In the array of governors who turned to national politics — a collection that includes four of the last six presidents and a horde of contestants who didn’t make it — Rick Perry looks a lot more like Sarah Palin than like George W. Bush. And not just in his politics.
Bush went from announcement to primary to the presidency without John McCain or Steve Forbes or the hanging chads in Florida turning him into a running punch line. Republicans made their examination and picked their guy.
Perry got into this with all of the attributes Republicans were looking for. A fresh face? Check. Able to leap tall donors in a single bound, hauling in pallets of money? Check. In line with social conservatives? Check. Copacetic with fiscal conservatives? Simpatico with the Tea Party? Good speaker, good-looking, nice family? None of Palin’s baggage but all of her constituents? He checked every box.
The governor has a record of electoral victories all the way back to 1984, including in a couple of difficult races against Jim Hightower and John Sharp and some that were difficult on paper and easy in fact, against Tony Sanchez and Kay Bailey Hutchison. The first two were against then-popular Democrats, the others against a businessman with a bottomless pit of political money and against a sitting senator who was, by some accounts, the state’s most popular Republican.
Perry won them all. It wasn’t always pretty, but even foes regarded him as a formidable competitor. It could still turn out that way. This could end like the movies in which the hero, buried alive and left for the worms, claws his way back to the surface. Maybe Perry is Tom Hanks, and we’re watching Cast Away. Or Apollo 13.
Or maybe it would go better if he were talking to a volleyball or flying a spacecraft.
Perry is flunking the test. So far, his announcement was his high point. His notable moments are named Strange Speech in New Hampshire, Oops, and Tuition for Illegal Immigrants.
Now, instead of hanging his portrait next to one of those other governors — Bush, or Ronald Reagan, or Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter — he’s well on his way to the rogues’ gallery.
The Palin parallel is almost unavoidable, with the exception that she was a vice presidential candidate and didn’t run the primary election gantlet. Perry was new to the national political scene: a Western archetype, a kind of modern frontiersman whose common sense and values make up for the rough edges of his personality. Grew up on a horse, with a dog and a rifle for companionship. Remember the original pitch on the political messiah from Alaska? Conservative, a Western archetype with common sense and values. Knew how to gut a fish, a bear or a deer.
The Ken and Barbie jokes started almost a year ago, when Perry bounded out of his 2010 re-election on a national tour for a book taking the little guys’ side of the fight between federal and state government. Perry’s team figured the mocking would fall away given his star power and Palin’s fade from the political scene. But this latest Republican regional star hasn’t had the stuff for the national contest.
The way back starts in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, and the other early primary states. Eventually, if he survives that round and works his way out of the drought in his fundraising, he’ll be back in Texas, where all of this began. Where the people who chose him in state elections in 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006 and 2010 will take yet another look.
Here’s a little quirk in state election law: If Perry (or anyone else) is on the presidential primary ballot for Texas after Dec. 16, he’ll be on the March 6 ballot regardless of whether he’s still actually in the race. If the governor is still in the hunt, it’s hard to imagine his getting on the national ticket if he doesn’t win here at home. And if he’s no longer running for president, a lousy showing could embolden his Texas foes — within and without the Republican Party — as the governor limps into the 2013 legislative session and the 2014 election.
And after that? There’s always television.
[Editor's note: An earlier version of this story had a movie title wrong; it is Apollo 13.]