a native Texan, I can speak to the intolerance on which my state prides itself; hence the political potency of the perennial rumors of our governor’s closeted homosexuality. Festering since at least 2004, when Perry was forced to confront it head-on in The Austin-American Statesman, the ambiguity surrounding the governor’s sexual orientation has routinely provided fodder for colorful political sallying. Even our state Democrats can’t resist some good old gay-baiting.
In the 2010 cycle, for example, Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison was shamefully caught juicing her gubernatorial campaign website with the search engine optimization keywords “rick perry gay.” Democratic political action committee Back to Basics, likewise, ran a delightful statewide newspaper ad campaign asserting that “When he's not in San Francisco … Perry's … flipping through the pages of his Food and Wine magazine … in his fancy … rental mansion,” a message Noreen Malone described on New York Magazine’s Daily Intel blog as “clearly meant to remind voters that Perry's red-blooded American maleness wasn't an established fact.”
Some have predicted that the obstinacy of these rumors will impede Perry’s presidential ambitions in the same way that persistent allegations of President Obama’s Muslim faith and lack of birthright citizenship impeded his. I would suggest, however, that, sadly enough, these rumors might actually be a political godsend for the governor, and the very best political move he could make right now—in what may be a fairly damning indictment of our system—would actually be to embrace them wholeheartedly and come out of the closet as the second openly gay governor in American history (the first, of course, was the disgraced Jim McGreevey of New Jersey).
The political meed of coming out is considerable. The political calculus of a Perry candidacy was that he was perhaps the only politician in America capable of satisfying both the Tea Party and establishment wings of the Republican Party. However, since his announcement, even the Republican establishment has signed on to the fact that Perry is George W. Bush without the intelligence and moderation, and that the American people may not be so keen on hiring the former president’s stunt double so soon after so-emphatically rejecting his legacy by electing Barack Obama in the first place. Polls have confirmed this, for while he does not quite achieve Palin-Bachmann-Gingrich levels of radioactivity on the electoral dosimeter, Perry consistently underperforms frontrunner Mitt Romney in head-to-head polls with President Obama and has yet to beat the incumbent in a single poll. To say the least, Governor Perry has an electability problem.
And that is the beauty of the coming-out strategy.
President Obama faces potentially crippling levels of discontent from his truculent base, and the prospect of an openly gay Republican opponent could drive a decisive wedge between the president and the left. Gay donors and voters rightly disgusted by the president’s prevaricating on the issue of gay marriage may choose to overlook Perry’s virulently anti-gay record and platform to embrace one of their own. The disillusioned latte-sipping yuppies of Cambridge and Manhattan may also decide that the optics of opting for the gay candidate is more conducive to maintaining their self-righteous guise of social progressiveness than the symbolism of retaining the comparatively gay-friendly incumbent.
Of course, there is an obvious ethical issue in a straight man coming out merely for a political advantage, but this is politics we’re discussing, and Rick Perry in particular. Given that he is party to the execution of an innocent man (remember the name Cameron Todd Willingham—you will be hearing it a lot soon), I’m not quite convinced that morality really factors into Governor Perry’s decision-making in any way whatsoever. Furthermore, it’s not as if admitting he is gay would not redound to the nation’s benefit: Were Perry to come out of the closet this Wednesday during the Republican presidential debate, Michele Bachmann’s head could quite possibly explode on live television.
Dhruv K. Singhal ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is an English concentrator in Currier House.