Commentary Magazine


Is Perry a Viable 2016 Contender?

Texas Governor Rick Perry’s decision to pass up a chance for a fourth full term in office will make for a lively race to replace him next year. But the fact that he is clearly leaving the door open for another run for the presidency in 2016 raises the question as to whether a second try will give Perry a better chance than he had in 2012. Though there is an informal tradition among Republicans that the second time is invariably the charm, if Perry thinks he can count on that helping him to the nomination, he may be in for as unhappy a ride in 2016 as his 2012 run.

Perry’s record as governor is, if anything, even more of an asset today than it was in 2011 when he declared his ultimately unsuccessful candidacy, and three years is a lifetime in politics. But there is simply no precedent for a man who was a laughingstock as a presidential candidate in one election cycle to transform himself into the winner at the next contest. The memory of what happened to Perry in those first disastrous months of his campaign combined with the far more formidable nature of the competition in 2016 should give him and his potential backers pause before they commit themselves to an effort that is unlikely to meet with any more success than he had before. No one has ever better illustrated the gap between success at the statewide level—even in a state as big as Texas—and the national stage than Rick Perry.

After 13 years in office, Perry has placed an indelible stamp on Texas political history. Though he has his detractors on the left, it’s difficult to argue that the state’s growth and prosperity has nothing to do with his leadership. The specific economic circumstances that apply to Texas may have worked to his advantage, but the least you could say about Perry is that he didn’t get in the way of those factors. Nor did he allow the legislature or the state bureaucracy to derail the boom. No matter how you look at it, he’s been an efficient manager and an effective promoter of the Lone Star State’s virtues. Any governor or president would be thrilled to be able to boast of a record that was anywhere close to what he achieved. After eight years of Barack Obama’s indifferent leadership, that ought to make for a powerful argument for Perry in 2016.

But any talk about another Perry presidential run has to start—and perhaps end—with a discussion of what happened to him the first time he ran.

Perry did enter the race late in the election cycle. By the time he declared his candidacy in August 2011 (on the day of the Ames, Iowa straw poll), his rivals had been at it for months if not years. But while he, and any other candidate, would be well advised to start a lot earlier in the run-up to 2016, it would be a mistake to assume that late start hurt him. In fact, it might have helped. After a summer and a couple of early debates that showed just how lackluster the GOP field was, Perry’s entrance into the contest could not have been better timed to ensure an easy path to the nomination for him. Perry looked to be the perfect candidate with a strong resume as a governor as well as close ties to both religious conservatives and Tea Partiers who loved his small government Texas philosophy. Indeed, the polls taken after his declaration showed him to be the frontrunner, easily eclipsing Mitt Romney and his other rivals.

It was only after he started opening his mouth and actually campaigning and taking part in the seemingly endless round of GOP debates that the trouble started.

What the nation soon learned was that while Perry had won three gubernatorial elections in Texas, he had never had to face the competition he was up against in the presidential contest. It wasn’t just that he soon got the kind of scrutiny from the national press that for the most part he didn’t receive in Austin. It was that he seemed utterly unprepared, if not completely incapable of putting forward a coherent argument for his candidacy.

The standard excuse for Perry’s disastrous debate performances is that he was still recovering from back surgery. That probably didn’t help him, but the indelible image of his “oops” moment when he couldn’t remember the three federal departments he said he wanted to disband is something that will stick with him until the day he dies. There are lots of reasons why a candidate can flop under that kind of pressure, but excuses don’t cut it in the big leagues in which he sought to compete. Within a few months, he went from being a likely winner to a punch line. It wasn’t that he lost so much as it was that he appeared to be in over his head outside the friendly confines of Texas politics. That is the sort of transformation that doesn’t just require a political makeover but an obituary.

The second try paradigm is what is tempting Perry back into the race, but the examples of Mitt Romney, John McCain, Bob Dole, George H.W. Bush and even Ronald Reagan don’t really offer much comfort to Perry. All of them mustered decent showings in their previous tries for the presidency. If this “rule” offers much hope to anyone it should be encouraging Rick Santorum, who came from the back of the pack to win a dozen primaries and caucuses before ending up as the unofficial runner-up for the nomination.

But what both Santorum and Perry have to contend with in 2016 is a potentially far tougher field than they faced in 2012. With political stars like Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, Rand Paul, Scott Walker and Ted Cruz in the mix, retreads from the failed attempts to stop Barack Obama have no reason to assume they start with an advantage over newcomers. More than that, the constituencies that seemed most likely to boost Perry in 2012 now have stronger claimants on their support. Santorum is a more natural candidate to support for social conservatives while Tea Partiers are far more likely to embrace fellow Texan Ted Cruz or one of the other conservatives. With Christie and potentially Walker in the race, Perry will also have strong competition for the title of most successful governor.

Perry may be a better candidate if he runs for president again, but the point is that his first try was so bad that anything would be an improvement. Second tries only lead to victory if the first impression a candidate makes on the national electorate is not as dismal as the one Perry made in 2011 and 2012. There are no absolutes in politics, but pegging him as a long shot for 2016 would probably be giving him more of a chance than he actually has.  

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