Google has not been kind to Rick Perry. Type in “Rick Perry gaffe” and you get 111,000 results. Google also offers “searches related to Rick Perry gaffe.” These include “Rick Perry drunk speech, Rick Perry oops, Rick Perry gaffe YouTube, Rick Perry gaffe debate . . . Rick Perry video, Rick Perry forgets department, Rick Perry debate gaffe.”
It’s a neat package of stories, videos, and political humor at Perry’s expense that covers everything that went wrong in his bid for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. The campaign was so dreadful it earned Perry, 64, a reputation as poorly informed and slow-witted. He was left for dead, politically speaking.
Rick Perry is no longer dead. He is alive, well, and hyperactive as a national political figure. He’s now a leading candidate to be the GOP presidential nominee in 2016, assuming he runs. He has admirers in the media. Jennifer Rubin, the hard-to-please blogger for the Washington Post, wrote recently: “The media and voters are seeing a Rick Perry largely absent in the 2012 race—shrewd, self-possessed, competent and calm.”
He has fostered ties to the community of conservative experts and intellectuals. For seven hours this spring, four prominent foreign policy experts met with Perry at the governor’s mansion in Austin. As they walked to their hotel afterwards, one of them said, “Is that really the same guy we saw in 2012?”
Perry has changed. It’s not just his new glasses or that he’s given up wearing cowboy boots. He knows more about more subjects. He’s more relaxed on TV. His political fights are now with leaders (Jerry Brown, Rand Paul, Andrew Cuomo), not state legislators. He’s grown comfortable in the company of world leaders like former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan. He’s not uptight or cocky. When he spent a day in Iowa in May to help Governor Terry Branstad build his reelection treasury, he was content to play second fiddle to Branstad.
This isn’t to say there’s a new Perry. He hasn’t had a complete makeover. The coolness between him and the Bushes still exists. (Barbara Bush especially is not a Perry fan.) But there is a different Perry, better at politics, better at seizing opportunities, better at taking bold steps. None of this came about by accident. Three things happened. The first was Perry’s embarrassment over his performance in the 2012 race. Humbled, he came to recognize that his failure was entirely his own fault. He hadn’t been prepared. He’d expected being governor of a big, tough-to-govern state like Texas was preparation enough. But it had only prepared him to continue being governor.
Second, if he were to run again for president—and redeem himself—he would need fresh help. And in early 2013, he hired Jeff Miller, a 40-year-old political consultant and lobbyist from California, as his top adviser. He and Miller put together a plan to prepare Perry to run for president in 2016.
Miller moved to Austin on Christmas Eve 2012 to open a consulting business in a state where Republicans matter. In California, they’re inconsequential. He had known Perry for a decade and chaired the governor’s presidential drive in California in 2012. His intention was to advise Perry but also develop other paying clients. Within weeks, however, he signed on full-time with Perry. Miller is paid by Perry’s PAC, not Texas taxpayers.
And third, Perry had to decide whether to run for governor once more in 2014. In seeking a presidential nomination, sitting governors have a fundraising advantage. Several aides emphasized this. But Perry’s experience in 2012 told him he couldn’t run effectively for president if he were tied down in Austin.
He chose the presidential route, but kept his decision to step down after 14 years as governor a secret for months. Besides his wife Anita, only two others knew of his decision. Before his announcement a year ago, he had separate statements drafted, one saying he’d run for governor again, the other he wouldn’t.
The Perry-Miller presidential strategy began with two parts. Perry would become a national presence and take the Texas tale of economic success across the country, particularly to Democratic states in fiscal trouble. He knew the Texas story well but had failed to get it across as a candidate in 2012. He would argue that pro-business red states with low taxes, light regulations, and less chance of being sued are more conducive to economic growth and job creation than high-tax blue states with burdensome regulations, like California, New York, and Illinois. The evidence was on his side. To drive home his point, he would seek to lure businesses unhappy in blue states to Texas. Indeed, some have moved—Toyota, for instance—and more may be on the way.
His mission to blue states attracted national attention. California governor Jerry Brown inadvertently spiked news coverage when he objected to a Perry radio ad criticizing the business climate in his state. “It’s not a serious story, boys,” he said. “It’s not a burp. It’s barely a fart.”
Perry’s visit to California in early 2013 had another purpose. It’s where he began to tap into the knowledge and advice of conservative scholars. This was part two of his plan. He met at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution with former secretary of state George Shultz and economists Ed Lazear, John B. Taylor, and John F. Cogan.
