Is There Life After Rick Perry?

And what happens when we get there?

Rick Perry began 2011 on a high note. Having won his third full term as governor the previous November, he took the oath of office on the south steps of the Capitol with the wind both in his hair and at his back. In the same election, the Legislature had tipped heavily in his favor, as a new freshman class, dominated by tea party conservatives, swelled the Republican ranks in the House and Senate. Standing before many of those lawmakers, as well as numerous other members of state government, nearly all of whom he controlled in one way or another, Perry delivered an epic speech: “You might say historians will look back on this as the ‘Texas century,’ ” the governor said. “Americans once looked to the East Coast for opportunity and inspiration, then to the West Coast. Today they are looking to the Gulf Coast—they are looking to Texas. . . . This is our time, this is our place in history. We must seize the moment.”

Which is exactly what he did. In August, after a legislative session in which he got nearly everything he wanted, Perry announced his candidacy for president. This was his second high note of the year. Before a group of conservative bloggers gathered for the annual RedState conference, in South Carolina, Perry declared, “I believe in America. I believe in her purpose and her promise. I believe her best days have not yet been lived. I believe her greatest deeds are reserved for the generations to come.”

At that moment, all things seemed possible for Texas’s longest-serving governor. He had every necessary attribute to become president: rugged handsomeness, a compelling record of job creation, an undefeated electoral record, a prodigious fund-raising ability, and a legendary talent for the kind of retail politics that early-primary states are said to require. He seemed, at first glance, to be everything GOP primary voters said they were looking for, and Perry instantly skyrocketed to the top of the polls.

But as summer turned to fall, he hit a rough patch. His support for in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants (and, to a lesser degree, his history of crony capitalism) outraged the tea party base and left him vulnerable to a self-inflicted death blow: poor debate performances. Alongside the other candidates, Perry seemed unanimated, sluggish, even confused. The number of stumbles mounted, culminating finally with the infamous “oops” moment at the Michigan debate that devastated his candidacy. He slipped from front-runner status and declined precipitously in the polls.

In Texas, where only a year and a half earlier Perry had won a smashing primary victory over Kay Bailey Hutchison (using some of the same anti-establishment arguments he was now trying, ineptly, to direct at Mitt Romney), stories of dysfunction began to ricochet around the Capitol. A source close to the campaign told me that Perry’s staff didn’t realize how important the debates were going to be until it was too late. Complaints about unresponsiveness were commonplace. A consultant who backed Perry told me that he tried to put a major donor (i.e., someone willing to pledge as much as $1 million) in touch with the campaign, but the donor never got a call back.

“Emails and phone calls frequently went unreturned,” a reporter who covered the campaign told me. “Schedules were difficult to come by more than two to three days in advance, and minor tasks like getting on the press list could take a lot of time and energy.” (She added that things improved after a couple months.) Anita Perry finally intervened, leading to a shake-up in which Joe Allbaugh, an experienced operative who was instrumental in George W. Bush’s campaign of 2000, was brought in to right the ship. But, as was later reported by Politico (and denied by Perry), this only led to a split within the campaign between the old and new teams.

As the first primary contest approached, in Iowa, Perry seemed to regain his footing, but he was now playing a game of catch-up. He finished a disappointing fifth, having spent some $4 million on television ads that, a key campaign operative acknowledged to me, “didn’t move anybody.” Most observers figured he was done. But following an emotional speech in which the governor appeared to be laying the groundwork for a concession, he surprised everyone (including members of his campaign) by tweeting the following morning, during a jog, that he was soldiering on to South Carolina. It was yet another chaotic moment in a campaign that had been defined by them.

The next weekend, Perry took the stage for another debate. He needed a dazzling performance. Instead, he barely registered, largely ignored by both the moderators and the other candidates. Three days later, he finished with less than one percent of the vote in New Hampshire.

Can he still win the nomination? Probably not. Can he make a more respectable showing? Even that now appears to be a long shot (at press time, he was polling a distant fifth in South Carolina). But regardless of what happens, his campaign will mark a turning point in Texas politics. Over the past eleven years that he has been in office, Perry has become the most powerful governor in the history of the state. But not without cost: a volcano has been building up underneath him during that time, a molten brew of unresolved issues and unsatisfied grievances seething beneath a placid surface of economic growth. These include budget cuts of unprecedented severity, a multitude of school finance lawsuits, ill-conceived initiatives like the Trans-Texas Corridor, an emphasis on ideological purity over compromise, and a tendency to punish dissent. There is now a wellspring of animosity, even among Republican lawmakers, one of whom described Perry to me as “a cancer on the state.”

So what happens next? If Perry drops out of the race and comes home, his term will not expire until January 2015. Most likely, he will take up where he left off.

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