Rick Perry's Un-Campaign for President

Gov. Rick Perry (c) speaks with reporters outside the Senate Chamber on May 5, 2011.
Gov. Rick Perry (c) speaks with reporters outside the Senate Chamber on May 5, 2011.

It’s Rick Perry versus the nincompoops. That’s not a slap at the rest of the Republican field, but at the political chatterers who just can’t or won’t believe the Texas governor when he says he doesn’t want to run for president.

Nobody believes him, which makes it easier for some to contend that he is making a grab at the highest political office in the land.

It’s not that Perry is lying. It’s that politicians so regularly lie about prospective campaigns that his actual words don’t matter. What matters is the sense of things and perception.

The governor is in a great position. His name is in the conversation, but he doesn’t have to trek to Iowa and New Hampshire and he doesn’t have to open a federal campaign account and he doesn’t have to fend off attacks from declared candidates. He’s in place if there’s a draft, but not at risk of an embarrassing loss. How can you lose a race you’re not running?

The current field of Republican presidential candidates is about as inspiring as the soup aisle at the grocery store. There’s a distinct thrill deficit here, and Republican voters are still looking for someone who does for them what Barack Obama did for Democrats in 2008.

 

Perry checks off a lot of the boxes for an ideal Republican candidate. It might gall the late Molly Ivins to hear this, but as she used to say, he’s got some Elvis. He’s good-looking and telegenic, great at working a crowd, both at the handshake level and at the microphone. He actually enjoys campaign hokum. He has become a good public speaker. (You should have seen him when he was running for agriculture commissioner in 1990; there stands the proof that he’s teachable.) He’s good with the fiscal conservatives, the social conservatives, the Tea Partiers and the Christians, and he subdued the establishment Republicans in Texas by easily defeating U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in the 2010 gubernatorial primary. He’s from a big Southern and Western state (we’re a little conflicted about it) with a lot of electoral votes and, more importantly, with a mother lode of conservative campaign money.

He’s got a national forum — as chairman of the Republican Governors Association — and a big issue — state sovereignty, as expressed in his book, Fed Up!: Our Fight to Save America from Washington.

He doesn’t start with the baggage that other candidates have. That’s partly a product of not posing a threat to others on the national scene in a way that inspires them to hire diggers of dirt.

By declaring his non-candidacy, Perry keeps the speculation going. Will he? Won’t he? He’s just a ghost at the moment, a guy whose name gets mentioned by people who aren’t happy with the field and who need to fill in the blank when they get to the part of the conversation that starts, “Who else is there?” Until his profile rises, there’s no need for the declared candidates to start looking for his blemishes.

His most obvious disadvantages have to do with the 43rd president: Will Republicans be ready, four years after George W. Bush left the White House, to go with another Texas governor? It’s not just the office, or the boots. In his talk at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February, the similarities between Perry and Bush in mannerisms and speech were sometimes startling. Chances are, he’ll remind people of Bush if he starts appearing regularly on national TV.

Still, Perry’s name keeps floating to the surface, just as it did during his re-election campaign last year and has from time to time this year.

This recent bout started after three Southern candidates slipped or fell aside. Mississippi’s Haley Barbour is out of the race. Arkansas’ Mike Huckabee decided not to run. And Georgia’s Newt Gingrich stepped on his shoelaces at the starting line and fell on his face. (His campaign manager, it’s worth noting, is Rob Johnson, whose previous political title was manager of Perry’s re-election campaign.) Some Southern strategy.

A lot of candidates are ideal until they start talking — case studies include Gingrich, George Allen, Dan Quayle and Sarah Palin. And there are other relatively fresh faces in the game this year who haven’t been beat up: Jon Huntsman, Mitch Daniels, Tim Pawlenty and so on.

Perhaps Republicans will shop around for other choices at the top of the ticket. Or maybe Perry is angling for a less arduous path to the national ticket — when the nominee comes shopping a year from now for a running mate.

 

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