Tomorrow night, ten men hoping to be the Republican nominee for president next year will meet for the first official debate of the 2016 cycle. Rick Perry, the former Texas governor, will not be among them.
Having failed to rank among the top ten candidates in the most recent Fox News poll, Perry has has been relegated to the overflow debate being held at 5pm.
Since Perry was among the candidates jostling around the 10th place position, it wasn’t clear until yesterday whether he would make the cut. The news that he wouldn’t was, for many pundits, just one more piece of evidence for what appears to be the conventional wisdom: Perry’s presidential prospects are as grim as a snowball’s chance of surviving Texas in August.
I disagree. Perry’s non-inclusion in the main debate isn’t even proof of his current standing in the polls based on the margin of error; Sarah Rumpf explains the math, over at Breitbart. I would hardly call it a referendum on his candidacy. Of the ten candidates on the main stage, only seven strike me as “serious candidates” in the sense that they are sincerely running for the Republican presidential nomination (see my special bonus section below for an explanation). The cumulative talent is roughly the same on both stages. Looking at the field as it stands, with 17 declared candidates, I think Perry has a pretty good chance of ending up among the top three candidates after all the delegates are counted. And if I were to place a bet on the eventual nominee today, I’d put my money on him.
Four years ago, I felt the same way. And yes, I remember how that presidential campaign imploded a mere two months later. But some things, crucially, have changed. Others, equally crucially, have not.
For context, here’s what I wrote about Perry back in 2011, on the day he announced.
Like most journalists based in Texas, I was expecting the news in a general way; I had gone to his prayer rally in Houston the week before, and filed a dispatch about it for The Economist, where I worked at the time. For the next week’s issue, naturally, I wrote a piece punditing about his candidacy. But on the day he announced, August 13th, I was moved to elaborate for two reasons. One of my motives was thinly-veiled: garden-variety professional ambition. The announcement created a surge of interest in Texas’s governor, and the state more generally. I considered myself pretty solid on those subjects, and although I’m not as magnificent and successful as Donald Trump, I do have a little bit of hustle. My other motive was secret, and more important:
Since returning to Texas in 2007 for the job with the Economist, I had become a true believer in the Texas Miracle. My conversion was due to my work. By 2011 I had logged four years writing about the Texas economy. I was therefore very familiar with a dispositive body of evidence, much of it from the sterling economists at the Dallas Fed, substantiating an empirical phenomenon that was vivified by my personal experiences. At a time when millions of Americans were in real distress as a result of the housing crisis, the financial crisis, and the Great Recession that followed, I felt genuinely blessed to live in Texas. And like all evangelicals, I was always looking for chances to tell the world the good news.
As for Rick Perry, I liked him pretty well at that point, albeit because of my belief in the Texas Miracle rather than the other way around. At some point I had concluded that regardless of his reputation, and politics aside, he hadn’t caused any concrete harm to anyone I care about, or interfered with the economic performance I believed us all to be the beneficiaries of. That made the governor good enough for me, because my opinion is that politicians, like doctors, should First Do No Harm. It only sounds like a low bar if you don’t think about how few manage it. So when Perry announced, I was hoping the nation would at least give the governor a hearing.
In retrospect, I don’t think I was wrong about Perry as a governor, although after four more years I’d have more to say about his role in the Texas Miracle. I was wrong about Perry as a 2012 presidential candidate, obviously, for two reasons. The same two as Perry himself, perhaps: I was blithely dismissive of how important the actual campaign is to a campaign’s prospects. Similarly, I didn’t take into account that a surgical procedure in June would have left him dealing with a difficult recovery while trying to persuade the American public to put him in the world’s most powerful job. Well, so it goes. Oops.
Today, on the basis of the Texas Miracle alone, I’d be unwilling to dismiss Perry as a candidate in 2016. Like I said, I drank the Kool-Aid. And I have a lingering suspicion that at some point this spring, we might see this hopeless long shot come smashing to the front of the field like the Kool-Aid Pitcher. Beyond that, it’s clear that the governor remembers his brief 2011 campaign as well as everyone else does. He’s back on his feet, and he evidently planned the campaign before announcing it this time around, by hiring talented staff and doing debate practice and so on. He may not be on the main stage tomorrow, but twice in two months surprised his critics with substantive speeches on the politically sensitive subjects of race relations and Wall Street reform.
The public’s perception, clearly, has also changed. Four years ago Perry entered the race as the presumed frontrunner. But in retrospect, that status proved fatal for his candidacy. It put him in the spotlight, and the crosshairs of all the other candidates: the wobbliest period of his life in public coincided with the two months when he had absolutely no room for error. That’s why he’s been widely written off; this time around, he’ll have to hustle to get a hearing. But if he does, Perry’s greatest weakness could come back to help him. An underdog from Paint Creek, fighting for his principles, backed by the Texas record, stifled by the widespread derision of the media elite? That’s a little more appealing than The Jeb Bush Story, at least.
BONUS: Here’s my breakdown of the talent distribution between the two debate groups. Chris Christie, Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee, Scott Walker, Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich are the ten candidates on the main stage. Three of those guys, in my assessment, aren’t actually running for president: they’re trying to sell books, land a cable-news gig, or otherwise promote their personal brands. (If you’re reading, Mr. Trump, Mr. Huckabee, and Dr. Carson: I appreciate your entrepreneurial hustle.) Of the seven serious candidates, I only see four without an irreducible problem. Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, has the personal charm of Trump and a record that only looks good if you’re comparing him to other governors of New Jersey. Rand Paul, the senator from Kentucky, has the natural support of libertarians and the esteem of people like me, who appreciate libertarian principles and mischief but nonetheless support things like the Federal Reserve. In other words, his ceiling of support is 20 percent. John Kasich, the governor of Ohio, seems level-headed and likeable, but his record seems to deviate from fiscally conservative principles. I’m not an expert on Ohio, and it’s possible that Medicaid expansion was the right call for that state–if so, I commend him for fighting for it–but this is the Republican presidential primary. That leaves Rubio, Cruz, Walker, and Bush. To be clear, all four of them have their weaknesses, in my view. But they also have various strengths, and at this point in the campaign, I wouldn’t rule any of them out.
On the kiddie stage, meanwhile, Perry will be alongside Rick Santorum, Carly Fiorina, Bobby Jindal, George Pataki, and Jim Gilmore. For starters, none of these people are loudmouth clowns. Like most Texas conservatives, I disagree with Santorum at least half the time, but he was the runner-up for the 2012 nomination. Jindal seems like a credible Louisiana governor, if not much of a political star. I’m skeptical of Fiorina’s experience in business, and total lack of experience in political office, but I know some respectable people who support her, which is a good sign. I have no idea who this Gilmore guy is, and although I knew Pataki was a figure in modern politics, I couldn’t have told you he was alive and well, and a Republican, until he announced this campaign.