Matt Lewis

Why Rick Perry isn’t Wesley Clark or Fred Thompson

On September 17 of 2003, General Wesley Clark joined the Democratic primary field. With Iraq figuring to be the key issue in the general election campaign against incumbent President George W. Bush, Democrats hoped to avoid being labeled as weak on national security. They were also looking for someone fresh.

And so, a “Draft Clark” campaign sprung up in April of 2003. And then, we waited. And waited.

By the time Clark officially entered the race in September, the expectations were a mile high. The Rhodes Scholar, turned professional soldier, was expected to dramatically shake up the field — which had previously (and surprisingly) been dominated by former Vermont Governor Howard Dean.

Except, he didn’t.

Almost immediately, Clark made a series of costly mistakes and rookie gaffes. By Valentine’s Day of 2004, he was out of the race.

Four years later, it was the GOP’s turn to anoint a savior.

In the spring of 2007, the buzz surrounding former U.S. Senator and movie star Fred Thompson was incredible. As is the case today, conservatives were unhappy with the field of candidates, and were waiting for superman. Led by RedState’s Erick Erickson, the effort to draft Thompson into a presidential run generated intense excitement and huge expectations.

Personally, I never understood the appeal. Thompson was a lobbyist who had co-chaired John McCain’s 2000 campaign. What is more, he seemed to lack charisma. He wasn’t even my favorite character on “Law & Order” — let alone the man I hoped would be president. Nevertheless, he was — for a matter of months during 2007 — the conservative equivalent to The Beatles.

On September 5, 2007, after months and months of flirting with a candidacy, Thompson finally entered the race for the Republican nomination. But his campaign was anemic. He was lazy. Ultimately, Thompson didn’t even last as long as Clark; he was out of the race by February of 2008.

This, of course, brings us to the present day.

Very soon — maybe this weekend — it is expected that another savior will rise from these streets. This time, the man many are hoping can swoop in and save the day is Texas Governor Rick Perry. And because his possible late entry feels a bit like déjà vu, some are already speculating he will flame out like Clark and Thompson.

Except, Perry isn’t Clark or Thomson.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s entirely possible that — despite all the buzz — Perry’s campaign won’t make it across the finish line. But if that happens, none of the lessons learned by observing Clark or Thompson will be relevant.

Clark was a political neophyte. Perry, conversely, is the longest serving governor in America, having won numerous political elections. Most recently (last year) Perry easily defeated a sitting U.S. Senator in a bitter and high-profile gubernatorial primary. Moreover, Perry’s top advisers aren’t just seasoned campaigners, they are fresh off the 2012 presidential campaign trail (having departed from Newt Gingrich’s floundering operation).

The comparisons with Clark don’t hold water.

But it would also be a mistake to compare Perry to Thompson. By the time Thompson ran for president, he had been out of the senate for five years. He was also a movie star. I just don’t see any connection.

Political writers are always looking to find a creative way to connect disparate things into a common narrative. But in this case, that don’t won’t hunt. There is no analogy.