His outreach to think tanks and experts copies what George W. Bush did in the late 1990s as he prepared to seek the presidency in 2000. Perry didn’t get Shultz’s endorsement, as Bush did after his trip to Hoover. But Perry left a favorable impression and now consults Hoover fellows routinely. Before a conference with financiers on a trip to Britain last October, he talked to Taylor and economist Michael Boskin by phone. “It’s a smart idea for him to do this,” says Karl Rove, Bush’s political adviser.
But planning isn’t everything. Quick-witted politicians jump on opportunities. And President Obama gave him one. As thousands of children from Central America were crossing the border into Texas, Obama had scheduled three fundraisers in the state. Perry, as governor, would normally greet him at the airport.
But Perry jettisoned protocol and said he preferred to confer with Obama on the immigration crisis, not merely shake hands as he descended from Air Force One. Perry and his advisers feared the president might ignore the governor and join a Democratic congressman for a visit to the border, leaving Perry in the lurch. But Obama skipped the border, met with Perry, and said he agreed with much of Perry’s advice.
It wasn’t exactly a political coup, but Perry had managed to upstage the president. “Did Perry just boost his 2016 chances?” Jonathan Tobin of Commentary asked. “While you never get a second chance to make a first impression, the ongoing drama along the Rio Grande has afforded Perry an opportunity to recast his image.”
Perry is ubiquitous on television. He’s been on dozens of shows this year—not only on Fox News. His agenda has expanded from the Texas story and red state versus blue state to immigration, Obama, national security, the Middle East, and the foreign policy of Senator Rand Paul, the Kentucky libertarian and anti-interventionist.
When Paul likened his own views to Ronald Reagan’s in a piece in June in the Wall Street Journal, Perry told an aide, “That’s crazy.” In response, he published a rebuttal in the Washington Post, insisting Paul had “omitted Reagan’s long internationalist record of leading the world with moral and strategic clarity.” Perry said he “can understand the emotions behind isolationism,” but “unfortunately we live in a world where isolationist policies would only endanger our national security even further.”
Paul fired back, but his side’s reaction was notable for its snarky tone. “Apparently his new glasses haven’t altered his perception of the world, or allowed him to see it any more clearly,” Paul wrote in Politico. Doug Stafford, Paul’s chief adviser, cited “three points” about Perry. In an email, he mentioned two, then wrote, “Um, I forgot the third. Anyone remember the third one? . . . Oops.” This made fun of Perry’s slip-up in a campaign debate in 2011.
Perry’s high point on television, his aides believe, was his appearance in May on Meet the Press. They base this on the positive feedback Perry received for his forceful criticism of Obama. The president, Perry said, “all too often, whether it’s on health care, or whether it’s on education, or whether it’s on how states deal with the death penalty—he looks for a one-size-fits-all solution centric to Washington, D.C. That’s one of the problems we have in this country.”
But attacking Obama is risk-free for a Republican. Perry was better—more at ease, likable, and funny—when he went on Jimmy Kimmel Live! in March when the show aired from Austin. This was risky. The idea was for Perry to appear before an unfriendly audience. Indeed, he was booed when he came on the set.
“What have you done to make these people dislike you so intensely?” Kimmel asked. Perry said three venues are unwelcoming for politicians: hockey games, rock concerts, and Kimmel’s show. When Perry cited his effort to reduce the penalty for marijuana possession, the audience began to warm toward him. “You don’t want to ruin a kid’s life for having a joint,” he said.
Kimmel asked if Perry had really shot a coyote while jogging. Yes, he had. “You jog with a gun?” Kimmel said. “I do interviews with a gun,” Perry said.
“Are you going to run for president again, obviously maybe this is not the place you want to announce it?” Kimmel asked. No, Perry said, this “is not the crowd” for that. Kimmel: “Why would you run for president? I mean it didn’t go that great last time.” Perry: “America is a great place for second chances. Let’s just leave it at that.” When Perry departed, the crowd cheered him.
Perry had a tougher time on Fox News Sunday last week. Brit Hume wouldn’t accept his vague notion that “a show of force” or “a visual” by the National Guard would discourage border crossings. Hume asked, on his third try, why young immigrants who’d made “harrowing journeys” would be deterred by soldiers who wouldn’t arrest or shoot them. “We’re talking about two different things here,” Perry said, adding that the National Guard would send a message and Texas Rangers would enforce the law.
At that point, Hume moved on.
Perry’s forays into the world of conservative highbrows have been largely successful. I’ve talked to a dozen of them, and their reactions range from Perry’s okay “but he’s no Jeb Bush” to he’s “impressive” to “he’d make a fine president.” There was no sharp criticism. Perry’s mandate at the moment is to erase the bad vibes and negative impressions from his 2012 campaign. That’s one reason he wants their help now. The other is he’ll need their advice all the more in an actual campaign.
