Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Myth of "Oops"

Former Texas governor Rick Perry has now suspended his race for the White House.  In many respects, Governor Perry had an impressive record as governor.  He had assembled a worthy policy team around him, and his campaign seemed inclined to raise some innovative policy ideas for the Republican party.  But the governor's campaign never really caught fire.

In the aftermath of Governor Perry's withdrawal, many in the media seem to be spinning an interesting narrative around him: his 2012 and 2016 campaigns were destroyed by the infamous "oops" moment (when he could not remember the name of the third federal agency he wanted to close during a primary debate).  While this moment is unfortunate and easy fodder for blogging, it's hard to say that this gaffe destroyed Governor Perry's presidential aspirations in 2012, at least.

Let's look at a timeline of events.  Governor Perry exploded onto the GOP primary scene in the late summer and early fall of 2011.  According to Real Clear Politics, his national primary polling peaked at around 32 percent on September 12, 2011.  The "oops" moment occurred on November 9th.  But Governor Perry's national lead had already collapsed by then.  Between mid-September and the end of October, his support had fallen from the 30s to around 10, and he had fallen from first to fourth place.  It's true that his support fell further after the "oops" moment, but the sharpest decline was beforehand.

So what actually destroyed Governor Perry's presidential bid in 2012?  A number of forces contributed to his political decline, and media gaffes were no doubt one of them.

But surely part of what injured the Perry campaign was the counterattack launched by Mitt Romney's campaign.  Governor Romney's team hit Perry on a number of issues, especially immigration and Social Security.  Romney argued that the Texas governor was soft on illegal immigration and specifically highlighted Perry's support for in-state tuition for illegal immigrants.  The fact that Governor Perry suggested that those who oppose in-state tuition for illegal immigrants did not "have a heart" probably upset grassroots Republicans even further.

Romney also slammed Perry's past remarks on Social Security.  At various points, Governor Perry called Social Security both a "Ponzi scheme" and a "failure," and Romney's team pounced on those statements.  By emphasizing anti-illegal immigration and pro-Social Security themes, Romney was able to bring Perry back down to earth.

The "oops" moment might have damaged Perry's brand over the longer term, but it certainly was not responsible for his campaign's failure in 2012.  It's worth noting this fact for a couple reasons.  At times, the media has a tendency to want to adjudicate presidential campaigns solely through the lens of verbal missteps.

However, we should be wary about judging the whole of a politician's career through a single verbal misstep.  Governor Perry's record is much bigger than "oops."  But we also should not deny real policy debate by fetishizing media optics.  Perry fell not because of "oops" but at least in part because many Republicans had doubts about his approach to illegal immigration and to Social Security.

This fact has implications for 2016.  Especially on immigration (though on other issues, too), many in the Beltway media want to avoid a real debate about policy issues.  They try to reduce the rise of various outsider candidates to political theater.  While political performance art no doubt plays a role here, part of what has set the stage for these various outsider candidates is voter dissatisfaction with current policy outcomes and a desire for a new way forward.  As I've suggested before, specific policy innovation will be important for addressing the forces causing the rise of outsider candidates.  Words matter, but political optics should not the exclusive focus of political journalism.  Policy matters, too.

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