Rick Perry thought he could revive his candidacy by getting under Mitt Romney’s skin at last night’s debate. But though the jury is still out on whether the new nastier Perry has erased memories of the old sleepwalking Perry of the previous debates, the Texas governor is apparently determined to stay on top of the news cycle with an even bolder gambit: endorsing a flat tax system that could replace the entire Internal Revenue Service code.
The decision to try this route may put some energy and interest back in a Perry campaign that seemed dead in the water prior to last night. But the flat tax, like the very different tax plan of Herman Cain, is also the sort of idea that could open up its sponsor to the same criticism as the pizza magnate’s 9-9-9 scheme. And that could spell trouble in future debates for Perry, who has problems articulating complex ideas on the political stage.
The flat tax concept was the centerpiece of Steve Forbes’ quixotic quests for the White House in 1996 and 2000 and has long held an attraction for some conservatives and libertarians. This is due in no small measure to the fact it holds out the possibility of either eliminating or reducing the scope of the IRS. But as popular as the idea of simplifying the tax code may be, especially for Republicans, the devil will be in the details. While most Republicans won’t necessarily be offended by getting rid of progressive taxation, Perry will still need to explain how he will preserve traditional tax breaks for families and charities that most conservatives support. That could open up a world of trouble for a candidate who has difficulty explaining far less complex ideas than a new tax code.
Despite the pitfalls that may await, Perry’s decision to go down this road is still smart politics. What he really needed this week was not only proof he could stay awake for two hours during a debate but also a cause around which his backers could rally. Up until now, the only idea that seemed to animate Perry was his support for energy independence. But as much as his stands on that and related oil issues were sound, it also reminded voters his main source of financial support was the Texas oil industry. That made him look more like a regional favorite son candidate than the national conservative he aspired to be.
The flat tax may have its drawbacks, and Perry may not be the best man to defend it, but it will give Perry, his supporters and his critics something to talk about besides his debating style. While it is no guarantee of victory, it may be just the thing to keep him in the race.