Skip to main content

Does Rick Perry's indictment disqualify him for 2016?

By Errol Louis
updated 10:24 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Errol Louis: Rick Perry's indictment will complicate, not kill, his chances in 2016
  • He says candidates like LBJ, FDR have run for President before while trailing scandal
  • Political machines are indispensable to winning elections, he says
  • Louis: Perry likely to remain the same long-shot candidate he was before being indicted

Editor's note: Errol Louis is the host of "Inside City Hall," a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- The indictment and possible trial of Texas Gov. Rick Perry for allegedly applying illegal coercion to a district attorney will complicate -- but not kill -- his all-but-certain run for President in 2016. It's a sure bet that voters outside of Texas will forgive, ignore or overlook any outcome short of a conviction.

Perry wouldn't be the first modern presidential candidate to hit the trail with a scandal clanging in the background like noisy cans tied to the back of his campaign bus. But history suggests that a messy local political scene, with all its feuds and ethical shenanigans, is rarely a deal breaker on the national stage.

Most biographies of Franklin D. Roosevelt, for example, focus on his stature as the architect of labor reforms and major New Deal programs such as Social Security, the Works Progress Administration and the Tennessee Valley Authority. Few of the official histories note that Roosevelt's career began as an opponent -- and later, a staunch ally -- of the famously corrupt Democratic Party hierarchy in New York, centered at Tammany Hall, a clubhouse whose members freely trafficked in bribes, kickbacks, rigged government contracts and stolen elections.

Errol Louis
Errol Louis

"Roosevelt, in the end, came to Tammany. Tammany did not come to him," writes Terry Golway, author of "Machine Made," a masterly work on the history of Tammany Hall. Years later, as President, Roosevelt confided to a friend that "tens of thousands of people are members of Tammany Hall. I do not think they are all objectionable for that reason!"

That fundamental truth -- that local political machines, whatever their ethical shortcomings, are indispensable when it comes to winning elections -- was equally true for Roosevelt's vice president and successor, Harry Truman, who hailed from an even more flamboyantly corrupt political machine in Kansas City, Missouri.

The city machine was run by a notorious leader, "Boss Tom" Pendergast, whose reign ended with a stint in federal prison. Truman never renounced his early patron, and attended Pendergast's funeral days after being sworn in as vice president.

Hillary Clinton continues to have an overwhelming lead over other possible 2016 Democratic presidential candidates. Although the former first lady and secretary of state has not said whether she'll run, a group of PACs and advocacy organizations have begun the process of raising money and aiding a hypothetical campaign. Hillary Clinton continues to have an overwhelming lead over other possible 2016 Democratic presidential candidates. Although the former first lady and secretary of state has not said whether she'll run, a group of PACs and advocacy organizations have begun the process of raising money and aiding a hypothetical campaign.
Potential 2016 presidential candidates
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
>
>>
Potential 2016 presidential candidates Potential 2016 presidential candidates
Perry calls indictment an 'abuse of power'
The case against Gov. Rick Perry

It's tempting to think "that was then, this is now" since Roosevelt and Truman operated in the days before television brought politics into nearly every American home. But consider what happened when -- decades before Watergate -- Richard Nixon weathered a scandal shortly after being named running mate to Dwight Eisenhower in 1952.

Journalists had discovered that the then-senator accepted money and personal gifts from a campaign fund financed by group of conservative businessmen, leading to widespread calls for Nixon to resign from the Republican ticket. Typical of the negative tone was one paper, The Sacramento Bee, that blasted Nixon as "the pet and protégé, the subsidized front man" for a "special interest group of rich Southern Californians."

Nixon answered the critics by seizing upon the still-new technology of television to deliver what's now known as the "Checkers" speech. (Nixon, staring into the cameras, said the only personal gift he'd received from the fund was a beloved dog, Checkers, that he had no intention of selling or returning.) Nixon also asked for -- and received -- a popular wave of calls from voters to GOP officials telling them to leave Nixon alone.

The Checkers speech, delivered to what was then the largest broadcast audience in history, not only showed the power of a direct appeal to the people, it also demonstrated the public's ability to look beyond the sometimes tawdry details of local politics and focus on the major issues of the day.

Voters accepted Lyndon Johnson as a vice president and later President despite widespread rumors that his election to the U.S. Senate in 1948 by a razor-thin, 87-vote margin was stolen with the help of corrupt Texas political bosses -- charges confirmed decades after the fact by biographer Robert Caro.

And in 1992 when it turned out that presidential candidate Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary, had ties to an ethically stinky, failed land development deal called Whitewater, voters shrugged it off and made him leader of the free world. No matter how much outrage Clinton's enemies tried to stir up over Whitewater, it never took hold with the voting public, which returned Clinton to the presidency for a second term.

This is not to suggest that Perry's local troubles won't have a national impact. His indictment may scare away some potential supporters, making it harder for him to line up donations and early political support in this crucial pre-election season.

And a conviction -- highly unlikely but possible -- would surely end Perry's presidential hopes.

But the mere fact of a local political squabble casting a shadow on Perry's image ultimately won't automatically knock him out of the running. Far more important will be avoiding debate gaffes such as the famous "oops" incident in 2012 and making headway in early presidential states such as Iowa and New Hampshire, where Perry is currently mired in single digits in the polls.

It may not be much comfort to his supporters, but from the standpoint of presidential politics, Perry is pretty much the same candidate he was before the legal papers got served: a long shot with a tough road ahead of him.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
updated 5:32 PM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 3:17 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
updated 9:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 3:27 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT