He really is the new Fred Thompson, the contender who was meant to vindicate movement conservatism and instead finished at 1 percent in New Hampshire. Actually, Thompson did almost twice as well as Perry: the actor and former Tennessee senator received 1.23 percent of the 2008 vote, to Perry’s 0.7 percent this year.
Why did Perry fall so short? His world-historic debate gaffes — “Oops,” “I would send troops back into Iraq” — finished him off, but the Texas governor got on the express elevator to the electoral basement even before that. This was the three-term governor of the GOP’s biggest state, a point I bring up not because it makes him look good on paper but because it ought to suggest he has some real political skills. Whatever magic he had in the Lone Star State evaporated not long after he took the national stage.
I’m surprised he has done as badly as he has, but there were always clear reasons why he would come up short against Romney. Perry, like Thompson, was a man without a base — Republicans who put electability above all else always prefer the front-runner, which is why the party consistently nominates familiar names from previous cycles. (That this often is not a very good real measure of electability is irrelevant; the perception is what counts.) Perry and Thompson both faced fields that included more plausible champions of the Religious Right. Neither politician excited libertarians or economic conservatives — as, say, Steve Forbes did in 1996 and 2000. Who was the Rick Perry or Fred Thompson voter supposed to be?
There was never a case that either of these candidates should have been the first pick of any sizable slice of the GOP electorate. But politicians are vain and their advisers are greedy, so they run anyway. And then they wind up like this: