TIMOTHY NOAH JANUARY 19, 2012
God knows Rick Perry was his own worst enemy as a presidential candidate--always spoiling for a fight but never mentally agile enough to win one. But Perry entered the race with one substantial asset: He was really good at raising money. Perry had reportedly raised more than $100 million in campaign contributions since he entered the Texas governor's mansion in 2001. Paul Begala estimates that Perry ended up spending at least $1,477 for every vote he received in Iowa and New Hampshire. Perry's unsuccessful campaign is therefore a timely lesson that while money counts for an awful lot in politics, it can't do everything.
This is a lesson we don't see illustrated very often. But when we do, it always seems to emanate--is this my imagination?--from the Lone Star State. In 1996 Phil Gramm bragged at the start of his presidential campaign that he had "the most reliable friend you can have in politics, and that is ready money." He lost the Republican nomination to a 73 year-old man. John Connally initially outspent all his competitors in the Republican nomination race of 1980, but he dropped out with only one $11 million delegate to show for his efforts. The nomination that year went to a former Hollywood actor with a hearing aid who thought air pollution was caused by trees. Lloyd Bentsen entered the 1976 Democratic presidential primaries with a bulging campaign war chest and lost to a peanut farmer no one had heard of two years earlier.
Perhaps what we're seeing in these four instances is some political equivalent to what social scientists surveying the global economy call the "paradox of plenty." This is the observed phenomenon wherein countries rich in natural resources (diamonds, gold, and most especially oil) tend to experience less economic growth than countries that are much poorer in such resources. Texas does just fine when it comes to economic growth, but Texas politicians who run for president may perhaps rely too heavily on their state's abundance of rich campaign donors. Richard Connelly of the Houston Press is today probably thinking along similar lines, given that he wrote a blog item in October comparing Perry to Gramm, Connally, and Bentsen.
My guru on Texas politics is Paul Burka of Texas Monthly. Burka told me he thought Perry never really got the hang of raising money outside Texas. He also said that "there was too much of the Aggie in him--the former Aggie yell leader." Aggies, Burka explained, tend to have an "us against the world" attitude, and Texans in general are often perceived by the rest of the country as too brash. When running for president it doesn't pay to be "too Texan," Burka said. Gramm had a similar brashness (though he was a good deal smarter). Connally and Bentsen were more pinstriped, but perhaps harbored similar overconfidence about what Texas petrodollars could do.
There are, to be sure, two stark counterexamples, both named George Bush. But "the Bushes are a national family," Burka said. Poppy had family roots in Connecticut, Maine, and Ohio, in addition to Texas, and of course he was vice-president eight years before he ran for president. Dubya benefited enormously from his ex-president father's ability to close financial spigots to other candidates and open them for Dubya, and those spigots were all over the country.
Lyndon Johnson, the most Texan president of them all, takes us back a few years, and Burka had to get off the phone before I had a chance to ask about him. But Johnson entered the White House as vice-president and then incumbent president. And campaign fundraising was a lot simpler (and more corrupt) in Johnson's era; whatever lessons Johnson's shady money-raising methods might hold would have little relevance to today, even in this post-Citizens United moment.