where is rick perry? – a serious response to reihan salam about the republican field
This weekend, Slate published an article by Reihan Salam about Governor Rick Perry. Once considered a front runner, Perry quickly imploded in 2012 and is having trouble finding traction in the current primary. Why? As Reihan correctly notes, he has a record that indicates great political strength. On twitter, I offered the cheeky response: he once promoted legislation that allowed some undocumented Texans to receive financial aid from the University of Texas. Poison. Gabriel Rossman also notes that he “crashed and burned,” a reference to some poor campaigning. But still, he did manage to get the second most endorsements after Romney, which is usually a strong correlate of success as shown in the book The Party Decides.
I’d like to offer a deeper response which situates Perry within the broader evolution of national Republican politics and why he might have an even tougher time in 2016 than before. Let’s start with my master theory of national Republican politics as presented in the post Nixon’s Revenge. What you notice is that almost every single GOP Presidential ticket since 1952 has had someone from Nixon’s personal network – Nixon (1952, 1956, 1960, 1968, 1972), Dole (1976, 1996), Ford (1976), Bush (1980, 1984, 1988, 1992), and Cheney (2000, 2004). This network is what you might call the elite of the national security wing of the GOP, since they focus on foreign intervention.
The next observation is that this ruling faction of the GOP has lost its grip, somewhat. Romney emerged from a more liberal wing of the GOP that is now almost extinct. Palin is the GOP’s version of the social justice warrior. McCain earned his political stripes by virtue of military service and family connections in Arizona and, as far as I know, has relatively little connection to the network of elite Republicans centered around Nixon in the late 20th century.
In theory, Rick Perry might be a strong candidate in this environment. A strong electoral record in a big Republican state would be an asset and you no longer need the sponsorship of the Bush/Nixon coalition. He could, in theory, beat a path similar to Reagan in the 1970s. Work the activist base, develop strong media skills, and use the home state at a launch pad for national politics. When the Nixon sponsored candidate lost in 1976, Reagan could step in and claim the mantle in the next election cycle.
So why can’t Perry use this strategy? First, the Bush faction recovered and Jeb is their guy. That is one very important faction that Perry can no longer rely on. A lot of donors, staff, and activists are off limits. Second, Perry has not projected himself in a way that allows him to be strongly identified with any other faction that is large enough to make a difference in the primary. For example, Romney and McCain easily appealed to centrist Republicans. Palin appealed to the Fox news crowd. Currently, Scott Walker has been able to appeal to anti-unionists, populists and Tea Partiers. Rand Paul can appeal to the 10% of the GOP that is libertarian. Ask yourself who Perry represents in the GOP and it is hard to clearly align him to a faction, even though it is fairly clear that he is a social conservative.
One might ask why Perry has failed to become the standard bearer for a GOP faction. I am not an expert on Texas politics, but I can offer a few conjectures. First, maybe Perry simply isn’t as adept at playing the game of conservative social identities. Walker has spent a lot of time fighting unions and is now tweaking tenure, which is a love letter to the GOP base. When every GOP governor is rushing to create a no-abortion zone, you’ll probably need to do more to stand out from the crowd than pass another law aimed at abortion clinics. Walker understands that better than anyone. Second, Perry is old (66). His career started in the 1980s. He may not have the energy, or the flexibility, to stand out in this environment. Third, Perry may be a Texas specialist. There are a lot of effective governors who did well in their states but failed to make any headway nationally. Fourth is what I call “Mitch Daniels syndrome.” Signal any compromise with the enemy and that can sink you quickly (e.g., the famous debate when Perry was booed for a rather modest higher ed reform benefiting immigrants). There’s a really good reason Mitch Daniels is now a university president and not a serious contender for the nomination.
Bottom line: With the Bush coalition pushing a candidate, there is less room for someone like Perry. Also, Perry hasn’t been able to make himself into a “brand name.” There isn’t much else to say.