When I’m asked these days about the status of Rick Perry’s presidential campaign, I’ve taken to whistling that song from Spamalot: “No, he’s not yet dead…” Count me alongside John Heilemann in the small group of those who believe the Texas governor still has a route to the GOP nomination—though it’s decidedly narrow, more farm-to-market road than interstate.
But let’s accept and acknowledge the reality of things at the moment: Despite a record seemingly tailor-made for an election about the economy and an ideological disposition that was Tea Party before Tea Party was cool, Perry has vastly underperformed the expectations of even his most ardent critics, who gritted their teeth while admitting, back in August, that he could be the one. Thursday night’s debate in Iowa is one of the last of his seemingly endless clichéd moments of truth—do or die, make or break, etc. The climb back into the top tier will be seriously uphill.
What the hell happened? What does it mean for him? And what does it mean for Texas?
I can assure you that every member of the press corps in Austin is chewing over possible answers to the first question. No one is more surprised than we are. We watched him run and win nine straight elections, dating back to his first race for the Texas House as a Democrat way back in 1984. Never did he break his stride; rarely did he have competition with a pulse and a heartbeat. Every quadrennial heavyweight brawl turned out to be, to borrow a phrase I coined at Texas Monthly, the Thrilla in Vanilla—a big yawn. He practically waltzed into office each time.
Theories abound. The election isn’t, in fact, about the economy (at least the primary isn’t). Perry’s brand of conservatism, particularly on gays and God, is a little much for the rest of the country. He’s a retail politician in a wholesale year. His refusal to debate more than a handful of times over the last decade—an assertion of his political power—made him rusty and clumsy when it counted. It’s the fault of Texas Democrats: If only they hadn’t sucked so bad since 1994, he’d know what it’s like to do battle with real opponents. He’s been poorly managed by staff who are themselves inadequately prepared for the rigors of a national campaign. He tires too easily. His back hurts. He doesn’t actually want to be president. If you thought Bush wasn’t intellectually curious…
Every one of these explanations has some merit. But the most plausible one is, as usual, the simplest: all of us, fans and foes alike, may have overestimated his ability to play at that level. However successful he’s been on the big stage that is Texas, running in all 50 states is something else entirely. Perhaps, like the minor-league phenom who turns out to be a flop in the bigs, the gaffe-prone goof just isn’t up to the job.
Of course, he already has a job, and if he loses, he’ll have nearly three years left in it—assuming he doesn’t resign early. All signs suggest that, rather than pull a Palin, he’d reenter the political and policy squabbles he left behind this summer with new energy (and, just maybe, a chip on his shoulder). Chief among these is a throwdown over higher education reform that pits him and his allies against not just the metaphorical Ivory Tower but the real Tower—that is, the leadership of the University of Texas at Austin. There’s also the as-yet-unresolved issue of Texas redistricting, currently at the mercy of the U.S. Supreme Court, and the prospect of another massive budget shortfall heading into the 2013 legislative session (despite a sudden, recent spike in tax revenue) and the need for further cuts to public ed, higher ed, and health care.
Whether Perry would be weaker politically upon his return is an open question. On the one hand, there are no outward signs that his recent stumbles have had an impact on his popularity among Texans, which is already middling; only 39 percent view his performance in office favorably, while 44 percent view it unfavorably. On the other, there is open discussion of Perry fatigue, and at least one prominent Republican, Attorney General Greg Abbott, has been gearing up for a gubernatorial race in 2014, when Perry could conceivably seek a fourth full term.
Yes, he could run again. Perry played coy when Mark Z. Barabak of the Los Angeles Times raised the issue with him a few weeks ago. But most insiders believe that the voluntary end of his reign—the longest in Texas history—is in sight.
For Texas, all this has been something of a bitter pill. Notwithstanding notions of Texas exceptionalism, this is a state with profound anxiety about its public brand. The xenophobia of old is no longer operable in a borderless, hyperconnected world, so what the rest of the country thinks of us matters more than ever, even if some of us are loath to admit it. The revisionist view of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency took some of the sting out of the rap that we’re all a bunch of hillbillies prattling on about our nuts. Attacks on George W. Bush’s IQ and unwavering certainty were viewed as an assault on Texas; remember the sneering about “cowboy diplomacy”?
Perry, initially, was unfairly dismissed as Bush Lite—they have little in common, other than the R next to their names. Worse, his campaign was made to answer an insulting question: is it too soon for another president from Texas? (As if they’d ever ask that about New York. Or California.)
In the end, if Perry is done in, it will be by his Perryness, not his Texanness—by his flaws, not ours. And yet the offending matter will stick to our boots. In some ways it already has. Thanks to his various “oops” moments, we’re being saddled once again with the misbegotten stereotype—dumb, unsophisticated, cocksure—that the national media loves to propagate.
But we’ll be fine. We can handle it. We, too, are not yet dead.