Magazine | September 7, 2015, Issue

Rick Perry’s Travails

The former Texas governor fights to keep his presidential bid alive

Consider the plight of Rick Perry. Ever since the former Texas governor launched his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, nothing has seemed to go quite according to plan. First, Perry fell out of the top ten in an average of national polls that Fox News used to determine which contenders would appear on the prime-time debate stage and which would be relegated to the “undercard” event. Word that the Perry campaign would have to ask staff to work without pay provided further evidence that the accomplished Texan was in trouble.

Making matters worse, Perry’s performance at the debate was objectively satisfactory but somehow, at the same time, obviously insufficient. As usual, he invoked his 14 years as the governor of Texas and highlighted several measures of the state’s remarkable performance during that time. No candidate, on either stage, made more reference to concrete results. None expressed more confidence in the future of the country. But it has been clear since Perry announced his campaign on June 4 that he, more than any other candidate, would be held to a pitilessly high standard. Four years ago he was the king of beasts. This time around, he may be Cecil the lion.

In August 2011, Perry’s decision to seek his party’s presidential nomination was greeted with great fanfare, thanks to his obvious and compelling credentials. He had been governor of the second-largest state in America for more than ten years, during which time Texas had experienced staggering growth in its economy and population, and diversification of both. Since the Great Recession began, in particular, Texas had stood in stark contrast to the rest of the nation.

And Perry’s political record was bound to strike fear in the hearts of his competitors. He was widely acknowledged to be a conservative — acceptable to the religious Right and the then-ascendant tea-party movement. At the same time, Perry could claim enough electability to win the White House: Over more than 25 years in various offices, he had never lost an election.

Within a month of launching his presidential campaign, Perry had become the front-runner, polling at 32 percent in a nine-way race. That apparent formidability, however, put him in everyone’s crosshairs. The Texas record stood up to scrutiny. The candidate himself did not. In September, at a debate in Orlando, he scolded those who thought he had been wrong to sign the 2001 Texas “DREAM Act,” which authorized in-state college tuition for undocumented-immigrant students who had graduated from high school in Texas. “I don’t think you have a heart,” he told his critics. More than a month later, having dropped to fourth place, he floundered when trying to remember the third federal department that he would like to eliminate. “Oops,” he shrugged, by way of apology. To the public, that would become the unofficial verdict on his entire campaign.

Perry had no one to blame for his disappointing performance but himself. He had clearly failed to prepare for the rigors of a presidential campaign, or to consider the possibility that he might, in his early 60s and recovering from back surgery, be in no shape to wing it. To his credit, he clearly took this view of things. After formally ending the experiment and returning to Austin an object of national derision, Perry threw himself into various efforts at self-improvement. By 2013, overseeing one last biennial legislative session, the man had visibly changed: His cowboy boots had been shelved in favor of orthopedic quasi-loafers, and he had started wearing glasses with hipsterish plastic frames. Forays back into the broader arena soon showed that the smart-guy glasses were not a disguise. In January 2014, debating drug policy in Davos, Switzerland, he explained why he has come to support the decriminalization of marijuana. Later that year, in London, after he had given a robust and well-received speech on foreign policy, a case of Ebola was reported in Dallas. Perry returned immediately to Texas, where he oversaw a successful statewide response.

Perry has continued to show a sense of serious purpose since announcing that he would make a second attempt to win the White House. He has maintained a busy travel schedule, with a particular focus on making inroads in Iowa. Even Perry’s critics concede that his skill at retail politics is virtually unparalleled, and in-person appearances have historically been crucial to his campaign strategies in Texas. Meanwhile, Perry has prioritized policy expertise in his campaign staff and in his outreach to informal advisers. He made several substantive speeches over the summer, which received positive reviews from political pundits, many of whom were clearly surprised. With a number of this year’s candidates calling for a renewed national conversation about economic opportunity, it was probably inevitable that the candidate with the most compelling record on the subject would pick up the theme. But no one was expecting anyone in the Republican field, much less Perry, to call on the party to confront its historically half-hearted interest in improving America’s race relations, or to challenge Wall Street by making a forceful case for its reform.

In other ways, too, Perry is showing himself to be a more qualified contender than he was four years ago. He is one of nine current or former governors among the 17 Republicans running this year, and any of the others would give half their PAC money for Texas’s record. The top-line success captured in state-GDP growth and total employment doesn’t fully convey how striking the Lone Star State’s economic performance has been. Virtually all available metrics show that Texas’s progress during Perry’s 14 years at the helm was broad-based, substantial, and arguably more equitable than anything our conscientiously progressive president has managed to achieve. The state’s unemployment rate has been below the national average every month for years. Median household incomes have risen. The number of firms owned by Hispanics and African Americans has grown. Jobs have been created in every major industry and every income quartile. Last year’s collapse in oil prices helped debunk the persistent partisan criticism that the state’s success has been fueled only by fossil fuels: Despite doomsday predictions, the distress in the energy industry has translated into a slower rate of economic growth rather than a countercyclical recession. If anything, Texas’s economic performance looks better in retrospect — resilient as well as robust.

The same, actually, can be said of Perry. Texas Democrats have long dismissed him as a right-wing fire-breather and a lightweight besides, and his affable demeanor did, in fact, often come across as glib or shallow. But his characteristic confidence has a certain appeal when compared with the cerebral caution of his successor, Greg Abbott, or the strategic calculations of the other contender from Texas, Senator Ted Cruz.

Perry is clearly more self-conscious than he was four years ago; rather than defending his sanguine view of illegal immigration, for example, he has emphasized the state’s ongoing border-security surge, which began in 2014, after law-enforcement agencies in the Rio Grande Valley reported a dramatic increase in unauthorized immigration from Central America. At the same time, he showed good instincts and genuine leadership when, unlike his competitors, he forthrightly rebuked Donald Trump’s lurid claims about America’s southern border and the 11 million unauthorized immigrants already in the United States.

Even so, Perry couldn’t catch a break. Many pundits suspected that he, rather than Trump, was grandstanding. Either way, although his favorability ratings among Republican voters remain high, his support has been negligible in the polls. This contrast is a reminder that, even before his campaign ran out of cash, Perry’s chances of getting a second hearing were doubtful. He has eight or nine credible competitors this cycle — and one doozy of a criminal indictment. The charge is abuse of power, in relation to a line-item veto from 2013. The case against him seems dubious: He vetoed several million dollars’ worth of annual state funding to the state’s Public Integrity Unit, which was then housed in the Travis County district attorney’s office, after the district attorney in question had been convicted of drunk driving and served several weeks in jail. Still, the indictment exists.

Early struggles on the campaign trail are not necessarily fatal: John McCain was forced to reshuffle his staff after a disastrous start in 2008, and he went on to capture the nomination. But Perry needs to find his footing. Making the next prime-time debate stage is a necessary first step. After that, Perry will have to show he is the right man for the moment. He has a record to back that case up, but he is running out of time to make it.

– Erica Grieder, a senior editor of Texas Monthly, is the author of Big, Hot, Cheap, and Right: What America Can Learn from the Strange Genius of Texas.

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