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'O that mine enemy would write a book'

When Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) launched his presidential campaign in August 2011, his critics and rivals didn't have to go too far to start digging up damaging information: he'd written an unhinged book nine months prior.

Perry's Fed Up!: Our Fight to Save America from Washingtonpresented the argument that most policymaking in the 20th century was unconstitutional. The governor said he's disgusted with Social Security, believes global "cooling" is real, and my personal favorite, thinks the Great Depression ended during World War II, "when FDR was finally persuaded to unleash private enterprise," which is largely the exact opposite of what happened.

The larger point, however, isn't just about Perry. Rather, the point is for politicians to use Perry's experience as a guide and learn from his example. It's not complicated: if you might be seeking national office in the near future, don't write a book. If you're going to write a book, make it a generic and inoffensive book that has nothing to do with policy and won't embarrass you soon after.

Alex Pareene had a good piece yesterday on Jeb Bush learning this lesson the hard way, publishing a new book on immigration policy that's "totally out of step with where the Republican Party had moved on immigration by the time it was published."

Jeb Bush, who had previously been on the corporate, "moderate" side of the issue, in favor of citizenship for currently undocumented immigrants, seems to have decided that he needed to move to the right to remain viable in a Republican presidential primary campaign, and so his book quite explicitly deems a path to citizenship unacceptable. Alas, it then very quickly became OK again for prominent Republicans to support comprehensive immigration reform, in between when Bush's ghostwriter wrote the book and when it was published. Now, Bush is on TV once again sounding open to citizenship, though he is forced to pretend that he is "not smart enough" to figure out an issue that he just ... published an entire book about.

In other words, the Republican Party's rapid evolution and the timetable of book publishing forced Bush to shift positions on immigration three times in the space of nine months.... All of this could've been avoided if only Bush hadn't decided to write a big public policy book.

Let's also not forget that Mitt Romney thought it'd be a good idea to write a book. He ended up endorsing economic stimulus and included an anecdote about putting his dog on a car roof. [Update: the Seamus story apparently pre-dates Romney's 2010 book. The larger point about politicians and books still stands. In fact, note that Romney had to change a fair amount of his book when it came out in paperback precisely because of the political implications.]

Sure, it's possible to publish harmlessly, but why would likely candidates take the risk? They can't anticipate changing political winds; they can't predict what issues will matter most; they can be mined for embarrassing morsels; and in Jeb's case, they sometimes end up needing to be denounced.