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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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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.

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