Political Animal


August 13, 2011 10:55 AM The poor track record of savior candidates

By Steve Benen

We’ve seen this dynamic before. Months into a presidential nominating contest, the party’s base and establishment have gotten a good look at their candidates, and find themselves underwhelmed, if not dismayed. They suddenly realize they don’t much care for the field, start to feel antsy, and wonder if there’s a savior candidate available to rescue the party before it’s too late.

With Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) launching his presidential campaign this weekend, we have the latest in the series of savior candidates. As Josh Green recently noted, however, the track record for these presidential hopefuls is poor.

In the past, notable figures — from actor and former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson to General Wesley Clark to the late Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy — all aroused the same rapturous excitement and outsized expectations that Rick Perry is awakening now. But none of them remotely lived up to the hype.

That’s the paradox of the last-minute savior. The attention and enthusiasm are alluring, the possibilities are enticing, the path to the nomination tantalizingly clear. But each time, the lesson has proved the same: latecomers always lose.

As Perry’s effort gets underway, it’s worth pausing to ponder two questions: why do latecomers always lose and will Perry be any different?

The first question is easier. Savior candidates invariably falter because running for president is infinitely more difficult than it looks. When one’s rivals have months of lead time, it’s not just a matter of catching up in polls and fundraising; it’s also a matter of immediately reaching mid-season form. The other candidates, in other words, have had more practice being candidates.

Consider an example. In April, Mitt Romney spoke at a cattle call in New Hampshire, hosted by the Koch-financed Americans for Prosperity. It was billed as Romney’s unofficial debut as a 2012 candidate — and he was awful. His speech was weak, his Q&A was awkward, and his message was disjointed. Romney was, objectively, a bit of a mess, even joking about “hanging” President Obama before quickly walking it back.

How is this relevant? Because few even remember this appearance now. It happened away from the spotlight, without the intense glare of a national campaign in full swing, when Romney had the luxury of slipping up before sharpening his message.

And that’s a luxury latecomers never have. Every candidate needs time to get better — on the stump, in interviews, in debates, in engaging with diverse national voters directly — but so-called saviors are forced to be polished and proficient immediately. They don’t have time to work the kinks out, and when they slip up, as everyone does, it garners significantly more attention, and does far more damage.

Will Perry run into the same trouble? We’ll obviously find out soon enough, but I’d argue the Texas governor is probably better suited than the other modern latecomers. Clark had never sought elected office and it showed; Kennedy couldn’t say why he was running; and Thompson was just incredibly lazy. Perry, meanwhile, is a sitting governor of a large state who’s won three statewide races in the last nine years, and appears to understand what’s expected of a national candidate.

He’ll have to be very good, very quickly, to avoid the other savior candidates’ fate, but I wouldn’t write Perry off just because he’s late to the game. The current GOP field really is weak, and Perry may very well prove to be the one candidate who can appeal to all of the party’s key constituencies.

If he can avoid rookie screw-ups, I suspect it’ll be a three-person contest for the nomination: Romney, Bachmann, and Perry.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


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  • DAY on August 13, 2011 11:04 AM:

    Let's not forget the foot soldiers- paid and volunteer- that do the real work of any campaign.
    Generals get the laurel crown, but the centurion's do fighting. (knocking on doors, driving voters to the polls, putting up the yard signs)

  • c u n d gulag on August 13, 2011 11:18 AM:

    Sure, Romney's got a head start, but Perry may end up being the Republican candidate because he’s everything the moronic lemmings in the base love:

    -Ignorant – check.
    -Fucking stupid – check.
    -Incurious – check.
    -Dominionist Jesusy Christian – check.
    -White Southern Boy with good hair – check.
    -Gun-carrying good old boy – check.
    -Advocate of “States Rights” and the 10th Amendment – check.
    -Expert in not calling a n*gger a n*gger ‘dog-whistle” – check.
    -Anti-immigration – check.
    -Anti-gay bona fides – check.
    -Anti-abortion/anti-women – check.
    -Anti-poor – check.
    -Anti-labor – check.
    -Pro-rich - check.
    -Pro-corporations and business – check.

    I think if they could create the perfect Teabagger candidate, Prick Perry would be the man.

    He will excite people on the right to volunteer.

    We may end up having to ‘hope’ that the American people aren’t fucking stupid enough to vote for a another former cheerleader who was also Governor from Texas. One who’s claim to fame is that he makes Little Boots looks intellectual, is more Jesusy than W., and speaks authentic frontier gibberish.

