Fumbling Towards an Exit

You remember that moment when the seventh-grade bully arrived in high school and was, in turn, bullied by the big kids? It's hard to know what you feel—some satisfaction, sure, but somewhere in there, there's bound to be some pity. And of course the big question of whether the experience will leave him humbler and more kind or just more eager to maintain power.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry dropped his bid for the GOP nomination today. "I have come to the conclusion that there is no viable path forward for me in this campaign," he said at a press conference. "As a Texan, I've never shied away from a fight," he went, explaining he was making "a strategic retreat." He endorsed Newt Gingrich, the man who lost his initial campaign staff this summer to the Perry hoopla. It's hard to remember back to the summer, when Rick Perry seemed like the man who would take the national stage by storm. Instead, his moment in the sun lasted less than a month before a spiral of gaffes and political miscalculations left Perry a national cartoon.

The postmortem may take a while, but it's not hard to guess the highlights.

First, there was the lack of strategy. While he was always going to be a weak debater, his campaign didn't pursue any of the groundbreaking strategies they'd tried in Perry's 2010 gubernatorial primary against the well-funded U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. Back then, they'd organized enormous grassroots operations, recruiting individuals through online networks. Back then, the campaign strategists decided, based on a study of their techniques in 2006, that television would only have a short-lived impact at the end of the race. This time around, they relied on television from the beginning, with little visible operation on the ground in Iowa or anywhere else.

Then there was the staff itself, a running soap opera for the political classes. Perry's Texas operation was always close knit, and if there were internal conflicts, certainly no one heard about them. Suddenly, with the national spotlight fixed, it seemed like no one was in charge. Perry's old guard got pushed away in favor of former strategists for George W. Bush. RedState.com co-founder Erik Erickson excoriated Perry's communications director Ray Sullivan. Most memorably, in a desperate Hail Mary to gain some traction in Iowa, Perry put out a virulently homophobic ad against gays openly serving in the military and advocating school prayer. Shortly thereafter, spectators discovered Perry's team had been split on the ad, with one adviser calling it "nuts."

Lastly there were the gaffes themselves, captured by the almost unbelievable moment when Perry couldn't remember one of the three federal agencies he'd cut as president. It was hardly the only mistake—he got voting ages and election dates wrong, got the number of Supreme Court Justice's wrong (while mispronouncing Sonia Sotomayor's name), and most recently caused an international incident with his claims that Turkey was run by Islamic extremists. The list got so long no one can even remember them all (and by long, I mean more than three).

Rick Perry has ruled Texas with an iron fist for over a decade. His enemies have found themselves without power while his friends can get big rewards. Because he's been around so long, for the first time in state history, almost everyone serving on a state board or commission was appointed by the governor. He's borne grudges and rewarded friends, only involving himself in the legislative process when it's politically expedient or politically necessary.

So for Texans, the question is: What now? Perry still has three more years to serve as governor. The state faces enormous fiscal problems, and it's already made drastic cuts. Will Perry come back the humbled bully, eager to work to leave Texas in a better fiscal state? Or will he, as some opponents fear, come down hard on his enemies, and reassert what power he still has?

For my part, there's good reason to think he'll try to make some amends. After all, Perry wants a future after this embarrassment of a campaign, whether in the private or public sphere. Whether he winds up in the corporate world or running for office again, he needs to redefine himself to help people forget this ill-fated campaign. So it seems to me that Texas might find itself with a Rick Perry who's less eager to exact vengeance. But then again, six months ago, I thought he had a decent shot at the presidency.