Rick Perry has been a candidate for president for exactly three months now, and it will be quite a feat if he makes it through month four. In the past few weeks, Perry’s campaign has imploded. He was booted from Fox News’ main-stage debate at the last minute by a surging John Kasich, and then got upstaged at the kids-table debate by Carly Fiorina. He’s been unable to convince anyone to give him money, and so he had to stop paying his staff, who have understandably decamped for campaigns that are in stronger financial shape. His New Hampshire operations have gone completely dark, and he’s down to one paid staffer in Iowa. The only thing keeping this corpse of a campaign twitching is Perry’s relatively well-funded super PAC, which for now is providing the things a campaign needs to actually function: advertising, warm bodies, etc.
This downward spiral reached its lowest point yesterday as Perry went on TV and accidentally said he was ending his campaign. Attempting to deflect Donald Trump’s quip that Perry was “getting out of the race” after having plunged in the polls, Perry told Fox News that “a broken clock is right once a day.” As many people have pointed out, the obvious interpretation of Perry’s response is that Trump, despite being wrong about most things, was correct about Rick Perry dropping out. But Perry wasn’t dropping out – not yet, anyway. So what the hell was he talking about? The likely explanation is that Perry doesn’t quite understand what the aphorism means and how it is supposed to be used. Maybe he was trying to say that Donald Trump is only correct about one thing per day, and this thing about Perry dropping out wasn’t it? No one knows for sure.
It was a gaffe of the sort that brought down Perry’s campaign four years ago, and the late-stage reemergence of the moss-brained nincompoop we all remember from 2012 is thoroughly amusing because Perry tried so hard to shed that image for 2016. Capitalizing on the impossibly low expectations set by his first presidential campaign, Perry donned a pair of smart-guy glasses and started telling everyone who would listen how he was actually studying policy now and meeting with experts. He seized on last summer’s border crisis and deployed the National Guard to “secure the border,” an obvious ploy to come off as presidential.
And he actually succeeded in convincing several credulous pundits and narrative-driven reporters that this “new” Rick Perry was going to be a sincere threat in 2016. Perry was “now a leading candidate to be the GOP presidential nominee in 2016,” declared the Weekly Standard last July. “It looks like everything is aligned for Rick Perry to be the Republican nominee for president in 2016,” wrote Time magazine a year earlier.
Riding high on his new reputation for basic political competency, Perry ensconced himself in Iowa and worked to make the early caucus state the staging ground for his great political comeback. He spent so much time in Iowa that he started producing ads boasting about how much time he spent in Iowa. But despite his new smart-guy aesthetic and the fact that he spent most of his waking hours inflicting himself upon the Hawkeye State, his campaign never took off – Perry’s support in Iowa averaged about three percent heading into this summer, at which point it dropped off to roughly one percent.
The emergence of Donald Trump as the Republican favorite doomed whatever slim chance Perry might have had. Immigration and border security was supposed to be Perry’s issue heading into this campaign. He deployed the National Guard to patrol the border. He warned about terrorists – or “turrurrists” – streaming into the country from Mexico. He posed for tough-guy action photos with Sean Hannity. His catchphrase for the campaign is a dramatic recitation of what he claims to have told President Obama during the 2014 child migrant crisis: “If you will not secure the border between the U.S. and Mexico, Texas will.” But then Trump came in with his bombastic nativism and promises to build a giant wall to keep all the immigrant rapists out, and Rick Perry found himself completely overmatched. He tried positioning himself as the anti-Trump and directed harsh criticisms at the Donald, calling him a carnival barker and a “cancer” on conservatism, but his numbers kept on sinking.
Now all that’s left is the waiting. Perry, like all candidates on the cusp of failure, insists he has a way forward and just needs his moment to “break through.” And while super PAC money may keep him nominally in the game for a while longer, it’s hard to plot a scenario in which the “new Rick Perry” doesn’t go the way of the old Rick Perry.