    I don’t think that was the kind of “Hope” for the future that I had in 2008.

    If he wins, let’s hope this f*cking SOB doesn’t have any Daddy issues. Or Mommy issues.

    To quote Yakoff Smirnoff – “Amyerica, vat a kohntree!”

  • stormskies on August 13, 2011 11:29 AM:

    and let's add

    -great white hope - check

  • biggerbox on August 13, 2011 11:30 AM:

    He also has a certain 'something' about him. He's the only one of the group that gives me a strong atavistic urge to just up and punch him in the nose for no reason. And I'm a non-violent man.

    Even before I have time to be consciously aware of his sanctimony, arrogance and undeserved self-satisfaction, I feel a muscle tightening in my arm.

    I assume whatever provokes that reaction in me probably makes him very attractive to Republican voters.

  • bigtuna on August 13, 2011 11:36 AM:

    Another haunting, and scary, parallel is the whole ruralistic ranchy thing. Perry is sort of a real rancher, and grew up in west Texas, etc.... but we sure don't need more of this faux back to our roots rural crap in a nation that is dominately urban and suburban. But urban, being code for, you know, not white, is so icky ..

    I find it very hard to beileve that in all their years of cotton growing [with fed subsidies, I bet} there weren't a few workers on the Perry ranch who had - shall we say - questionable documentation?

  • Dennis on August 13, 2011 11:36 AM:

    The most important thing prior "savior" candidates didn't have is Citizens United.

  • dalloway on August 13, 2011 11:41 AM:

    Perry will be the nominee, guaranteed. He passes the base purity tests easily and has billions of corrupt corporate cash behind him. Republicans, as much as they may pay lip service to their goddesses Palin and Bachmann, will never nominate them -- a "submissive" woman will never be allowed to head the ticket or, after the Palin debacle in 2008, even get to VP. The only teensy-weensy problem with Perry is that he believes Social Security and Medicare are Ponzi schemes that should be abolished. Even the majority of tea baggers won't be down with that -- but they'll never hear about it until the general election. After King Rush got through flaying Fox News for asking actual questions during the last debate, they won't do so again. And if anybody else asks that question, it will be a case of "the lamestream media playing gotcha again" and it will never be answered.

  • DelCapslock on August 13, 2011 11:50 AM:

    I don't know what kind of tactical campaign skills Perry has, and I think that will be a factor. But he's got that religious grifter vibe, and that by itself will make him unelectable. There just aren't enough scared and gullible little old ladies in the country.

  • xando foote on August 13, 2011 11:51 AM:

    Why no mention of another potential savior? No, not Palin ... someone who would actually have a chance in the general, as none of the present GOP contenders would have. There are a number of seemingly qualified Governors and even several Senators who have not been completely swept to right by the lunatic fringe.

    To paraphrase the old adage about grand jury indictments, there exists a considerable segment of the electorate who would vote for a ham sandwich running against Mr. Obama. That dynamic will be there for any GOP candidate. But who will appeal to moderates and independents in the general?

  • 718BKNYC on August 13, 2011 11:52 AM:

    It's such a shame this country suffers from CRS (can't remember shit). This is the same guy who threatened secession. And now he wants your vote for POTUS. Steve, please cover this fact. It's disgraceful.

  • SteveT on August 13, 2011 12:07 PM:

    If there is any hope left for the United States, a candidate who has spoken favorably about secession will be automatically rejected by his party's voters.

  • lou on August 13, 2011 12:07 PM:

    Fer starters, I disagree with the basic premise that it is late in the nominating process. So, the savior tag doesn't fit.

    But Perry checks so many other boxes in the chosen ones' worldview that the man has the right wrong stuff to reach the top of the GOP if not POTUS itself.

    This has been setting up to be one hell of an ugly and perhaps violent campaign season. It would only be fitting that a very historic and memorable figure would be leading the gawd stampede from Texas.

    In an evolutionary sense Perry seems about the fittest to be selected from our woefully degraded "electoral" system. To the spoils comes the victor.

  • PTate in Mn on August 13, 2011 12:32 PM:

    I wonder how many Americans are willing to cast a vote for another Republican governor of Texas? There is the whole CRS problem, yes, but every time Perry opens his mouth to woo the base with his Tea Party-pleasing notions of government, he reminds another segment of the electorate just what there is to dislike about conservatives from Texas. Even the slow learners and the low-information voters will figure Perry out.

