Looking for savior of the GOP
IT’S A MEASURE of how unenthusiastic Republicans are about their presidential choices that Texas Governor Rick Perry has become their latest infatuation. Perry has been dropping hints that he may join the race. Last weekend, he gave a red-meat speech to the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans and left the stage to chants of “Run, Rick, Run!’’ He’s obviously thriving on the attention. Three months ago, Perry was a presidential afterthought. Now, he’s the object of the sort of hyper-intense speculation once reserved for LeBron James.
Politicians love getting the Perry treatment, and there’s a good chance that Perry won’t be the last one to get it. A number of potential contenders, including some very good ones who chose not to enter the field in the spring with Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, and the rest, may decide to take another look. Call it the “Heck, why not?’’ primary — with the Republican field looking weak and the economy even weaker, anyone who has entertained thoughts of the presidency has got to be tempted to jump in.
Potential contenders fall into a number of categories. Perry is a recent sensation, upgraded in the minds of some conservatives from vice presidential material to possible savior mainly out of necessity. He didn’t draw much interest back when the field seemed more promising. “Texas governor’’ isn’t the strongest brand in politics, and Perry was just beginning the legislative session. But then Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour decided not to run, and Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels passed, too. Suddenly, being the veteran governor of a big state like Texas looked pretty good. And although he’s a lot greener than Perry, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is another sudden sensation and object of conservative longing who, though he insists that he won’t run, plainly adores the attention and may ultimately change his mind.
Sarah Palin is in a category all her own. No one can pretend to know what she’s thinking. But she still ranks at or near the top of most national polls, and her recent flirtations, such as that impromptu bus trip to New Hampshire, are obviously intended to fan speculation about her presidential ambitions. Palin has said all along that she’ll consider running if no other candidate represents her views. It’s not clear if one does. But President Obama’s declining fortunes would make it easier to run, and Palin will never lack for money or attention.
Then there are the authentic top-tier talents thought to be keeping their powder dry until 2016. Traditionally, incumbent presidents are tough to beat, and while the lousy economy makes Obama vulnerable, he still has what political consultants call “good candidate skills’’ — he’s disciplined, charismatic, and an experienced campaigner. But most economists are downgrading their forecasts, and the recovery appears to be flagging. If things continue to get worse, the electoral logic could reverse itself, and the combination of a weak field and a vulnerable president might convince Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal or former Florida Governor Jeb Bush that his time is right now.
And best not forget the vanity candidates who understand that all this uncertainty affords them a virtual guarantee of media attention if they get in the race. Thad McCotter, the guitar-strumming Michigan congressman and late-night Fox News personality, is rumored to be considering a run. And though it’s difficult to believe after the drubbing he took last month, the Emperor of Vanity himself, Donald Trump, has said that he, too, might rejoin the field.
While any of these names — well, most of them — has the potential to shake up the race, it’s worth bearing in mind that the history of “savior candidates’’ should inspire very little optimism. 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.
Joshua Green is senior editor of The Atlantic. His column appears regularly in the Globe.