Rick Perry and the Trump Effect

The former Texas governor is running a strong campaign. Too bad Donald Trump is in the race.


Four years ago this month, Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry briefly surged to the top of the 2012 GOP primary field. But after an embarrassing debate gaffe—he couldn't remember which three federal agencies he wanted to close—and a series of campaign struggles, he quickly fell in the polls. This year, the former Texas governor, acknowledging that he wasn't ready four years ago, has attempted to reboot his campaign. But he's struggled to gain traction: Perry was edged out of the prime-time debate last week, and his fundraising has been weak. On Monday, it was reported that his campaign has stopped paying its staff.

Perry's campaign isn't over, but it's not a good sign. And it's a shame that he has failed to take off this round. While I was no fan of his 2012 run and I continue disagree with him strongly on many issues, Perry has run an interesting, valuable campaign that ought to have injected some seriousness and substance into the GOP field—ought to, and would have, I suspect, if not for the presence of Donald Trump

To understand why Trump has made it so hard for a candidate like Perry to stand out, and why the billionaire reality star has had such a pernicious overall effect on the race, it's worth going back to July, when Perry delivered a lengthy speech on financial reform at a two-hour event held at the Yale Club in Manhattan. It was in many ways an unusual topic for a Republican candidate to address at length; GOP candidates are more likely to call for the repeal of Dodd-Frank than to offer ideas of their own.

Perry's speech, though, was peppered with wonky policy proposals—dealing with everything from strengthening capital requirements for big banks to overhauling the Consumer Financial Protection to building in "regulatory breathing room" for Bitcoin and other digital currencies. Perry didn't have every detail nailed down, but relatively speaking it was a substantive and detailed speech that left a lot to discuss—and, perhaps, to disagree with. The former Texas governor promised flatly that as president he would never bail out any Wall Street bank. He also called for, among other things, regulations on certain types of mortgage products, crediting his state's rules restricting cash-out refinancing for helping the state to weather the recession.

At the end of the two-hour event, there was time for one question from the audience. It went to a reporter from The Daily Mail who asked Perry not about anything from his speech but about attacks from the GOP presidential frontrunner, Donald Trump. Rick Perry jokingly responded that he'd like to challenge Trump to a pull-up contest. Google News currently counts more than 400 stories that reference Perry's pull-up challenge. (Yes, for the record, I briefly referenced it too.)

That's the Trump effect at work. The entire GOP field becomes defined by their relationship to Trump—by what Trump has said about them, and what they have said about him.

To be fair, Perry has courted this, at least to some extent. Of all the GOP candidates in the race, he has probably been Trump's most open and aggressive antagonist; certainly he was Trump's loudest critic in the field prior to the GOP debate, labeling Trump a "cancer on conservatism." Yet this too is an example of how the Trump effect alters the race. With Trump and his antics leading the field, the other candidates, especially those not in the top tier, are looking for ways to stand out with their own outrageous comments—by tweeting about Cecil the Lion and Planned Parenthood, for example, or comparing the Obama administration's nuclear deal with Iran to the Holocaust. Perry's attempt to draw attention by attacking Trump directly was, in comparison, the high road.

Indeed, Perry's campaign this year has tried to take the high road whenever possible. That was its big idea—to run an honest campaign built on big ideas.

The financial reform speech wasn't the first time that Rick Perry had given a big speech that challenged conservatives as well as liberals. Earlier in the summer, before Trump took hold, Perry delivered an address on race and economic opportunity that was praised by liberals like The Washington Monthly's Ed Kilgore for its frank admission that black Americans had understandable reasons for voting Democrat, and that Republicans hoping to win their votes would have to respond not only with rhetoric but with policies designed to improve their lives. At the same time, the address was hailed by The Wall Street Journal's editorial board as "the speech of the campaign so far." The editorial praised Perry for laying out "a rationale and a specific agenda for how the GOP can earn—and deserve—the support of black Americans," and for pointing to real-world evidence from Texas that his ideas could work. Writing at National Review, Yuval Levin called it "an ambitious and impressive performance" that he hoped would "[set] the tone for the coming campaign. "

This was the campaign that Rick Perry wanted to run—a campaign built on substance; a campaign that was not afraid to challenge certain conservative orthodoxies, but also did not respond by simply adopting watered-down versions of liberal policies; a campaign that, at its best, could unite open-minded liberals and smart conservatives. And it was a campaign that, in a different race, might have at least helped nudge the GOP field in different, more substantive, direction. It might have helped set the tone.

But with so many candidates in the field, and Trump leading them all, it's been difficult for a candidate like Perry to stand out. At the end of July, Donald Trump accounted for a whopping 50 percent of all evening network news election coverage. Coverage like that just doesn't leave a lot of room for the other 16 candidates.

Rick Perry's campaign struggles aren't all Donald Trump's fault. Perry gives a good speech, and performs well enough on TV—which he's done a lot of. But he's not a great debater. And he was always going to have to overcome some of the negative perceptions that took hold in the 2012 race and helped take him out of that field.

Yet Perry was running a better, more interesting, more honorable campaign this time around. And while libertarians would have found plenty to disagree with (Perry is, among other things, more hawkish and more supportive of restrictions on immigration than most libertarians would be comfortable with), there are also elements to admire about his record as governor, from his record on job growth to his willingness (after some initial resistance) to back criminal justice reform that saved money and put fewer people in jail. He even shut down a prison.

Perry's record as governor of the world's twelfth largest economy is the foundation of his current campaign. As Avik Roy, a policy adviser to Perry (and friend of mine), told me Tuesday, the goal was to start with Perry's economic record in Texas and then build out a suite of big-idea policy proposals over the course of the run. Perry's campaign takes as its starting point the idea that, as Roy told me, "no state in America that has demonstrated the results of economic freedom better than Texas"—and then seeks to expand on that approach nationally.

"Our strategy," Roy said, was to "take the voters seriously." It's an admirable idea, and could have been Rick Perry's biggest strength as a candidate. Sadly, in a race so dominated by a thoroughly unserious figure like Donald Trump, it may turn out to be his biggest weakness.