The past seven days were supposed to be Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s comeback week. He had an economic plan, a big address, a new staff and a new Iowa TV campaign. And yet, the week turned into a mini-disaster, typical of the error-plagued Perry campaign.
The Fix’s Chris Cillizza pronounced: “Instead of spending the week talking about that proposal, however, Perry found himself repeatedly driving around the rhetorical cul-de-sac that is the debate over whether President Obama is a U.S. citizen. . . . Rick Perry, for using your cowboy boots to step all over your campaign’s preferred message, you had the worst week in Washington.”
The staff shake-up itself impinged on th speech rollout, getting the media to push out a number of “process” stories. Then came the birther mess, which engulfed the campaign for several days. Meanwhile, Perry sounded like a disgruntled loser when his campaign let it be known he might skip out on some debates.
Todd Harris, a Republican consultant not working for any presidential campaign, told me, “It seems like whatever week we’re in, it’s always the FOLLOWING week when Perry’s going to turn things around. The problem of course is that they’re running out of weeks.”
Even in a Friday appearance in New Hampshire, political pros had to scratch their heads. First, what’s he doing there? He should park himself in Iowa; right now New Hampshire is a waste of precious resources and time. Second, Perry let slip another admission against interest: “I may get to be a good debater before this is all over.” Ouch. The sense that Perry was never ready for the presidential race seems to be pervasive. And then Perry, ever the stubborn Texan, refused to call his birther comments a mistake. Joe Allbaugh, his new campaign chief, may start wishing he had chosen another campaign to pave his return from political oblivion.
At the Cornerstone Action Dinner Friday night he touted his new economic plan. His delivery was strangely mannered and giddy, as if trying to compensate for his sleepy demeanor in recent debates. Plainly, he is struggling to address his likability problem and hasn’t quite found the right tone.
As if that were not enough the Texas Tribune reported that the “independent analysis” of Perry’s economic plan was more smoke and whistles (not unlike his third-quarter spending report, which shifted payroll and other travel costs to the fourth quarter). JDA — John Dunham & Associates, which performed the study — is essentially a gun-for-hire lobbying firm. According to the report, “interviews, company literature and a visit to the firm’s cramped office in Brooklyn suggest the research falls well short of a rigorous or independent economic analysis. Neither the campaign nor the consulting firm would elaborate on how the study was conducted, but both stand by the results.” But the firm seems more like Perry’s Texas cronies than a reliable source of financial analysis. (“The firm works almost exclusively for lobbyists, industry trade associations and private companies looking for studies that bolster their case for legislation and policy changes they are trying to advance. He said one of those clients recommended him to the Perry campaign, but he wouldn’t say which. ‘We’re an economic consulting firm that supports lobbyists,’ the company said in its very first Tweet, in late 2009. ‘Want a legislator to listen? Tell them how much its gonna cost ....’ ”)
Perry’s opponents who knew him well weren’t surprised that Perry seemed to personify the all-hat-no-cattle adage. Other Republican operatives who have long considered him to be a lightweight on policy have nevertheless been surprised by Perry’s lack of discipline. Time’s Jay Newton-Small has a must-read piece making clear just how badly hubris led the Perry team astray:
Despite evidence that Perry has been considering a run for higher office for more than a year — his last state budget made a very political statement, and he formed fundraising organizations in Iowa and South Carolina a year ago — they entered the campaign unprepared. Though [campaign adviser Dave] Carney disputes this, several sources say they did little opposition research on their own candidate — a staple of modern presidential campaigns — assuming that he’d already been vetted by his six statewide wins. . . .
Instead, Perry allowed his opponents to define him. After several scrappy debates, the only thing Republican voters knew about his health-care record in Texas was that he had mandated the HPV vaccine for teenage girls; all they heard about his immigration record was Romney’s assertion in the last debate that Texas has let more undocumented workers into the country than any other state and that Perry provided in-state college tuition to many of them. . . .
It wasn’t just poor debate performances. The campaign let Perry’s wife, Anita, go to campaign events without staff supervision, which may have led to an episode earlier this month when she went off message by bemoaning how tough the race has been on her husband. The campaign also neglected to prepare a robust policy platform. Perry’s energy speech was taken virtually whole cloth from an oil company lobbyist group’s website. His economic plan remained unfinished just days before he was scheduled to give a speech on it and, according to two sources close to the campaign, Perry himself hadn’t been briefed on the proposal on the Sunday before the big roll-out, an assertion that Carney denies.
Harris told me succinctly, “Experience is not a political commodity in much demand by the base these days, but after this past week it’s awfully hard to argue against it.” Or, for that matter, command of policy issues and a good sense of how voters perceive you.
Implicit in this is that Perry had developed an outsize ego and national reputation that didn’t comport with his actual abilities. After all, how hard is it for a Republican who inherited the governorship to win re-election in Texas and deal with a GOP-controlled legislature that meets every other year? Yes, he suffered from lack of preparation, because he had never developed the critical ear, policy chops and rhetoric that traveled well outside Texas. You can run a quick campaign, if you are prepared to be president. But you can’t create someone of presidential stature in a few weeks or months.
Many in the media and the GOP are desperate to keep the race competitive. So you’ll hear “comeback” stories. That story line, however, is more properly applied to Newt Gingrich, who was at least smart enough to figure out that he’d do better without the staff that went from his campaign to Perry’s. As for Perry, no staff in the world can make up for the defects that he’s revealed, nor make him a genuinely likeable figure. Only he can correct those flaws.