Rick Perry's Political Fortunes Fell in 2011

Gov. Rick Perry at a campaign stop in Osceola, Iowa, on Dec. 27, 2011.
Gov. Rick Perry at a campaign stop in Osceola, Iowa, on Dec. 27, 2011.

It’s been a long 12 months for Rick Perry. The Texas governor started 2011 in triumph, at the peak of his political power, with a high gloss on his boots and a national audience of conservatives eager for just the tale he was telling.

He ends the year treading water. His boots — “Freedom” and “Liberty” — might as well be named “Oops” and “Dang.” Even if he pulls out of this, it’s been embarrassing for him and for his home state.

He took the family name out into the world and made a hash of it. Texas was still recovering, in some quarters, from George W. Bush’s presidency — the idea that a pair of Tony Lamas and a twang were the first two signs of the apocalypse.

Those outside Texas think our memories are short, that our mental engines are a couple of quarts low. That whenever we see a new problem, we hide our checkbooks and start researching biblical rationalizations.

Some believe we name our boots. Look, not all of us have boots. Not all of us who have boots name them. And when we do, the names are on the part of the boot you can’t see unless we’re showing off. The bottom line: You can ask us to change, but the boots stay. They’re cool. Now hush.

Perry’s rise in Texas politics has run parallel with the question of whether he was very good at politics or very lucky at politics. His political record includes one genuine upset — that race in 1990 when he knocked Jim Hightower out of the Texas Department of Agriculture and made Perry the agency’s new commissioner.

He beat John Sharp, a former and future friend and a fellow Aggie, in the 1998 race for lieutenant governor. That was a squeaker and a turning point: Perry’s ascent was under way, and Sharp, a Democratic star at the time, never won another election.

Perry beat a rich oilman, Tony Sanchez, in a 2002 race in which the challenger’s campaign spent more than $70 million. He survived in 2006, with 39 percent of the final vote, over a pack of challengers that included Carole Keeton Strayhorn, a Republican running as an independent; Chris Bell, a Democrat; and Kinky Friedman, an independent whose effort might well have been more performance art than political campaign.

And just last year, he beat Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in a sort of country-mouse-city-mouse contest that perfectly tracked the state’s provincial resentment of the federal government. Perry whupped Hutchison and Debra Medina in the primary and then made easy work of Bill White, the popular former Houston mayor, in the general election.

Perry entered 2011 at the top of the political food chain, having dispatched the best challengers available in the state in his and the other political party. He managed to straddle the divide between establishment Republicans and insurgent Tea Party Republicans, and to become — after a quarter of a century in public office — the poster boy for the conservative anti-government movement.

It seems a little ridiculous to credit luck for all of the last 20-plus years, but plenty of people do. If that was a run of luck, the last four months have started to balance things. Perry made a spectacle of himself in the debates, is spending millions in an effort to stay out of last place in Iowa and apparently wasn’t organized enough to get on the ballot in Virginia.

What if it’s not luck? Perry excelled in a combative and competitive political culture and looked, even to the wise owls in Washington and elsewhere, like the real deal. Remember July and August, when he was the hot ticket?

Texas likes to think of itself as a pretty tough proving ground for politicians, with a string of characters from “Cactus Jack” Garner to Sam Rayburn to Lyndon Baines Johnson to the two Bushes. But it’s also the state that hatched the fruitless presidential runs of former Gov. John Connally and former Sen. Phil Gramm.

Maybe we’ve been fooling ourselves. Maybe our preference in politicians is a regional taste that doesn’t translate to Iowa, or New Hampshire or, most importantly, to live television.

Or maybe it was just bad luck.

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