Rick Perry’s 2012 Prospects and the Fred Thompson Trap

As the Texas governor inches closer to the 2012 race, he would do well to the dangers of the Fred Thompson trap. By Matt Latimer.

Patrick Semansky / AP Photo; Charles Rex Arbogast / AP Photo

I was with George W. Bush when he uttered one of the funniest lines of his presidency. Confronted with the latest example of the McCain campaign’s haplessness in 2008, the president turned away from us, gazed through the sun-soaked curtains of the Oval Office, and asked no one in particular, “Is this a cruel hoax?” One wonders if we will soon be asking the same of Bush’s nemesis, Texas Governor Rick Perry, as he saunters his way into the 2012 race.

As they might say in Texas, we’ve been to this rodeo before. An accomplished southerner and “true conservative” decides to make a late entry into the presidential contest, saving primary voters from the retreads, dull disasters, and suspected wackos currently running. Anything sound familiar? The 2008 contest was supposed to be the Year of Fred Thompson, remember? Instead poor Fred’s campaign ended up about as ridiculed as Kelly Osborne doing the Charleston on “Dancing with the Stars.” Nobody wants to set their eyes on so pitiful a sight ever again.

So if the governor is preparing a late entry, he might do well to heed the less of the Fred Thompson coronation-that-wasn’t. Here are a few that come to mind:

#1. Don’t underestimate your enemies. Fred Thompson entered the race having hired and then fired a well-liked producer from Fox News Channel. The network—where GOP candidates are vetted and legitimized—never forgave him. Fox fired rhetorical missiles at the Thompson campaign from the outset of his campaign, with some of the channel’s leading contributors accusing the former Tennessee senator of being lazy, unprepared, unorganized, and run by his wife, Jeri. Even Fred eventually criticized the network for “a constant mantra” of attacks on his campaign. To little avail.

Governor Perry has a similar problem. His enemies are not Fox News executives but the Bushes. The former first family of the United States does not love Governor Perry; they recently tried to unseat him with someone more moderate and malleable. When Bush was in the White House, his top aides frequently spread malicious rumors about the president’s successor as Texas governor. One in particular is already re-making the rounds. Many of the Bushies still have tentacles deep within Fox News world and won’t hesitate to turn as many network producers, bookers, and on-air personalities against Perry as possible. Governor, your team better be braced for this before you enter the race, not when it is too late.

#2. Don’t overestimate the voters. Senator Thompson sometimes seemed to think that his campaign would take off simply because of an outpouring of dissatisfaction with every other candidate in the race. It didn’t. Every candidate needs a few big ideas and, even more importantly, a strategy to share them with the voters. Republican primary voters are a fickle, sometimes lazy, sort, who often follow the advice of the professional punditry class in choosing their nominees. Fred was a popular legislator, a key player in the Watergate hearings, and an accomplished attorney. But he spent little time courting the permanent opiners of Washington, so they had little use for him.

Governor Perry is an accomplished politician and the longest-serving governor in his state’s history. In Washington, that amounts to two things: “jack” and “squat.” Perry needs to remember that the professional punditry of Washington already has spent a good deal of time being courted and, in some cases, all but paid off by candidates who have been running for president since John McCain’s “cruel hoax” came to a blissful end. They aren’t going to rush to embrace someone who hasn’t put the time in to kiss their backsides, take them to expensive dinners, and patiently listen to their bone-headed strategy for winning the South Carolina primary. Voters, too, need to hear more from the governor than simply he is a conservative and everyone else in the race is terrible. He needs to give them a reason, a vision to choose him over people who’ve been on their TV screens and mailboxes for months and all those who the pundits will be talking up incessantly on one political panel or another.

#3. For goodness sake, protect your wife. I’ve already devoted an entire column to the increasing and thoroughly ungallant tendency of GOP operatives to blame candidates’ wives for failing campaigns.

When Fred Thompson faltered, it was his wife, Jeri’s, fault. And it won’t be long before Rick Perry’s enemies turn their sights on his wife (and childhood sweetheart), Anita. So Governor Perry, do your wife a favor. From the outset, hire her a good press secretary and a spokesman who she can trust. Have someone take a hard, cold look at her finances, public statements, and high-school boyfriends. Think of every nasty thing that might be said about her and help her craft some answers—before your enemies get some pundit to do it to your detriment. Oddly enough, it will be the nicest thing you’ll ever do for her.

#4. The same goes for your kids, too.

#5. Don’t J.R. Ewing Us. It is not your fault, governor, but I have a suspicion that America has had enough swaggerin’, struttin’, big-talkin’, Mama-lovin’, elite hatin’, high-school-Spanish-talkin’, cowboy-boot-and-big-belt-buckle-wearin’ Texas machismo to last us a long, long while. Avoid purposely mispronouncing words in your announcement speech so that people will misunderestimate you. Just be a normal person. Your opponents won’t know what do to with that.