Following his trip to the Hoover Institution, Perry invaded Washington. He had one-on-one sessions with Eric Edelman, who was a foreign policy adviser to Vice President Cheney, former assistant secretary of state Brian Hook, and ex-Labor secretary Elaine Chao, now at the Heritage Foundation. He had dinner at the American Enterprise Institute. In New York, he met with Avik Roy of the Manhattan Institute.
This spring, Perry brought teams of advisers to Austin. Three economists from AEI—Kevin Hassett, Michael Strain, Stan Veuger—expected to meet with Perry’s staff, then with him. Perry showed up with his staff. As they talked, Perry checked on facts and issues online. The AEI group stayed for dinner. Perry gave them a personal tour of the governor’s mansion.
The foreign policy experts—Edelman, Hook, former White House adviser Elliott Abrams, and Robert Joseph, a former undersecretary of state—got a tour and also spent most of the day and evening with Perry. His main interest was the Middle East and Iran’s nuclear program.
Perry has invited Avik Roy and Lanhee Chen to Austin in late July to discuss health care. Chen was policy director in Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. He’s now at Hoover.
From his talks with foreign policy experts and trips to England, Switzerland, and Israel, Perry learned an unexpected lesson. It’s a simple one but hard to master. He must develop a sense of comfort in dealing with world leaders. He must learn the habits of a commander in chief and convey them in public. He must “think internationally,” as one adviser put it.
It’s this goal that sent Perry to the World Economic Forum at Davos in January. Ministers, heads of state, central bankers, and leaders in finance congregate at Davos, Switzerland. Perry had never been to Davos. For him, it was a chancy proposition, since he’d agreed to join a panel discussion with Kofi Annan and Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos. Its pompous title was “The Drugs Dilemma: Consequences for Society, Politics and Business.” And as Perry noted at the outset, he was the only “anti-legalization” panelist.
How did Perry perform? Far better than he, his adviser Jeff Miller, or anyone who watched him during the 2012 presidential campaign could possibly have imagined. He seemed relaxed and not awed by his fellow panelists. After Annan said Texas spent more money on prisons than on education, Perry politely told him this wasn’t true. And Annan accepted the correction.
The panel lasted an hour, time enough for Perry to tout his effort to soften penalties for young people charged with marijuana possession. And he raised an important question to which the others had no answer. What if we say “it’s okay to smoke marijuana,” but in 30 years find “the medical cost to this world” is too high? That’s what happened with cigarettes, he pointed out. Smoking was fine until science proved otherwise.
Perry plans to attend his second World Economic Forum in China in August. And he’ll be on a panel, though he hasn’t been informed of the subject.
In October, Perry is scheduled to visit England, Poland, the Baltics, Romania, and Croatia. He recently talked to Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski about exporting liquefied natural gas from America to Europe, lessening its dependence on Russian gas. He and Sikorski are to inspect an LNG facility on the Baltic Sea.
Perry’s will to redeem himself after the 2012 experience is strong. With Miller’s help, he’s done nearly everything conceivable to overcome the stigma of 2012, when he dropped out after finishing fifth in the Iowa caucuses and sixth in the New Hampshire primary. And that was against a weak set of Republican candidates. In 2016, the GOP field is likely to be stronger.
Perry has no room for error. He may have no room for controversy either. And he’s already gotten into one flap. At an event in San Francisco in June, he was asked if homosexuality “can be cured by prayer or counseling.” Perry said he didn’t know.
But he didn’t stop there. “People make choices in life and whether or not you feel compelled to follow a particular lifestyle or not,” he said, noting he’d written about this in his book On My Honor. “You have the ability to decide not to do that. And I made the point of talking about alcoholism. I may have the genetic coding that I’m inclined to be an alcoholic, but I have the desire not to do that, and I look at the homosexuality issue as the same way.”
A week later at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast in Washington, Perry said he had made a mistake and “stepped right in it.” This was his mea culpa: “I got asked about an issue, and instead of saying, ‘You know what, we need to be a really respectful and tolerant country and get back to talking about, whether you’re gay or straight you need to be having a job, and those are the focuses I want to be involved with.”
That put the matter behind him. Besides, Perry has a bigger problem to deal with: the sheer difficulty of rising above a bad first impression. Vice President Dan Quayle couldn’t do it. The saying that first impressions are 90 percent of politics is repeated so often because it’s usually true. But Perry has a chance to defy it. He knows what he did wrong the first time and started early to correct for it. He has a plan and the necessary desire. If he succeeds, the Google results under “Rick Perry second chance” will be overflowing.
Fred Barnes is an executive editor at The Weekly Standard.