Perry's Last Gasp

A campaign autopsy before the cadaver is cold

It seems that Donald Trump's presidential campaign has claimed its first political scalp. Former Texas governor Rick Perry has stopped paying his campaign staff, the first step on the last ride to the political morgue.

Imagine this, but he's walking backwards: The Rick Perry 2016 campaign lurches towards bankruptcy. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Fortunately for Perry, he can rely on a degree of loyalty from staffers that are hanging on to the bitter end, but that end cannot be too far away. Last quarter, his campaign raised a paltry $1.1 million (quick note, if you don't have the money to buy a three-bed, two-bath in Hyde Park, you clearly don't have the money to run a nationwide campaign). Perry's wholly unaffiliated non-coordinating superPAC, the Opportunity and Freedom PAC, raised $17 million in the same period, and that will take on a lot of the heavy lifting on the campaign trail.

But that $17 million won't go far, or last long. And if there's one lesson in U.S. politics, it's that money follows money. And as the Perry coffers run dry, the cash spigots seem firmly closed. As the end seems nigh, all anyone will remember is Trump blaming Perry for a porous border.

If you were throwing the bones on this, they were looking bad on August 4, when Perry failed to make the cut to attend Fox's GOP presidential debate. This was, as has been widely noted, a moment of pure political balderdash. Fox used an average of five polls (which they selected) to cream off the top 10 out of the 17 announced candidates. Now with 17 candidates, half of whom were so low and tied in the polls that they all lurked in "margin of error" territory, separating them out was a task of Gordian-knot-untying proportion. So Fox execs just cut it where they wanted, and Perry and six others were relegated to an afternoon forum.

This was the political equivalent of being on a UFC undercard: yeah, you made the big show, but no one is dropping PPV money to see you get punched out.

While much of the Texas media portrayed Perry as the afternoon's victor, more national acclaim went to Austin-born ex-AT&T boss Carly Fiorina. In fact, Perry got more headlines for saying "Ronald Raven" rather than "Ronald Reagan" during the Fox forum than for anything else.

Even more surprising is that Republicans didn't castigate him for the rest of that sentence: that the U.S. had been "baited" by Reagan's immigration amnesty, that it was the reason illegal immigration was so high.

Blaming Reagan for the porous border seems pretty bold in a party in which the Gipper is virtually beatified, but then there seem to have been no consequences. Why would there be? After all, who cares what Perry said?

That's really what happened here. On the national stage, Perry is a punchline, an afterthought. He is still defined by the infamous 2012 "oops" moment, when he failed to remember the list of three Federal agencies that he would terminate. There were only two readings of that: one, that he's stupid; or two, that he's intellectually lazy and ill-prepared.

Now no one in Texas politics would ever argue that he's dumb. He's been accused of being many things – bullying, calculating, mendacious – but not dumb. But on a national level, when oops is all you know about him, then to coin a phrase, you can't fix stupid. That one word defines him, becomes his legacy.

Now loyalists were hoping that "oops" could become his sweating Nixon moment. In 1960, Vice-President Richard Nixon and Sen. John F. Kennedy went face-to-face in the first ever televised U.S. Presidential debate. Many radio listeners gave the win to Nixon, but viewers saw a sweaty, stumbling performance under the glaring lights, while Kennedy looked presidential. Eight years later, a highly motivated Nixon rebounded and took the presidency. He'd shown profound discipline and savvy in the interim, and learned his lessons.

Before the forum, Perry supporters were claiming a new candidate, toughened, more learned and more prepared. This was Rocky II, they thought. And while he hadn't managed a Nixonian resurrection, he at least looked better. But there was still always oops to live down, and everyone was expecting another faux pas. It was a shadow over a campaign that, at best, was mediocre.

The fact that, in a primary where even the sideshow carny barker act of Sen. Ted Cruz fades into the background, Perry had done nothing extraordinary to garner attention. In fact, his only moment in the sun was his brief feud with Trump over the border: the billionaire sounded like a lunatic, but Perry's milquetoast rebuttal did little to portray the toughness that GOP primary voters want from their candidates these days.

And then there are the felony indictments.

What was really important about that afternoon Fox appearance was that Perry – the state's longest serving governor – was doing so well that he was down among the other dead men. He was already in a hole from 2012, and while he hadn't dug much deeper, he definitely wasn't in a place to start climbing any political mountains. More importantly, there are nearly a dozen other also-rans with more fire and determination, like Cruz, New Jersey's Chris Christie, or Wisconsin's Scott Walker, ready to stand on his shoulders (or his political corpse) to make their own ascent.

On top of that, everyone acted like his first engagement with Trump was either a scalp on the Donald's Manhattan apartment wall, or just yesterday's news, as the Donald moved on to his next headline-grabbing bloviation. Perry may have looked more the statesman, but it made no difference. Trump's steaming ahead, and Perry's out of cash.

Is Perry politically dead after all of this? Maybe not. But he's definitely flatlining, and the line to deliver electoral CPR seems pretty short.

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