As Rick Perry looks out at us from countless cable-news channels this summer, his border chess match against the Obama administration underscores his potential 2016 skill set. Two portraits emerge.
One is of a wiser, seasoned executive ready to jump into a race already rich with governors. He’s armed with more reliable conservatism than that of Chris Christie; and he has a meatier résumé than Bobby Jindal, Scott Walker, or Mike Pence. This portrait features Perry’s proud record of protecting his state from the scourges of the Obama years, racking up stretches of job creation and growth that have far outpaced the stagnant national economy. It also features his unapologetic recruiting of employers and residents from right under the noses of liberal governors in states lumbering under the weight of expansionist governance. Around my outpost in Texas, I meet these newcomers all the time. They are transplanted Californians and New Yorkers who confess they will miss the Pacific beaches or the Manhattan skyline; they will not miss the suffocating taxes and regulatory environments of their prior homes.
But as they arrive in Rick Perry’s Texas, another portrait emerges of the governor who may seek to become our next Texan president. This one depicts a candidate far too conservative to capture independent voters in a general election, and it shows a man whose previous White House run collapsed under the harsh lights of national scrutiny.
So which one is the real Rick Perry?
We cannot erase history, particularly the video evidence of the now-famous “oops moment” in a November 2011 debate when Perry could not remember the third federal agency he would eliminate if he were elected. Self-deprecating humor served him well in the immediate aftermath, but it was not enough to pull the campaign out of a ditch at least partially of Perry’s own making.
Perry blamed the moment of brief brain freeze on loss of sleep due to recent back surgery that kept him from maintaining his running routine; the explanation rang true enough. And his 2012 performance was better than many people recall, with a number of good debate moments and some ads that were bolder and more pleasing to the GOP base than the predictable stuff cranked out by Mitt Romney and others.
But forget 2012. The attention span of most voters barely goes back to last Christmas. If the governor’s detractors try to hang “oops” around his neck, his best parry would be an assurance that while he went fuzzy on the name of one federal agency on one night, he never loses clarity on the issues that matter: states’ rights, domestic energy production, business-friendly policies, and borders that actually stop illegal immigrants.
That should work in the base-friendly environment of a Republican primary, though it remains to be seen whether it would lead to a win in a general election.
I’m not suggesting Perry will be the 45th president or even the GOP nominee. I am suggesting that no one should underestimate him.
Republicans fret often about how to attract the elusive votes of Hispanics and independents. Perry won 38 percent of the Latino vote in his last election, compared with Romney’s 27 percent nationally in 2012.
As for independents and voters less ideologically wired, they will be looking for results. One does not need a conservative lens to see Perry’s compelling achievement in Texas of withstanding the major economic downturn of our age. Hardcore Hillary voters will probably not be ordering Perry yard signs. But if he speaks skillfully to moderates, with an upbeat message about the ideas he has successfully implemented, he could find takers among voters open to new directions after years of a struggling presidency.
That would be an echo of 1980, when Ronald Reagan broadened his appeal, not by moving to the center but by attracting the center toward him. Media elites that year viewed Reagan as an amiable dim bulb who was satisfying only to his base. As the 2016 GOP field jostles for as much of the Reagan turf as each hopeful can occupy, Perry might similarly disprove the skeptics.
He will have to do more homework and preparation, and bring every bit of the humor and resiliency he can muster to help him stand out in a crowded field. If he is able to create moments that bury “oops” in the ash heap of old anecdotes, we might well see the reverse of his last outing, in which his performance fell well short of expectations.
This time, expectations for Perry are low, which could be a great gift.
— Mark Davis is a talk-show host on Salem Communications’ 660 AM (KSKY) in Dallas-Fort Worth, and the Friday host of the Salem Radio Network’s “Bill Bennett’s Morning in America.” He writes for the Dallas Morning News and Townhall.com and is the author of Lone Star America: How Texas Can Save Our Country.