early and often

Is Ron DeSantis the New Rick Perry?

From presidential front-runner to laughingstock, Rick Perry rose and fell. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Veteran political observers got a good chuckle this weekend, when a familiar but unlikely name, Rick Perry, entered the 2024 presidential conversation, albeit by bringing the idea up himself, as CNN reported:

When asked if he believes Trump should be the Republican nominee next year, the former Texas governor said, “I’m still trying to sort that out for myself.”

“He may get to hear me call him names again,” Perry added, alluding to previous clashes between the two men in the 2016 Republican primaries. “If you’ll recall, I didn’t announce for president in 2011 until August, so we’ve got a lot of time left.”

If you didn’t have “Perry 2024” on your bingo card, it’s probably because the 73-year-old politician hasn’t won an election since 2010 and undertook two unsuccessful presidential runs in 2012 and 2016 before a brief and inglorious stint as Donald Trump’s Energy secretary that ended with his implication in the U.S.-Ukraine shenanigans that earned the 45th president his first impeachment.

But Perry’s hint that perhaps the best is yet to come for him is a reminder that, back in 2011, he was briefly all the rage in Republican politics. He was a late-declaring presidential candidate surging in the polls, drawing huge crowds everywhere, and delighting Republican elites looking for a trusted and electable conservative to put up against Barack Obama in 2012. Perry was, in some important respects, the Ron DeSantis of that election cycle.

Now, you may laugh at the comparison. Perry, after all, is a good old boy from Paint Creek, Texas, who barely made it through the Texas A&M animal-sciences curriculum and climbed the ranks of Texas Republican politics without impressing too many people with his intellect. Despite fairly humble roots, DeSantis managed to get into and graduate from Yale and Harvard Law School. Perry left college to serve as an Air Force pilot. DeSantis left law school to serve as a Navy JAG officer who advised prisoner interrogators and (later) Navy SEALs on the front lines. Perry had a slow ascent to the governorship of his state, elected to the legislature initially as a Democrat, becoming Agriculture commissioner, then lieutenant governor, before inheriting the big job when George W. Bush was elected president. DeSantis was elected to Congress at 34 and became governor at 40.

But on the national stage, the two men have a lot in common. Both spent a lot of time boasting about their respective Sunbelt states as job magnets and economic paradises attributable to their sturdy conservative governing principles. Both have a knack for tossing red meat to right-wing audiences. And both became darlings of national Republican elites eager to sidetrack front-runners in a presidential nominating contest (Mitt Romney in 2012 and Trump in 2024).

Perry waited even longer in 2011 than DeSantis has this year to formally announce his candidacy (as it happened, on the very day that the candidacy of early Romney-alternative front-runner Tim Pawlenty crashed and burned at a big straw-poll event in Iowa). But Perry instantly leapt into first place in the national polls and, within a couple of weeks, was more than doubling Romney’s polling numbers. Perry had tons of money and was attracting both ideologues and those focused on electability. But he then badly stumbled in two candidate debates. In the first, he came across as soft on immigration — a position that Romney ruthlessly exploited. And in a second, Perry famously couldn’t remember the name of federal agencies he had proposed to eliminate and finally uttered his campaign’s epitaph: “Oops!” By the time voters went to the polls, Perry’s campaign was a shell of its former big, brawling self. He finished fifth in Iowa and dead last in New Hampshire and soon dropped out.

Perry’s sad 2016 comeback attempt did not make it past September 2015, when his campaign could no longer make payroll.

Is there a chance the once high-flying DeSantis will wind up falling from the sky like Perry did in 2012? We won’t know for a while what DeSantis’s ultimate trajectory will be, but he has already lost quite a bit of altitude since November, when he was able to boast of a landslide reelection (in contrast to the underperformance of many Trump endorsees), and GOP elites ranging from Never Trumpers to Christian nationalists and social-media wackos seemed to be clambering aboard his bandwagon. Much like Romney did to Perry in 2015, Trump seems to have diminished DeSantis by outflanking him on substance (attacking his past support for Social Security and Medicare cuts) while outorganizing him.

And for all of the mileage DeSantis has gotten out of his record in Florida, it holds pitfalls for him as well — just as Perry’s program offering in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants proved to be his undoing against Romney. The Florida governor’s much-ballyhooed battle with Disney could go either way, and his decision to sign a six-week abortion ban could prove perilous.

We don’t know how well DeSantis will do in the candidate debates that were such a disaster for Perry. DeSantis is unlikely to have an “Oops!” moment, but, as Michael Bloomberg showed in 2020, you don’t have to be dumb to bomb in a candidate debate, and as the entire 2016 campaign showed, Trump is very hard to debate.

The one big career advantage DeSantis has over Perry is age: When he first ran for president, the Texan was already 61. DeSantis is currently 44. So if DeSantis does crash and burn against Trump, he will be able to take his time relaunching his national political career. And he is not likely to follow up two presidential losses by seeking out and finding a reporter to take him seriously just one more time.

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Is Ron DeSantis the New Rick Perry?