Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has seldom found a kind word for Rick Perry. In 2011, when Perry ran disastrously for president against Paul's father, the senator happily derided the Texas governor's gaffes. He kept up the mockery for years, campaigned in Texas for candidates not backed by Perry, and got into a 2014 editorial tete-a-tete with Perry about foreign policy.
The first recorded instance of Paul speaking warmly of Perry came Saturday, after the badly trailing and underfunded candidate finally dropped out of the presidential race. Paul shared his disappointment with reporters, then with Twitter:
It's easy (and popular) to praise a rival after he's trudged away in defeat. But the strange new respect for Perry has gone further. Perry, a national laughingstock after the 2012 campaign, has been transformed into a symbol of the debate the Republican Party is being robbed from having. Just as former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty became the mascot for people who wanted to end the Iowa Straw Poll, critics of Donald Trump are waving battered Perry 2016 bumper stickers.
These belated admirers know no party or clique. At the liberal blog ThinkProgress, Perry is remembered for trying to warn Republicans that they were "being too racist." At The Week, conservative columnist Michael Brendan Dougherty writes that the GOP "needed Perry in the debates" and was denied the chance to hear about the best economic record in America.
"It's an indictment of Republican voters," Dougherty argues, "who express a preference for entertainers and oddities, of the Republican Party apparatus that allowed Perry to languish at a 'kid's table' debate, and the media institutions that spent more time talking about Donald Trump's hat than the success of governors."
In an even-handed news analysis, the Dallas Morning News's Todd J. Gillman and Brandi Grissom argued that a rebranded Perry could not cut through the fog of Trump. It's not that he didn't try: Perry endeared himself to the media by calling Trump a "cancer on conservatism." That, of course, fed the narrative that Trump's July insult of John McCain would wreck his campaign — a sign, if anything, that the media was actually pretty interested in getting past the Trump show. And then pollsters called up Republican voters and found that they'd sided with Trump and continued to ignore Perry.
"Trump may yet fell even better men than Perry," says S.E. Cupp, a conservative CNN commentator who had covered Perry's murder board-style attempt to become a better candidate. "The casualties will be many, and Trump's sword is capricious and dispassionate. It probably didn't help that Perry came out swinging the hardest against Trump first."
Who's to blame? The Perry revisionists see a few culprits.
In this theory, the pursuit of ratings and clicks allowed the media to self-hypnotize into an endless drunken weekend of Trump stories. "The MSM obsesses on trivial matters, almost priding itself on political coverage that ignores the substance of candidates’ messages, and fixates on a self-promoting mogul running a campaign about himself," argues my Washington Post colleague Jennifer Rubin. "The right-wing media bubble is part of a crass political culture excusing (promoting, even) ignorance, anger and paranoia."
This theory is possibly even more hopeless, as it necessarily indicts the majority of GOP voters. But it must be said: Rick Perry was like Luke Wilson's hero character in "Idiocracy" — lost in the Costco, surrounded by people who preferred to drink Brawndo than to hear about criminal justice reform. "I thought he was tackling the big issues facing the country," former Perry adviser Avik Roy said Monday on Fox Business. "The persistence of black poverty, Wall Street reform, the Middle East. But that’s not what the polls show people care about."
Their weird science flew against the wisdom of political scientists. They argued that party elites mattered more than early surveys — that summer polls were habitually wrong about who the nominees would be. In a column that ran 48 hours before Perry's exit, and thus attained a kind of "Dewey Defeats Truman" status, Bloomberg View's Jonathan Bernstein argued that Perry actually had a better shot at the nomination than Trump, as the tycoon's "great polling numbers are mainly about name recognition and media attention."
The beautiful thing about these theories is that they're impossible to knock down. We simply did not live in a country that was willing to look past "oops." Perry's alternately gripping and rambling speeches were so little-noticed that his grand exit, with its call for compassion to non-white Americans, will be his eulogy. The media is already feeling some guilt about round-the-clock Trump coverage, so it's ready to wear the hairshirt.
"It's ironic," said GOP strategist and 2012 Perry adviser Liz Mair, "that the same people who are effectively boosting Trump and keeping him in first place while whining about what a joker and policy lightweight he is are the same ones who thought it was too risky to treat a guy who manifestly under-performed four years ago thanks almost entirely to the difficulty of recovering from surgery and taking painkillers as an unserious person today, when neither of those factors was present."
Since 2011, Pawlenty — who actually polled better in his only go-round than Perry did in his second — has become a go-to voice when reporters want some independent analysis of the primary and the party. Perry, if he so chooses, could play the same role. It's up to the press, not him, if he is remembered for 2011's "oops" and gay-baiting TV ad, or for being a sort of Martin Niemöller warning the party about Trump.
"He was excited to run," says Cupp. "He felt more prepared, ready for redemption. Even if you celebrate the free-market nature of elections, it's still irksome to think a guy who cares neither about the future of the Republican Party nor the survival of conservatism has elbowed out one of the right's most capable leaders."