    I'd put his base at ~40%, max: 25% crazy Christian fundamentalists who think Perry is just what the nation needs to stomp out the rot, 12% who can be deceived by swiftboat ad campaigns made possible by Citizens United, and 3% pig-headed progressive Democrats who want to communicate their disapproval of Obama.

    Still, given the other candidates, I am willing to bet the GOP POTUS nominee will be Perry and that Obama will win by a landslide in 2012. But until the votes are counted in November, and Obama's re-election secure, the possibility of Perry in the WH will be terrifying.

  • ShadeTail on August 13, 2011 12:43 PM:

    How is he "late" to the race? Are we already forgetting that it is still more than a year before voting day? Just because nearly 10 people got into the race before he did doesn't mean he doesn't have the time he needs.

  • berttheclock on August 13, 2011 1:24 PM:

    Steve, is this some sort of a WTF thread? Bill Clinton did not declare until October 3, 1991 and, may I ask, how did his late entry into the race affect his future in politics?

  • c u n d gulag on August 13, 2011 1:41 PM:

    Clinton will tell you there was no "entry," early or late!

  • markg8 on August 13, 2011 1:41 PM:

    There's a buzz around Perry. It's flies.

  • Habernathy on August 13, 2011 1:50 PM:

    Perry scares me the most because he has shown the willingness and ability to sell any lie. A candidate like Bachman sincerely believes most of her craziness. More exposure will only show how out of the main stream she is. Perry will morph and meld until he gets just the right amount of lies and fear to appear reasonable.

    Unfortunately, the secession talk and the fact he was a Democrat will not be held against him. Remember, he is a Republican. Therefore anything he did before announcing his candidacy is considered the past and not something we or the media need to discuss.

  • berttheclock on August 13, 2011 1:55 PM:

    @cundgulag, hey, things must be looking up as I take it, you have been booked into the Catskills?

  • Cynthia on August 13, 2011 2:07 PM:

    Perry unofficially launched his campaign when he went on his book tour last year, which is how he chose to spend his time instead of serving as governor. And the main reason he won that election was because Fox News convinced Texas voters that any Democratic candidate would be in cahoots with Obama. Keeping in mind that we've known for quite some time that Perry would run for president, the question I have is: when (if?) will those who have dirt on Perry come forward? The man should probably be in prison for some of the things he has done as governor, but the Texas judicial system would never send him there. The Dallas Morning News has info on him, and the editorial board of that generally conservative newspaper chose to endorse Democratic candidate Bill White in last year's election. I wonder if they will start running expos�s, or if they will suddenly be put back in line by the corporate owners. I really hope that voters outside of Texas don't fall for Perry's trickery. We are talking about a man who insists on living in a $10,000-a-month rent-a-mansion...at taxpayers' expense. The Tea Party should eat him alive for that one.

  • c u n d gulag on August 13, 2011 2:21 PM:

    Nah, I just felt the need to go for a cheap laugh. :-)

  • wb on August 13, 2011 2:36 PM:

    Perry looks good on paper, but he's never run a real race and never had to endure real media scrutiny. As we saw with Palin, once you sign up for the big parade you're no longer just another clown -- what you can get away with even as a relatively prominent governor you just can't as a national political figure.

    Perry's got a lot of dancing skeletons in his closet, a great many years' worth of rumors and speculation (none confirmed, many persistent, and all of them mutually irreconcilable) about his personal life, a track record of public statements and policies that will significantly alienate a majority of American voters, and the baggage of being a right-wing Texas pol in the post-GWB landscape. His "Texas miracle" largely consists of a minimum-wage economy, a number of environmental disasters, record levels of uninsured children, and a budget hole the size of Big Bend. Plus, he's burned a lot of fellow GOP'ers on the way up (neither Cornyn nor KBH are willing to endorse Perry, and the Bush loyalists reportedly can't stand him), and they've got incentive to kick him around on the national stage.

    The issue with Perry is that, getting so late into the game, his negatives will be on full view for the first time, and he has a political team that (A) has never really fought a serious race and has consistently won by either riding other pols' coattails or taking advantage of a split opposition; and (B) is convinced that it has won by brilliance and ability rather than luck and a complaisant press. (You think Huntsman's team is in disarray? Just wait for the first real problem: his crew will start an apocalyptic furball with whatever national consultants sign on.)

