The New–Improved?–Rick Perry

Looking at Rick Perry’s very long-shot 2016 presidential campaign, and the plummeting trajectory of his 2012 campaign, it’s hard to remember what a big brawling menace he seemed to be when he announced his previous candidacy from the stage of Erick Erickson”s Red State Gathering in Charleston on August 13, 2011. He strutted the stage tossing out red meat to the conservative activists with a Texas-sized arrogance that brought back memories of you-know-who on that aircraft carrier. (I remember a cartoon from that period showing him ripping a terrified donkey’s head from its body as crowds went wild; it wasn’t much of an exaggeration of his early appeal at all). He had all that Texas money. He had a genius staff deeply stepped in social science research. He had the inside track with the Christian Right. And best of all, he had an economic narrative in a party desperate for one.

Yeah, upon his announcement in 2011, as he squeezed the vital juices out of Michele Bachmann’s Iowa Straw Poll victory on the very same day, it sure looked like Republicans had found their “electable True Conservative Alternative to Mitt Romney” candidate, particularly since Bachmann did manage to croak the other aspirant to that title, Tim Pawlenty, before she retreated to her fever swamps.

And then…well, then everything went wrong pretty fast for ol’ Rick. For one thing, his genius staff started to look like provincial Texas yahoos at sea in a national campaign as he ran around the country trying to make up for his late start. But his puffed up reputation was fatally deflated by serial debate performances in which he appeared, depending on how you looked at it, as Bobo the Simpleminded or as an immigrant-loving RINO squish. Mitt Romney ate him up on both counts, and Perry never recovered.

As you may know, Perry subsequently blamed his debate performances on sleep deprivation and painkillers associated with a back injury. He left office, worked to improve his Dogpatch image, and now he’s back for a second bite at the apple.

He’s not, however, anywhere close to where he was when he launched his last campaign. For one thing, his “Texas Miracle” economic claims have lost a lot of credibility. To some extent that’s because reporters like our own Phil Longman have poked big holes in it, noting that the state does very poorly on all sorts of social and economic indicators despite its recent job and population growth. Most recently, the energy sector’s problems have slowed everything down in the Lone Star State, even as California, so often contrasted with Texas by Perry and his allies as some sort of socialist dystopia, is booming.

The 2016 landscape is far less favorable to Perry as well. Instead of the 2012 environment where Republicans were trying to decide whether they’d “settle” for their frontrunner or find an alternative in an unappealing field of misfits and retreads, in the current cycle there is no front-runner and conservative activists have plenty of choices that do not involve taking a gamble on a guy who blew what looked to be a clear path to the nomination. Even in his former Christian Right redoubt, Perry faces heavy competition from Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, Scott Walker and Rick Santorum, even as conservative evangelicals seem less and less inclined to follow their old-school televangelist leaders.

And then there’s the fact that Rick Perry is entering a presidential campaign under indictment for “abuse of power.” Even if you buy Perry’s claim it’s all a trumped-up partisan witch-hunt, it’s not something likely to warm the hearts of GOPers preparing to campaign against “Clinton corruption.”

So I don’t see Perry 2.0 going very far. Right now his immediate goal has to be to do well enough in national polls to ensure himself a spot on the August 6 Fox News debate stage. In the latest RealClearPolitics average of national GOP polls (not the precise measure Fox News will use, but a good indicator of trends nonetheless), Perry is running tenth, just above the cut. It would be strangely appropriate if Perry ’16 fell apart just short of the debate stage where Perry ’12 fell apart. Time will soon tell.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.