Rick Perry's descent into birtherism

What his disastrous interview with Parade tells us: He's bad -- really, really bad -- at running for president

Published October 24, 2011 12:21PM (EDT)

Republican presidential candidate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry delivers a keynote address during the Western Republican Leadership Conference, Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2011, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)   (AP)
Republican presidential candidate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry delivers a keynote address during the Western Republican Leadership Conference, Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2011, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken) (AP)

There are some interview venues that have obvious potential to force a presidential candidate into some kind of a revealing slip-up. "Meet the Press" comes to mind here. Parade, the devoutly Middle American magazine that comes free with more than 500 Sunday newspapers, doesn't.

And yet, Rick Perry managed to make a real mess of a lengthy Q&A that ran in the magazine this weekend, telling interviewer Lynn Sherr (a former ABC journalist) that he doesn't have a "definitive answer" about whether Barack Obama was born in the United States and suggesting that the long-form birth certificate the president released in the spring might not be authentic. Here's the relevant portion:

Governor, do you believe that President Barack Obama was born in the United States?
I have no reason to think otherwise.

That’s not a definitive, “Yes, I believe he” —
Well, I don’t have a definitive answer, because he’s never seen my birth certificate.

But you’ve seen his.
I don’t know. Have I?

You don’t believe what’s been released?
I don’t know. I had dinner with Donald Trump the other night.

That came up.

And he said?
He doesn’t think it’s real.

And you said?
I don’t have any idea. It doesn’t matter. He’s the President of the United States. He’s elected. It’s a distractive issue.

What could Perry possibly be thinking going down this road? Well, several possibilities come to mind:

  1. He's still living in a pre-long form world, the one where even some mainstream Republican leaders feared that their party's rabidly anti-Obama base might regard an emphatic condemnation of birtherism as disloyalty to the conservative cause, mainly because it would have amounted to defending Obama in a "controversy." Remember, this was back when even some non-conservatives would occasionally wonder why Obama wouldn't just produce the long-form. It was in this climate that, for instance, House Speaker John Boehner said on "Meet the Press" that he would "take [Obama] at his word" that he's an American-born Christian, but that "it's not my job to tell the American people what to think." But since Obama's April 27 release of the long-form, the "controversy" has been dead and it's been safe for Republican leaders to say clearly and unambiguously what (just about) all of them believed all along: Of course he was born here! It may be that Perry, for whatever reason, just hasn't adjusted to this new reality.
  2. It's all part of some plan to appeal to the GOP's base. For a good chunk of the Republican base, it probably doesn't matter that Obama has offered unimpeachable evidence of his native-born status; they're never going to get angry hearing a Republican leader cast aspersions on Obama, even if they (mostly) understand that he was born here. So maybe Perry thinks this will distinguish him as a particularly hard-line anti-Obama voice in a GOP field full of them. (If this is his calculation, it's a bad one -- more on this later.)
  3. He was trying to be funny? A speaker's tone doesn't always come across in a transcript, so maybe Perry was making some attempt at humor here that's just not coming across. It's really hard to see, though.
  4. He actually means it. It's possible Perry really does think the long-form may be an elaborate forgery and that Obama wasn't born in the United States.

Whatever the explanation, Perry's handling of Sherr's question represents the latest and most glaring proof that he's just not good at running for president.

Flirting with birtherism has always been an awful play for a politician with national ambitions, an easy way to get yourself tagged as a fringe figure. This is why Obama actually did Republicans (like Boehner) a real favor when he put out his long-form, taking the question out of the national debate and freeing them from the fear of seeming like Obama apologists to their base. Even a presidential candidate with mediocre political instincts should be able to recognize the trouble that will come from saying anything except "Yes, he was born here -- next question, please" to a query about birtherism. If Perry were to somehow win the GOP nomination, this is exactly the sort of thing that Democrats could use to scare swing voters away from him.

But it also hurts him within the GOP, no matter how intensely the party's base dislikes Obama. That's because there's a filter between  presidential candidates and the base: influential, opinion-shaping "elites" -- activists, interest group leaders, elected officials, commentators, fundraisers and so on. And these elites are not interested in backing a candidate with self-destructive tendencies. That Perry has faded so badly in the polls this fall is a direct result of the skepticism and even hostility from GOP elites that his performance has provoked. Here, for instance, is how Ross Douthat characterized Perry's efforts as a candidate on Sunday:

The exception was supposed to be Perry, whose résumé and donor base both look at least somewhat presidential. But after watching him stagger through the debates, his tongue tied and his poll numbers cratering, it’s clear that a Republican Party that nominated the Texas governor for president would be deliberately cutting its own throat. And this is something that national political parties almost never do.

Now that Perry has taken up birtherism, GOP elites like Douthat have even more reason to believe that nominating him would be akin to cutting their own throats -- and to use their influence to make sure that he doesn't gain traction with the base.

We've seen this before, actually: It's what happened to Donald Trump during his fake presidential campaign, when Republican leaders recognized the black eye he was giving their party with his strong performance in some early polls. So they went after him, and not just (or even mainly) by ridiculing his birther crusade. Obama's long-form release came around this same time, so it's hard to know the exact impact of their attacks, but within weeks there were clear signs that Trump's support was fading and he soon ended his charade.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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