Oops … I was wrong: why Perry fell and Gingrich is rising

Rick Perry failed to distinguish himself among an uninspiring field of contenders. EPA/Jim Lo Scalzo

I stated on The Conversation last August that Rick Perry would become the next President of the United States in 2013. Instead, the Texas governor dropped out of the race last week, unable to establish himself among an uninspiring field of Republican candidates. Instead, Newt Gingrich has become the story of the race – a possibility I dismissed entirely.

To paraphrase John Kenneth Galbraith, The experience of being disastrously wrong is salutary; no political scientist should be denied it, and not many are.

Mea culpa

Why did I get this so wrong? I was certainly guilty of conflating Perry’s potential for his actual capacity.

He had a genuine story to tell about how to run a big state, create jobs in a nation that was otherwise losing them, and translate his religious faith into real-world politics. On each of these scores he beat Barack Obama hands down.

On paper, Perry was an ideal Republican candidate. But then his own character intervened. He seems to have decided either to treat the whole campaign with a stunning lack of seriousness or to have accepted very bad advice on how to plot a nomination fight – probably both.

His lack of seriousness was captured most jaw-droppingly during one of the many GOP debates when he could list only two of the three departments of the federal government he would close. This episode was typical of a wider failure to prepare, learn his lines, and know his policies. Less praying and more prepping were in order. Christ would surely have understood?

Right direction, wrong choices

The campaign to be president is the most exacting process in democratic politics. American presidents are tested during this eighteen-month endurance test as very few leaders are elsewhere. Winning the contest confers a legitimacy to govern that no other political system demands. It frequently leaves them exhausted and ill-prepared for the rigours of actually governing.

And yet no one seems to have explained to Rick Perry that this test was one to be met not elided. Instead, he came to rely on folksy homilies delivered to his base. Throughout, he was content to say the things religious conservatives like to hear, blind to how this would play with more secular, Reagan Democrat types – the constituency that gets GOP candidates into the White House.

Republicans must tack right to win the nomination, then tack back to the centre to win the general election. Democrats are subject to the same electoral law (left then centre). Like an incompetent sailor, Perry thought that tacking endlessly to the right would bring him safe home.

By calling social security a Ponzi scheme he even managed to make middle class conservatives wary of him. It may be, but both Democrat and Republican voters, especially those fifty-years and older, hope it won’t collapse before they have drawn on it. Perry did not give them that confidence.

A fallow field

In my defence, history was on Perry’s side. In choosing their presidents, Americans have shown a marked preference for Southern and Western governors: Reagan (California), Carter (Georgia), Clinton (Arkansas), and Bush Jr. (Texas). Indeed, from 1964 until Obama in 2008, no man was elected president from anywhere except California and the South (Romney take note). Like me, Perry was guilty of assuming having the Texas Governor’s Mansion on his resume would perpetuate this trend.

So I was wrong about Perry. Sorry. Oops.

What of the men that outperformed him? Conservative embarrassment must surely accompany Newt Gingrich’s current ascendency. This was the man who single-handedly engineered President Clinton’s political comeback in the middle-1990s. Through over-reach – a propensity the US system rarely rewards and often exposes – and hubris – a trait the Constitution seeks to blunt by making the accrual of power very difficult – Gingrich went from the leader of a putative Republican revolution in 1994 to arguing about how Congress should order ice cubes.

This fall was accompanied by proven ethics violations and the leaving of his cancer-stricken first wife for his second; he is now on his third. He’s a man of considerable resolve, of intellectual brilliance even – but of the steady capacity for executive office? He has not yet proven so.

His stunning victory in the South Carolina primary might be interpreted as the GOP forgiving him his past indiscretions. More likely, his win is testament to Mitt Romney’s failure to close the deal, despite some six years of trying. Exit polling suggests that Republicans voted for Gingrich not because he was sufficiently conservative but because Romney was not.

Romney might be able to win the general election but this is meaningless unless he can win the nomination first. Gingrich can win the nomination – unlikely but possible – but will have too much baggage to defeat Obama in the general – though the debates will be great scraps.

Barack’s blessing

Why should a conservative find all this embarrassing?

When we reflect on how polarising a figure Obama has been for right-wing politics in America it is remarkable the most able candidates the GOP can present to voters are so compromised. Obama is blessed with poor opponents. So was FDR – an allusion the incumbent will want made often between now and November.

The situation is not unique to Republicans – its echoes that of the Democrats in 2004. Then, as now, it was acknowledged that the incumbent president was failing (look at Bush and Iraq in 2004 and Obama and the economy in 2012) but not enough to make his prospects fatal. Many potential candidates thought “I’ll sit this one out”. Hillary Clinton did this in 2004, letting John Kerry take the loss; Jeb Bush is doing it now, in preparation for a run (against Michelle?) in 2016. Americans do love their dynasties.

On his own terms, Barack Obama has been a poor president but his presidency has not been a disaster. Avoiding that, depressing as it may sound, is increasingly regarded as a significant accomplishment. Presidential failure is basic to American politics. Somehow this got lost in the clamour to anoint Obama as the world’s saviour in 2008. His greatest achievement – far more impressive than his canonisation three years ago – will be to survive and scrape back in come November.