Texas governor Rick Perry goes where governors have never gone before. He’s been descending on blue states for months now, infuriating their Democratic governors with his pitch to CEOs to relocate their companies in business-friendly Texas. Now he’s going national. He aims to stir a debate over whose economic policies are better for jobs and growth, red states’ or blue states’.
And last week he formed a new organization, Americans for Economic Freedom (AEF), to sponsor, plan, and fund his national activities. You don’t have to be a cynic to suspect this is leading to a second presidential campaign in 2016.
On economic policy, there’s no question where Perry’s sympathies lie. He’s traveled to six blue states—California, Illinois, New York, Connecticut, Minnesota, Maryland—this year and spent $2 million on TV ads touting “limited government, low taxes, and a fair legal system.” In a 30-second spot in Maryland in September, Perry said, “Maybe it’s time to move your business to Texas.”
With the creation of AEF, luring businesses to Texas becomes secondary to Perry’s effort to draw attention to how red states and blue states are recovering from recession. Perry says he wants to “draw the contrast between the states . . . and between Washington, D.C., and the states.” Hint: Red states, especially Texas, are doing better.
Exactly how AEF, as a nonpolitical “advocacy” group, will function is unclear, except that Perry will be front and center in TV ads and speeches. He plans further extensive travel. He launched the new organization in St. Louis last week and will address California Republicans this week.
That’s only for starters. In Republican states—Louisiana, Florida, and Arizona are on Perry’s list—the idea is to show that their free-market approach has worked well. In Democratic states, he wants to focus on the effect of high taxes and overregulation in stifling growth and job creation.
All that sounds high-toned. Indeed, Perry insists he’d be promoting conservative, pro-growth policies even if he weren’t considering a presidential bid. “It’s what I’ve been all about as the governor of Texas,” he says.
There’s also an obvious political aspect. Perry, governor for 13 years, decided months ago not to run for reelection in 2014. This gives him time to run full-tilt for the presidency. And he hasn’t been coy about considering a second presidential bid. He jumped into the 2012 race late, appeared unprepared and badly coached, did poorly in debates, and generally got low marks.
If he runs again, Perry wants to be ready for the national stage, particularly to erase the bad impression he left in 2012. That’s where AEF comes in. It provides him with a vehicle, though technically only a policy one, for taking his economic message around the country for the next 12 to 18 months. If he decides to run, he’s likely to announce officially in early-to-mid-2015.
An indication of his intentions is the emergence of Jeff Miller as his chief political adviser. Miller, a California consultant who moved with his family to Texas last year, is the architect of Perry’s high-visibility efforts to attract business to Texas. Now he’s become AEF director. Should Perry decide to seek the 2016 nomination, Miller presumably would be his top campaign strategist.
In the meantime, AEF is a vehicle not only to promote the red state/blue state comparison, but also to put Perry at the center of the national policy debate. Judging by his public appearances this year, Perry’s ability to make the case for low tax, low spending policies—what he calls “the Texas model”—has improved dramatically since the 2012 campaign.
His responses to hostile questions on CNN’s Crossfire in September were quick and crisp. When asked to explain why he doesn’t talk about the high number of people in his state who are uninsured or live below the poverty line, he answered: “We never thought in the state of Texas that you judge the success by the number of people that are on public assistance.” Okay, that’s not a definitive reply, but for TV purposes, it worked.
On the show, Perry debated Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, who was smooth and glib. Beforehand, O’Malley, a Democrat, had argued in the Washington Post that Perry and “like-minded Republican governors subscribe to the slash-and-burn economic philosophy.”
But rather than tell Perry he was out of bounds in recruiting businesses in Maryland, O’Malley ably defended his state’s liberal policies. Like Perry, O’Malley is considering a bid for the presidency in 2016.
AEF didn’t come up. It hadn’t been announced yet. Now that it has, it’s bound to provoke media scrutiny. Candidates often set up “exploratory” committees in the months before officially entering a presidential race. AEF is more substantial and policy focused. It outlines how much of its effort will be devoted to specific activities. Ten percent, an AEF document says, will be spent on “periodic outreach to members of the print, broadcast and internet media.”
That’s likely to be AEF’s most difficult task. That the mainstream press is liberal is only part of the problem. The mainstream media relish the opportunity to ridicule Republican politicians who’ve faltered in the past. If Perry can neutralize media scorn, he’ll have passed an important test. In this regard, AEF can help.
Fred Barnes is an executive editor at The Weekly Standard.