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Rick Perry, Version 2.0

After a disastrous 2012, he’s alive and kicking. But will voters give him a second chance?

Jul 28, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 43 • By FRED BARNES
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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.”

Gary Locke

Gary Locke

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.

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