The Magazine

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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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.

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