Oops: Rick Perry turned himself into a policy wonk

·Senior National Affairs Reporter
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Rick Perry presenting his Wall Street reform plan last week at the Yale Club in New York City. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Standing in front of a packed crowd at the Yale Club in Manhattan last week, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry rattled off an alphabet soup of financial acronyms and regaled the crowd with his opinion on G-SIBs, the CFPB and Dodd-Frank’s Orderly Liquidation Authority.

The speech, about how he would reform the U.S. financial system to prevent future crashes, led the policy site Vox to praise Perry as a more “nuanced and creative thinker” than he’s been given credit for.

The Texas Republican has recast himself as the candidate of big ideas in several technical, policy-heavy speeches — an unlikely transformation for a political figure best known for his awkward brain freeze in a debate almost four years ago. Last month, Perry delivered a historic attack on front-runner Donald Trump, comparing him to the “Know-Nothings” of the 1840s, who scapegoated Irish and German immigrants for America’s problems. And in May, he confronted his state’s racist past in a surprising speech that contrasted the GOP’s enthusiastic embrace of states’ rights with its relative silence on equal protection.

So far, the ambitious rebrand from cowboy to policy wonk has not resonated with voters. Perry did not make the cutoff for the first major GOP debate of the cycle, failing to register as one of the top-10 candidates in national polls tallied by Fox News. This means he will join a group of more obscure candidates — including Carly Fiorina and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. — in a forum that begins at 5 p.m. Thursday, a few hours before the main event.

Even on the smaller stage, Perry will have the opportunity to correct the perception that he’s out of his depth, a liability that torpedoed his campaign in 2011 when he was unable to name the third federal agency he planned to eliminate if elected president. The stumbling pause and fateful “oops” is still the only thing many Americans remember about him, despite his recent big-picture speeches and a 15-year tenure as governor of Texas during an economic boom.

Since then, Perry has boned up on foreign and domestic policy, traveling to the World Economic Forum in Davos and hiring a team of think-tank types to grill him on various topics. On a radio show recently, he admitted: “I knew that after our unsuccessful attempt in 2011-2012, I was a bit naive about what it required to run for the presidency of the United States. Just being the governor of Texas was not enough.”

Still, expectations for him remain low, which benefits Perry.

“If he hits a solid standup double, it’ll feel like a home run and it’ll be covered that way,” says Matt Mackowiak, a Republican political consultant in Texas.

Of course, policy heft may not be what it takes to capture attention and support in a crowded field. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who unlike Perry will be on the big stage on Thursday, released a video of himself cooking bacon on a machine gun. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee accused the president of marching Israelis to “the door of the oven” with his Iran nuclear deal, drawing widespread condemnation, but also boosting his poll standings. Donald Trump has been Donald Trump.

The Perry campaign says the governor’s policy focus is not a makeover and is not an attempt to change his image — it’s just who he is.

“He was a very policy oriented governor,” says senior adviser Avik Roy. “People are starting to see who he really is.”

Perry supporters blame back surgery and subsequent pain medication for some of the stumbles during his first campaign. Since then, Perry has stopped wearing cowboy boots because they exacerbate his back problems and recently began sporting black-framed glasses.

At least one of the candidates isn’t buying the transformation.

“He put on glasses, so people think he’s smart,” Donald Trump said last month.