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Scot Lehigh

Perry’s big talk invites big scrutiny

By Scot Lehigh
Globe Columnist / August 19, 2011

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NASHUA NEITHER MAN would consider it a compliment, but watching Texas Governor Rick Perry on the stump calls to mind. . . former Bay State chief executive Mike Dukakis.

Actually, make that Mike Dukakis with a heaping helping of John Silber mixed in.

Let me explain.

Back in 1988, Dukakis ran for president as the man who had sparked the so-called Massachusetts miracle. Some of us looked skeptically at that claim, noting that governors really don’t have that much influence on their states’ economies - and, further, that if Dukakis really was an economic magician, every New England state apparently had a similar wizard at the helm, since the entire region was bustling.

Perry is now out talking up the Texas economy, and taking credit for the enviable job growth there in the last two years.

Leading a discussion of business issues at a roundtable at Resonetics, a micro-manufacturing firm in Nashua, Perry outlined the principles he said had helped grow jobs: “Don’t spend all the money,’’ “Have a tax structure that is as light an impact as it can be on job creators,’’ foster “a regulatory climate that is fair and predictable,’’ and pass tort reform.

His Texas template will certainly please conservatives. Yet as Dukakis discovered in 1988, when you set yourself and your state up as economic examplars, it’s an invitation for detailed scrutiny - and on every aspect of your record.

Critics are already looking skeptically at Perry’s claims of economic authorship, noting that the Texas economy is largely driven by the oil and gas industry, whose health depends far more on energy prices than on state policy.

And already there have been criticisms about the toll Perry’s no-new-taxes stance has taken on the Texas schools and about the relatively high percentages of minimum-wage workers and Texans without health insurance. Further, with Perry taking credit for Texas’s recent job gains, expect his rivals to saddle him with the (recession-driven) 4-percent spike in joblessness during his tenure.

Still, as a successful three-term big state governor, a conservative favorite, and a proven fundraiser, Perry should be a far more formidable rival to Mitt Romney than Michele Bachmann, the lightly accomplished Minnesota congresswoman who won the Ames straw poll.

It’s hard to see Bachmann doing much in flinty New Hampshire. Not so Perry. If he keeps his focus on economic and fiscal issues, he’ll find a receptive New Hampshire audience, predicted former GOP governor Steve Merrill after Perry spoke to a breakfast gathering in Bedford. Further, since the process moves toward his Southern strengths after Iowa and New Hampshire, Perry will merely have to post respectable showings in the early going.

Provided, that is, he proves disciplined enough for presidential politics. After his controversial comment equating quantitative easing with treason, his suggestion that Texans might treat Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke “pretty ugly,’’ and his “you need to ask him’’ answer when asked if he thought Obama loves this country, there has been a good deal of chatter about Perry’s rhetoric.

Which is where the Silber analogy comes in. In his 1990 gubernatorial campaign, the caustic, Texas-raised Boston University chief grabbed the headlines with a series of “Silber shockers.’’ Those sharp-edged utterances set commentators tut-tutting, but struck a chord with angry voters, who lifted Silber to an upset Democratic primary victory.

Perry’s almost-over-the-top comments have had a similar, attention-getting effect. On Wednesday, he used a White House scolding about his Bernanke comments to offer this retort: “My actions as governor are helping create jobs in this country; the president’s actions are killing jobs in this country.’’ That line delivered, Perry went mum with reporters, refusing to respond to questions at either of his New Hamshire events.

Now, one could conclude that the Bernanke brouhaha taught a clumsy, chastened candidate the error of his loose-lipped ways.

But consider: That comment let Perry seize the spotlight, please the Fed skeptics, and frame his New Hampshire jobs message.

Clumsy as an ox? Actually, I’d call that sly as a fox.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com.