EVERY PRESIDENTIAL election features at least one candidate who turns out to be a tremendous disappointment. Last time, Rudy Giuliani went from national icon to electoral afterthought in a span of just months. This time, Texas Governor Rick Perry looks poised to take the honors.
After entering the race in August atop the polls, Perry collapsed to single digits after a series of disastrous debate performances. As if to underscore the impression that he’s flailing, he released a bizarre ad last week attacking gay soldiers that drew widespread condemnation, including from many Republicans, some within his own campaign.
The ad, entitled “Strong,’’ features Perry looking straight to camera and declaring, “You don’t need to be in the pew every Sunday to know that there’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military, but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.’’
This put him back in the headlines, but not in the way he intended. The response was swift and dramatic. On YouTube, where political ads are judged and debated, sentiment was startlingly negative: People hated the ad, and in record numbers. In just a few days, “Strong’’ registered 6 million views and more than 650,000 “dislikes’’ - four times the number prompted by the latest Justin Bieber video. A YouTube spokesman told the website Talking Points Memo that the ad was the “most viewed video in America.’’
Obviously, this is bad news for Perry. But it could be a blessing in disguise for the legions outraged by his remarks. In the process of killing off his own campaign, Perry may have brought an end to the use of explicitly anti-gay rhetoric as a political tactic, at least for any candidate with national ambitions.
Perry’s mistake was twofold. First, public opinion has been moving rapidly toward greater acceptance of gays and lesbians. In September, the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell’’ policy was lifted with bipartisan support. A CBS News poll the next month showed that only 15 percent of Americans “strongly oppose’’ allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly. National polls also now routinely show majority support for same-sex marriage. Furthermore, it is legal in the key early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire, and efforts to overturn it have failed. Perry may motivate some voters, but their number is shrinking fast.
His larger problem, though, is that the move reeks of desperation. Perry became the front-runner because he looked to be an economic savior: Texas created half the new jobs in the country over the last two years, a sterling credential for a presidential candidate. But Perry’s economic message has been overshadowed by his jaw-dropping missteps and humiliations. Besides his flummoxed demeanor in most debates, he has misstated the voting age, the number of Supreme Court justices, and the date of the presidential election. He’s had to fire his chief strategist. And his agonized failure to recall which federal agencies he intends to abolish has already become legendary. By going after gay soldiers, Perry is choosing to ignore the economy - his ostensible strength - while leaving the impression that he’s doing so because he can’t manage to do anything else.
As recently as 2004, inciting anti-gay sentiment was considered a viable and effective strategy within the Republican mainstream. Karl Rove used state ballot initiatives on gay marriage to draw out social conservatives and increase support for George W. Bush. While evolving social mores have weakened such tactics, Perry’s ad should hasten their demise by vividly illustrating the cost of invoking bigotry in the service of a campaign.
In politics, failure is radioactive. After Walter Mondale, no presidential candidate for a generation campaigned on raising taxes. Should Perry lose badly, as seems likely, a similar stigma could attach itself to gratuitous attacks on gays - and what candidate would dare risk recalling the foundering calamity of the Perry campaign?
Perhaps it’s coincidence, but on Monday, Republicans in Congress quietly dropped a provision in the defense authorization bill forbidding military chaplains to perform same-sex marriages. In October, the relevant committee chairman had considered the matter so important that it was worth “not having a defense authorization bill’’ if the provision was included.
It would be more than a little ironic if Perry’s attack ends up helping the very people he sought to exploit by maligning. But given how practically everything about his campaign has backfired, it would also be fitting.
Joshua Green is national correspondent at Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaGreen.