Is it time for Romney to start attacking Perry?

Short answer: Yes. It’ll be traffic gold. Long answer: Er, attack him how? What exactly is Team Mitt’s argument for why Romney’s a superior nominee to Perry?

David Brooks wonders:

Two lines of attack are pretty obvious.

First, Romney could accuse Perry of being the latest iteration of Tom DeLay Republicanism. On the one hand, he is ideologically slippery. The man who sounds so right wing today was the Texas chairman of the Al Gore for President campaign in 1988. The man who now vows to appoint only anti-abortion officials to relevant administration jobs endorsed Rudy Giuliani four short years ago. On the other hand, he is unwavering in his commitment to the government-cash nexus. Even this week — amid much attention to his pay-to-play proclivities — Perry named two big donors to powerful state jobs.

The second line of attack is to shift what the campaign is about. If voters think Nancy Pelosi is the biggest threat to their children’s prosperity, they will hire Perry. If they think competition from Chinese and Indian workers is the biggest threat, they will hire Romney. He’s just more credible as someone who can manage economic problems, build human capital and nurture an innovation-based global economy.

No one’s going to care about Perry’s “Tom DeLay Republicanism.” Reagan was a Democrat in his earlier years and the pay-to-play accusations will be buzzsawed by the public’s cynical assumption that all politicians operate that way. Tea partiers may not like establishment cronyism but I’d bet cash money that they prefer it, however grudgingly, to RomneyCare. As for Brooks’s second argument, it speaks to an important flaw in Romney’s message: He’s set himself up as “the economy candidate,” but … what is it, exactly, that entitles him to that label? What gives a former executive at Bain Capital some special insight into the U.S. economy? The answer, I guess, is that private-sector experience inculcates a keen sense of how too much regulation can create perverse incentives, but (a) building a “fairer” regulatory climate is also part of Perry’s core message in explaining Texas’s economic success and (b) the last president to be closely identified in the public’s imagination with sustained economic boom times is Bill Clinton, who was himself a careerist politician, not a private-sector guru. When push comes to shove, any economic line of attack that Romney makes against Perry can be swatted away effortlessly by pointing to job creation in Texas. I don’t see any way around that.

Ed Kilgore doesn’t see any way around it either which is why he’s imagining other, non-economic lines of attack — most daringly involving Romney challenging the passages in Perry’s book about Social Security and Medicare. Perry knows he’s vulnerable there, which is why his team has started to walk some of those comments back. But even if Romney went for the throat, it’d be hugely risky for him to be perceived as Mediscaring in the primary at a moment when conservatives are trying to alert the public to the need for entitlement reform in solving the debt crisis. He’d have to be careful, insisting a la Paul Ryan that he supports entitlement reform not just as a budget-balancing measure but because it’s the only way to save those programs; once he laid down that baseline, he could attack Perry as a radical who secretly doesn’t want to save Medicare and Social Security. But even then, the sight of Romney shifting from his 2011 economic-centric message to his 2008 “any weapon to hand” message would rekindle the image of him as saying whatever he needs to in order to get elected. In the end, I think Ross Douthat’s right. Romney’s best shot is probably to keep lying low and hope that either a scandal explodes in Perry’s face and/or that Palin gets in and knocks the tea-party legs out from under him. It’s Perry’s race to lose and he could still lose it, with Romney the likely beneficiary. It’s just that there’s not much Mitt can do to make that happen. That’s what it means to be a weak “frontrunner.”