First, Republican primary voters -- while respecting Perry's chutzpah -- might develop concerns about his electability. In his national debut, Perry has tended toward the intemperate. As general electoral strategy focuses Republican minds, disciplined rhetoric might make a comeback. Communism and segregation are properly called monstrous lies; Social Security is a successful program in need of serious reform. Mitt Romney might make progress with this appeal: No candidate who is seen as an enemy of Social Security and Medicare will be allowed by voters to change and modernize those programs.
A second possibility is that Republican primary voters will be enthusiastic about Perry's message while the country is not. According to recent polls, Americans would prefer Congress to cut discretionary spending and raise taxes on the wealthy rather than make major changes in entitlement programs. President Obama might revive his fortunes with a traditional Democratic defense of Social Security and Medicare against marauding Republican hordes.
But there is a third possibility that Perry skeptics should take seriously. Perhaps this ideological moment is just different, in the same way the 1930s or the 1980s were different. Another dip into recession -- a continuing, sputtering failure of the American job-creation machine -- might do more than call three years of Obama policies into question. It might call seven decades of accumulating entitlement commitments into question. Can a modern economy remain energetic and competitive when it transfers increasing amounts from the private to the public sector, from young to old, from the productive to the retired? Will America need to break decisively from the European social model to avoid Europe's economic fate?
A sense of economic desperation expands the range of policy options. Reagan turned a fear of national decline into a radical revision of the tax code -- reducing top tax rates from 70 percent to 28 percent. Today, a second round of recession and an accelerated European economic implosion could create a similar sense of decay and desperation. The normal rules of political realism might be suspended -- this time on entitlements.
It is hard to imagine Perry as the carrier of Reagan-like ideological transformation -- though it was also difficult, at one time, for many to imagine an aging actor in that role. But Perry's critics may find it is not sufficient to declare him outside the mainstream. The mainstream can change.