The Fashionably Late Don’t Get to Be President

I don’t think anyone could have foreseen Rick Perry’s dizzying drop in support during the past few weeks. I, for one, definitely feared him as some kind of unstoppable teabagger-infused jugger-nut who might very well fool the American electorate into making him president by virtue of his swagger and love for Jesus. It’s happened before.

And I still seem to be alone in thinking that his goofy New Hampshire speech was not quite the camel-back-fracturing straw for his candidacy. It almost doesn’t matter; he’s performed so poorly — so unexpectedly poorly — in all other areas save fundraising, that if he had giddily groped female staff members in front of the crowd, it still might not have made much of a difference. Probably would have helped.

Of course, it could all turn around. Indeed, the Iowa caucuses are not far away, and I’d say it’s crucial he finish in the top two in order to remain relevant, as he’s almost certain to fare badly in New Hampshire. But Cain is having, well, a rough time of it this week, and Newt Gingrich then becomes the next guy in line to gather up winger support, and I think even they find him unbearable. (Hell, if they want someone who can speak in complete sentences, they have Romney!)

But let’s presume for the sake of this post that Perry really is toast, that this whole presidential adventure has been a humiliating farce in an otherwise astoundingly successful political career. What’s at the core of this? Why couldn’t he pull off another big victory?

I think his string of successes are important to keep in mind here. He’s obviouslycapable of waging fierce, laser-focused, and sometimes even scrappy campaigns, and he has always prevailed — always! And with this cycle’s risible field of competitors, there was no reason a seasoned, tough pol like Perry could not have mowed them all down if he’d really wanted to.

And I think that was the problem. I think Perry is blowing it because he doesn’t really want it. Not really. I don’t mean that in the Herman Cain “oh shit I might be president that wasn’t supposed to happen” kind of way, I mean that Perry probably ran for president because it looked like he could win, not because he really wanted the job. He clearly has no Grand Vision for the country, he has no philosophical core that is fueling his charge. He probably saw that he could win if he ran a half-decent campaign, and boy, wouldn’t it be nice to president?

My only evidence beyond his wretched performance for his ambivalence is the one thing I think should have tipped off everyone who covers this subject: his late entrance.

Look at Mitt Romney: he’s been running for president since at least 2005. He’s spent every iota of his being for years and years on his quest to become the commander in chief. This guy wants it bad, and it shows in his almost pitch-perfect campaign this cycle.

Go back a season, and look at John McCain: he’d been running for president since 1999, and it wasnt until 2008 that he overcome amazing odds to eke out the GOP nomination. This guy probably contorted himself more violently than Romney could ever hope to in order to appeal to the necessary constituencies to pass GOP primary voters’ muster, and the depths of slime to which he stooped in the general election were shocking. This man wanted it bad.

And now look at folks like Wesley Clark and Fred Thompson, two guys who got in late to much fanfare, but ultimately waged pathetic campaigns (and I say this as a Clark ’04 supporter), and then compare them with folks like MikeHuckabee, Chris Christie, and Mitch Daniels, three ostensibly qualified contenders who clearly just didn’t want it badly enough. Not nearly as much as Mitt or McCain, anyway. 

A late entrance into a presidential campaign tells me — at least now it does — that a candidate doesn’t have the maniacal political rapaciousness that is required to ascend to the Oval Office. If he or she did, they would have been bending all their efforts (like Romney, McCain, Obama, and Hillary Clinton) to that end the second it was possible. But Perry didn’t. He sauntered in late to the party, loudly interrupted the conversations already going on, and managed to spill punch on the floor while doing a bad impression of the host.

For some reason, I’m guessing, Perry probably thought he was going to have a cakewalk to the White House, so his lack of drive wouldn’t matter. But that’s never how it works. Obama and Hillary Clinton both wanted to be president so badly you could see the madness in their eyes (and some wear their mania better than others). That goes for McCain, too. John Edwards was nuts, sure, but he didn’t have that drive, or else he would have handled his affairs differently. Mike Huckabee didn’t have that drive either, or he would have put a more earnest effort into fundraising in his ’08 run.

There are only two exceptions I can think of as far as eventually-elected presidents who may not have lusted after the office all that much: Dwight Eisenhower (who got to be president because that’s just what happens when you win World War II) and George W. Bush (who simply felt he deserved to be president — which is different — and had the name of someone who had already been president).

It’s not clear to me that Obama wants to hold on to the presidency as much as Romney wants to take it from him, and I think that’s really, really going to matter one year from now. As for the rest of them? Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul would all like to be president, but know they won’t be. Huntsman, and Pawlenty before him, thinks he ought to be president, but can’t be. Cain never intended to become a factor in the race at all, and soon probably won’t be. Bachmann thinks she already is president, but never will be.

Perry thought someone would hand him the presidency, and now that he can see that they won’t, I’m guessing that this game isn’t fun anymore.

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