    I expect a spectacular flameout well before the convention, but I'll give lesser odds on his making it through the primary and getting slaughtered in the general. If I'm wrong, well, at least he won't be governor of my state anymore.

  • Conservative1 on August 13, 2011 2:43 PM:

    If Perry avoids rookie screw-ups, Bachmann is a goner. It'll be Romney against Perry with everyone else melting away.

  • gaardvark on August 13, 2011 3:32 PM:

    Maybe another reason they fail is that they appear to be opportunist?

    That said, he does seem to raise a level of disgust in me that none of the other R candidates do. Maybe it's the self-righteous Texan attitude.

  • ameshall on August 13, 2011 5:11 PM:

    Perry has the best shot at being the nominee because he merges the attack-dog, anti-Obama rhetoric of Bachmann with the pseudo-competence and legitimacy of Romney. The fact that he is dumber than a cow patty and an extreme far-right Christianist only makes him more attractive to the Republican base. If he picks Palin as his running mate, expect to see plenty of "Dumb and Dumber" bumper stickers on the cars of terrified progressives. Heaven help us all if Perry is the next president. He will make progressives long for the good old days of George W. Bush, who by comparison is a selfless humanitarian and intellectual giant.

  • -syzygy- on August 13, 2011 5:26 PM:

    I wouldn't be too surprised if there is ultimately a Perry/ Romney or a Romney/Perry ticket. It might thrill the Dominionists (suppressing the anti-Mormon crowd)and assure the Wall Street gang they'll have a nice controllable, corruptible puppet in place to maintain our plutocracy.

  • E. D. on August 13, 2011 5:51 PM:

    Markg8: Thanks for the belly laugh!!!!
    I live in the middle of this horror of a state(TX) and if anyone else in the nation believes this guy(Perry) is anything but a sack of shit, they are so so wrong.

  • dcsusie on August 13, 2011 6:07 PM:

    It seems to me Perry is the 'pure play' against Obama - rural vs. urban, simplistic vs. complex, domination vs. collaboration, U.S. past vs. U.S. future. My offhand guess is that he will be the nominee because of the
    tea-party perfect factors cited above, but I had not realized that in his last gubernatorial election, he in fact only got 39% of the vote, and only one re-election because the rest of the vote was split among 3 other candidates, including vanity candidate Kinky Friedman. If 61% of Texas voter could figure out that the guy was an *sshole, there might be hope even for the Republican primary electorate.

  • BetweenTheLines on August 13, 2011 6:52 PM:

    I wouldn't be too surprised if there is ultimately a Perry/ Romney or a Romney/Perry ticket. It might thrill the Dominionists (suppressing the anti-Mormon crowd)and assure the Wall Street gang they'll have a nice controllable, corruptible puppet in place to maintain our plutocracy. -syzygy-

    Romney/Perry'12 would indeed make a GOP dream ticket, marrying the corporate overlords and tea party morons into one good hair package. Of course that's also kinda of the problem with that marriage. Romney and Perry look like twins.

    In fact, that's what I'd take to calling them if I were Obama in that scenario. The Corporate America Twins.

  • exlibra on August 13, 2011 8:31 PM:

    I think what I find most repulsive about Perry is his insatiable blood lust. He's "presided" over more executions and refused more pardons or even stays, than any other Governor, in any state. But what I find revolting, others may find appealing...

    Never underestimate the enemy, else you'll have no one but yourself to blame for your defeat. Perry may be stupid, but he didn't get where he is now due to family support, the way W did. Recommend reading:
    before you break out all that champagne.

    In Craptcha's words: ar+1 prrova. You could be proven wrong, by that one.

  • samsa on August 13, 2011 9:49 PM:

    Without reading the last word in the title of the post, I thought that Mr. Bennen has gone to the dark-side, and is talking about how poorly the President, the hope and change candidate, has done as the President.

    Whew!! What a relief that my conclusion was a bit hasty.

  • Schtick on August 14, 2011 12:39 AM:

    Perry is one of those people that gives me the creeps and I really don't know why. Whatever the reason, I've ordered my bumper stickers:
    Read My Lips! NO MORE TEXANS!

    crapcha....comysi 821....That used to be Comcast?

  • Anonymous on August 14, 2011 8:26 AM:

    A candidate like Bachman sincerely believes most of her craziness

    Eminently believable aside from all those earnest , Dear Obama: posts , all that tasty job producing TARP funding , doncha Y'know Mr President ?Dalio, ticragi , ahem .