As the candidates for the 2016 race announce one by one, it’s clear that those who announced early got more mileage out of the formal openings of their candidacy than those who waited. As the log jam of would-be presidents starts to pile up, our cynicism waxes and our patience wanes whether or not those reactions are entirely justified by the slim chances of the candidates in question. Yet, no candidate’s announcement has generated more cynicism than that of former Texas Governor Rick Perry. Perry’s launch of his campaign wasn’t short on glitz or substance, and his subsequent tour of the cable news channels and morning shows showed up to be ready for the challenge and in seemingly good form. Why then the underwhelming reaction? The answer is obvious. His disastrous 2012 run including his memorable “oops” moment in one of the debates when his mind went blank when he sought to list the federal departments he would close has prejudiced many journalists, if not the voters, against his cause. Yet Perry’s effort will provide an answer to one of the perennial questions: does anyone really get a second chance to make a first impression?
Let’s start off by acknowledging that Perry has as good a case to be made for his candidacy as most of his Republican competitors. He has a long record of economic growth as governor of one of the country’s largest and most prosperous states. He has a real grasp of the discussion about job creation and also played a key role in shaping the debate about illegal immigration, an issue that resonates with GOP primary voters. He talks the talk that evangelicals want to hear, and his mantra about government not being our savior hits the sweet spot for Tea Partiers. He also can speak persuasively about foreign policy, is a strong supporter of Israel, and is an Air Force veteran to give him credibility on defense issues.
That checks off virtually all of the key constituencies and issues for Republicans. When you figure in the fact that he’s a seasoned political veteran rather than a relative political neophyte like some running ahead of him in the polls, there’s a good case to be made that he should be considered as worthy of the nomination as any of his rivals.
But that’s not the impression you’re getting from the press. That’s causing some to push back on the low-key reception he’s getting as a case of the media deciding the race rather than letting the voters do so.
There’s some truth to that assertion, but before we hang the press let’s remember something else. Four years ago, all the same positives could have been brought up to defend his candidacy. But what happened in the fall of 2011 wasn’t just a single “oops” moment. It was a gradual unraveling of a candidate for which the “oops’ was merely the coup de grace rather than a singular event that sunk him.
It should be remembered that when Perry entered the race the day of the Iowa Straw poll that year (a piece of timing that ruined Michele Bachmann’s one triumph), he did so not as an outlier but as a frontrunner. At a time when Mitt Romney’s campaign was still mired in the backwash of ObamaCare, Perry parachuted into the contest as the next great thing. Though few outside of Texas knew all that much about him, his initial poll numbers put him way ahead of a weak Republican field. A GOP electorate that was dubious of Romney and unenthused about the rest of a motley crew of contenders seemed poised to embrace the Texas governor. Though he entered late in the cycle at that point all he needed to do was to avoid disaster, and it’s arguable that he would have cruised to a victory. Indeed, Romney’s forces and some of his allies among conservative pundits were in panic in September 2011 and concentrated their efforts on trying to convince journalists to spread smears circulated by left-wing opponents in Austin.
But as we all know now, he didn’t avoid disaster. A decent though uninspiring performance in his first debate was followed by a few weak ones and then his “oops” moment put a fork in his candidacy.
After the fact, we were told that the reason for his lousy debate performances was a bad back. Perry was unprepared and not healthy enough to put up with the rigors of a presidential contest, and it showed. Though all we tend to remember is one gaffe, Perry was an unimpressive candidate who was clearly not ready for prime time.
Now we are informed that he’s healthy and has spent the last few years studying up on policy. To some extent, his good opening performance reflects that assertion. And since America is, as we’ve always been told, a nation of second acts, why should Perry get another chance. If he excels on the stump and in the opening debates (assuming he can get on the stage as one of the top ten contenders according to the polls at the time), then why wouldn’t he get a chance to shoot to the top in a race where none of even the most formidable contenders have a real edge on each other?
The obvious answer is that there is no real reason why he can’t win under those circumstances. Except, that is, for one.
It’s not the bogus indictment of Perry that a liberal prosecutor obtained in which he’s being arraigned for using his veto power. That is bound to be dismissed and will, if anything, generate sympathy from conservatives.
It’s this: Perry’s golden opportunity to win the Republican nomination was in 2012. He could have commanded the support of conservatives without much effort had he not been exposed as comically unprepared. Four years later, there are just too many tough opponents all fighting for the same votes. Indeed, with Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz in the mix, it’s arguable that Perry can’t even count on Texas being a strong base for his candidacy.
In theory, Perry may win over Republicans over in the end but it’s hard to believe anyone will ever take him as seriously as they did in August and September 2011. That was his golden chance. He may get a second chance to make a first impression among those who don’t remember the last election. But his moment has passed. The betting here is that it will not return no matter how well he does this time around.