One Thursday in early May 2009, I groggily made my way to see Rick Perry speak at a 6:30 a.m. prayer breakfast. At the time, I was a reporter for the Texas Observer, where I’d been covering Texas politics since 2003. Several hundred conservative Christian activists had filled a nondescript hotel ballroom in the North Austin Double Tree. They were all more awake than me. I’ll admit that 6 a.m. isn’t my best hour, and most politicians may well have put me back to sleep, but not Perry. Say what you will about Texas’s longest-serving governor, but he’s rarely boring.
Speaking without notes, he delivered a spellbinding speech that morning. There wasn’t a political word in it. Instead, he spun parables, talked about his favorite Bible passages, and described the strength he drew from faith. He was relatable and funny and introspective, and he owned the room. In small gatherings, Perry can be electric. On that morning he struck a populist tone, urging the audience to use faith to help others. “The sign of the saved is their love of the least,” Perry said. “If you want to see God, you must be among the beaten and the broken.”
Back in 2009, you might have considered Perry among the beaten and the broken—at least politically. People were still calling him “Governor 39 percent” following his less-than-impressive win in the four-way 2006 election. Popular U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison was gearing up to challenge Perry, and early polls showed him trailing badly. To some, Perry seemed finished.
You all know what happened next: Perry sidling up to the growing tea party and its anti-Washington rhetoric, trouncing Hutchison and later Democrat Bill White, and launching himself into the conversation for a run at the White House.
In August 2011, when he announced his candidacy for president, I thought he would win the nomination. Having seen Perry captivate Texas conservatives for years, I figured he would play well in Iowa and New Hampshire. In a weak field in which Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain would take turns as frontrunners, Perry seemed like the favorite. Then came the fall.
The Rick Perry who ran for president in 2011 was a candidate I didn’t recognize. He had never been a good debater or especially at ease with policy details, but he now added sloppiness and repeated gaffes to those weaknesses. Rather than captivating, his speeches were becoming comic YouTube sensations. Most troubling of all, as he dropped in the polls, he seemed like a candidate who was unsure of himself, searching for his political identity.
It was unsettling to watch. Had we all misjudged Perry? Had he simply lucked into his success in Texas? Was he really that bad?
If it was jarring for me, I can only imagine what it was like for Perry himself—and that may be why he ran again.
To me, Perry’s second run for president, which ended on Friday in St. Louis, seemed like an atrocious idea from the start. His problems—lack of money, lack of support, lack of attention, lack of respect—were easy to foresee; anyone paying the slightest bit of attention could predict them.
But Perry faced a more fundamental problem: There are rarely second acts in politics. It’s just not possible to run the kind of campaign Perry did in 2011—which some pundits ranked among the worst ever—and expect to receive a second look from voters. To my knowledge, a candidate who failed to win a single primary has never come back to win the nomination four years later—at least not in the modern era.
We tend to prefer the exciting, fresh candidates. It’s the same phenomenon that’s now hurting Hillary Clinton (well, that and those missing State Department emails) and Jeb Bush. They feel tired compared to Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. In a crowded GOP field full of new candidates—Rubio, Paul, Cruz, Carson, Fiorina, and, of course, Trump—Perry was old news. He wasn’t running a campaign, he was on mission impossible. He never had a chance.
Of course, plenty of pundits and insiders were more optimistic about Perry’s chances to win, including my colleague Erica Grieder (this has been the subject of spirited debate in the office).
Even his supporters acknowledged that his odds weren’t great. Perry surely knew this too. He’s a politically astute man. I’m sure in his dream scenario, he imagined he might catch on, that he could transform himself, stun the pundits and forge a comeback—just as he did in 2009-2010—though, he had to know that was unlikely.
So perhaps he also ran to rehabilitate himself as a politician, to recapture his form—to show that the bumbler of 2011 wasn’t the real Rick Perry.
He went about reinventing himself. He donned those black-rimmed glasses from the policy-wonk prop department, and started talking and acting like a serious candidate. He wasn’t perfect, of course. There were still gaffes—such as saying Benghazi was in Lebanon—but he also went to Davos and talked about marijuana decriminalization, hired big-time policy thinkers for his campaign, and gave a well-received speech about race and inequality. Even his debating was better. Though he flubbed Ronald Reagan’s name on the kiddie stage at the first GOP debate, he generally held his own and had some good moments. Asked to define Hillary Clinton in two or three words, most candidates were predictable and forgettable; Perry went with, “Good at email.” I laughed.
Had he run this campaign four years ago, he might have won the nomination—or at least come close. That was his opportunity in national politics. Unfortunately for him, he didn’t just fumble it, he dropkicked it into the next county. And it never came again.
Perry’s three decades of public service effectively ended on Friday when he became the first Republican to drop out. (Credit to him for recognizing his hopeless position—while other no-chancers soldier on.) By some metrics, Perry’s final campaign was rather dismal. He lasted just 99 days in the race and saw his support plummet while his staff melted away.
But I think his second campaign went about as well as it could have. He didn’t embarrass himself. To the contrary, he ran a serious campaign, even if the voters didn’t take him seriously. He more closely resembled the skilled campaigner so many of us followed during his fourteen years as governor.
Perry left on his own terms on Friday, departing to a subdued golf clap rather than derisive laughter. That alone is a victory. He was beaten, but unlike last time, he wasn’t broken.