Rick Perry looks towards bigger things

The big news from the United States overnight is that Rick Perry, Republican governor of Texas, has announced that he will not seek re-election next year. Inevitably, there is speculation that he is set on another bid for the presidency, despite his lacklustre performance at the last attempt.

Perry became governor in December 2000 to fill the remainder of George Bush’s term and has since won re-election in his own right three times, making him the longest-serving governor in the state’s history. By most measures his tenure is seen as very successful, and since Texas is the second-largest state that makes him a major national figure. By the time of the 2016 presidential election he will be 66, not too late to try again for the ultimate prize.

When Perry first came to statewide attention he was regarded as something of a figure of fun, and many observers have been surprised at his success. He still carries the reputation of an intellectual lightweight, not helped by his embarrassment on national television during the last Republican nominating contest when he dramatically forgot one of his key talking points.

Perry had entered that contest with high hopes; the Republican Party was desperately looking for a more conservative alternative to Mitt Romney and successively rejected the crazier options of Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain. Perry had conservatism in spades, but he also had respectability. However, it didn’t work out.

In order to assess Perry’s chances if he runs again it would be nice to know what went wrong last time. To the casual observer it looks a lot like just bad luck: like most of the other anti-Romney candidates, Perry peaked too early, and the conservative mantle instead fell to Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, who both gave Romney some anxious moments despite being less impressive candidates than Perry.

But there may be more to it than that. While I suspect that luck had a lot to do with it, I think there is also a lingering sense in the Republican Party, despite its increasingly southern orientation, that nominating such an identifiable deep southerner as Perry would be electoral suicide.

Ross Douthat put it this way:

What Perry doesn’t have, though, is the kind of moderate facade that Americans look for in their presidents. He’s the conservative id made flesh, with none of the postpartisan/uniter-not-a-divider spirit that successful national politicians usually cultivate.

Republican voters were not ready for that last time. Four more years of Barack Obama later, may they be ready to go all the way with Perry in 2016?

The general pattern is that opposition parties are more likely to nominate an extremist the first time around, and resort to moderates after they have been in opposition for longer and become more desperate. Romney defied that pattern to win through last year. That means the next nominating contest will be fought out between those who take opposing messages from Romney’s defeat: either that it showed the party was still too extremist, or that it was not extremist enough.

So far it’s the more mainstream potential candidates that seem to be getting publicity – Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, maybe even Jeb Bush. Against them are at most semi-serious chances like Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee.

As compared to them, Perry still has the strength that he is crazy enough in policy terms to potentially rally conservatives – his current attempts to shut down abortion provision in Texas are a good example – while his experience prevents him from being dismissed as just another loony fringe candidate.

But 2016 is still a long way off. One very obvious unknown is who the Republican candidate will be up against in the general election. Hillary Clinton looks a shoo-in for the Democratic nomination if she runs, but she has not yet made her intentions clear –  although my own view is that she’ll definitely be a candidate.

Putting oneself in the place of the Republican establishment, one might well think that with the economy in recovery mode and a popular Democrat like Clinton to contend with, the next election will be pretty much unwinnable, so why not let Perry have his chance? (One might retort that a similar line of thinking gave Australians John Howard in 1996.)

Perry himself, of course, could easily make the same calculation and decide that on the back of 14 years as governor, a peaceful retirement would be preferable to the circus of another primary campaign.

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