What We Can Learn From Rick Perry’s Brief Rise And Tragic Fall

August 12, 2015 6:00 a.m.

Four years ago tomorrow, a Republican presidential nominating process was turned upside down by the late but very heavy entrance of a candidate who instantly became the front-runner: former Texas governor Rick Perry. He announced his candidacy in Charleston at the Red State Gathering, the annual meeting of very intense conservative activists convened by Erick Erickson. It all but eclipsed Michele Bachmann’s victory in the Iowa GOP Straw Poll the same day.

Watching Perry strut across stages in the days following his announcement tossing out red meat to feral crowds of excited conservatives, it looked like was the Real Deal. He seemed to be forging an alliance between Tea Party folk who loved his liberal-baiting rhetoric with undertones of both secessionism and Christian Nationalism, and the Business/Establishment wing of the GOP that thrilled to Perry’s deep devotion to corporate interests in Texas. He had what appeared to be unlimited access to money. He had strong ties with the kind of Christian Right leaders who were so powerful in Iowa. He had what some observers were describing as a brilliant campaign staff. He had never lost an election in a political career that dated back to 1984.

And in the wake of a Republican-generated Great Recession, he had the rarest and most precious of possessions: a plausible narrative of economic recovery based on the gauzy job-creation numbers of Texas. He was even a military veteran at a time when Baby Boomer candidates for president typically had not “worn the suit.” His rivals for the role of Electable Conservative Alternative to Mitt Romney looked puny or laughable compared to the Lone Star colossus. Mitt himself seemed to have finally met his match.

But it was all downhill from those initial salad days in 2011, and it seems Perry’s fall from grace has continued almost continuously to this last Monday night’s news that his 2016 presidential campaign could no longer meet its payroll.

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In the autumn of 2011, he famously bombed in Republican presidential debates, managing to position himself as a weepy and wimpy immigrant lover in September, flubbing attack lines on Romney in October, and then most famously, forgetting which federal agencies he proposed shutting down in November, a gaffe he punctuated by saying after a brief silence, “Oops!” His staff turned out not to be such geniuses. His late start in Iowa proved to be deadly in that organizationally challenging state. He finished fifth in the Caucuses, skipped New Hampshire, and then quit just before the primary in South Carolina, the very place his campaign had begun with such promise.

But you have to give Perry credit: He seemed to go about preparations for Rick 2.0 quite methodically. He first offered a medical explanation for his 2012 disaster: a bad back plus painkillers plus sleep deprivation. He then worked hard to erase the image of a brainless cowboy he had managed to convey (captured by Texan Paul Begala’s comment that Perry was “the perfect candidate for those who thought George W. Bush was too cerebral”).

There were the famous glasses, of course. But more importantly, he attracted some high-life intellectual (Avik Roy, a key Reformicon health care thinker) and political (Sam Clovis, darling of Iowa conservatives and a key Santorum supporter in 2012) assets to his early campaign. He burnished a reputation as a leader in the state-based conservative movement for criminal justice reform. And just last month, Perry even gave a National Press Club speech on the legacy of racism that managed to impress liberals.

But the warning signs were there: Despite a good Super-PAC haul (an estimated total of $17 million), Perry raised a paltry million bucks for his official campaign by early July. That’s just not Texas-sized money. And even as other late-announcing candidates like John Kasich managed to come up with last-second poll-boosting ad campaigns, Perry wound up as the odd man out—11th out of 17—in the fraught competition for the ten spots on the Fox News first candidate debate stage. Most ominously, he addressed a 2012 weakness by spending a disproportionate amount of time and money in Iowa, but is running 12th—that’s right, 12th—in the last two polls from Iowa.

Perry theoretically had a chance to elevate himself last week at the preliminary Fox News “Happy Hour” forum, but sounded rushed and forced; what little buzz came from this event was mostly corralled by the smooth stylings of Carly Fiorina. And so now what’s left of Perry ‘16 will depend on skirting the very edge of the law by off-loading routine campaign expenses on Super-PACs (a bit of a risk for a guy still under indictment for alleged abuse of power), and somehow getting enough positive attention to raise some money for his official campaign. That probably would require a stellar performance in still another presidential debate, CNN’s on September 16. Debates remain his nemesis.

There’s no particular reason Rick Perry should throw in the towel before that debate. Like every other candidate with money troubles, he and his people will cite John McCain’s return from financial disaster in 2007-08 as a precedent, though Perry’s not exactly John McCain and the vast 2016 field is hardly the weak and self-canceling field of 2008. But Rick Perry hardly strikes fear in the hearts of liberals anymore, and his triumphalist strutting is as long gone as the high oil prices that fed his Texas “economic miracle.”

Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog, Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist, and a Senior Fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.

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