The Disruption of Rick Perry
The former Texas governor has been a product of disruption—but also its victim.
“Disruption” is a term that has become cliché and one I really hate. But it does apply to Perry’s political fortunes. In more recent years, the word became popular in the tech industry as new products and the Internet started creating fundamental changes in the economy: “better, cheaper, faster.” Disruption was a word the techies and tech investors could use to make themselves feel smarter than everyone else instead of just luckier. Perhaps they are unaware of how petroleum discovered in Pennsylvania disrupted the whale oil business, or how Edison’s light bulb affected the gas light trade.
Disruption is little more than dramatic change, and while the term is mostly applied to how technology affects markets, it can apply to broader concepts. Walmart disrupted mom-and-pop stores across America with its economy of scale, triggering the era of big box stores — which now are suffering in competition with Internet retailers. Cheap online advertising killed the profits at newspapers. E-books have undercut legacy publishing. Cable television diminished the networks. Now the trend of cable-cutting is threatening the financial scheme of those giants of media control.
So what, you ask, does any of this have to do with Rick Perry? A lot.
After almost 150 years of total control of Texas politics, the Democratic Party lost management of the state in the 1990s because of an influx of Republicans from other states. There had been almost as much political emphasis on illegal immigration from Mexico in the 1980s as there is today, but when the party realignment started occurring, former Democratic Governor Mark White joked that perhaps the Democrats had been watching the wrong border. Perry angered many Democrats by switching parties, but he caught the wave and rode it right into the governor’s mansion.
Then Perry decided to run for president in 2011 and slammed into the wall of political disruption.
Technology and change have affected American politics throughout history. The wonderful political novel The Last Hurrah is the story of a ward boss mayor of Boston fighting his final re-election campaign against a young politician with TV appeal. Art became reality as young Boston politician John F. Kennedy defeated the more seasoned Richard Nixon in the 1960s television debates in no small part by looking young and vigorous. Nixon came back in 1968 with a television advertising effort that changed the nature of campaigning. But then Jimmy Carter re-established the value of shoe-leather campaigning in 1976 with an Iowa showing that shot him from the back of the pack to perceived frontrunner. President Obama’s 2008 fundraising machine made him the first presidential candidate of the Internet.
When Perry announced for president, he was grossly unprepared for how cable news and the Internet had changed the national political landscape.
Whether you like Perry or not, he is an exceptionally good retail campaigner, connecting with audiences when he speaks. In the traditional presidential campaigns that existed between Carter and George W. Bush’s re-election, Perry would have excelled. The formula was: Connect with voters in early primary and caucus states while raising money for the long haul of television advertising to drive home the message. But it wasn’t just fundraising that changed in 2008. In what was the first step toward turning presidential nominations into national campaigns rather than state-by-state affairs, televised debates – partisan gladiatorial brawls – became a part of the woodwork. Before that year, neither party had more than 15 primary debates in a cycle. The spectacle exploded that cycle though, with 25 in the Democrat primaries and 21 in the Republican, carrying over to 20 in the 2011/12 Republican primaries.
Perry was ill prepared for debating, having had just a few in his gubernatorial campaigns. His mistakes were of a kind that a politician might have weathered in previous elections, but with the echo chamber of the Internet, they were fatal. (And the dominance of those debates on establishing the system were so dramatic that both parties this year are trying to reduce the number to six for the Democrats and nine for the Republicans.)
Internet and cable television disruption continues to plague Perry this year in the form of Donald Trump. As Trump has demagogued his way to the front of the pack of Republican candidates, no one has suffered as much as Perry. As much as numbers guru Nate Silver may argue that Trump is winning the polls but losing the nomination the national polls, media coverage, and Internet chatter are driving the campaign. Watching whatever individual state polls have been done since this summer, I’ve found they have started tracking the national numbers. Before Trump took off in late July, Scott Walker led in Iowa and Bush in New Hampshire. Trump now not only leads in those states, but he also is ahead of Bush in his home state of Florida. The Trump surge is displayed on cable television in the 20,000 people who turned out to hear Trump in Mobile, Alabama, on a Friday night.
Once again, the presidential nominating process has become national and preys on Perry’s weaknesses rather than plays to his strengths.
Trump for the time being has frozen the field. That works well for Texas Senator Ted Cruz’ plan to pick up a few delegates here and a few delegates there to take into the national party convention as bargaining chips. It is a disaster for Perry, however. Perry needs fluidity in the pack. He needs a Jimmy Carter moment in an early state or caucus. Instead, he gets an Internet lashing over a misspeak in the second tier debate when he referred to Ronald Reagan as Ronald Raven. His operating cash is drying up. His Iowa chairman jumped ship to Trump. Perry still has plenty of Super Pac money for a strong television advertising campaign in the early states, but so long as the field is frozen, spending that money may be like spitting into the wind. Perry’s best hope at this point is that Jeb Bush will expend some of his mega-millions on advertisements telling voters about “the real” Donald Trump. Only if the Trump bubble burst will Perry have a chance to move up from one percent support.
At the moment, though, disruption is killing Perry’s White House dreams. Perhaps he should start thinking of a new career as a whaler, a wheelwright, or a newspaper publisher.