Rick Perry: The Presidential Candidate Ahead of His Time

Michael Catalini

Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s 2012 presidential campaign was a slow-motion train wreck, capped off by his embarrassing brain freeze in a nationally televised debate.  But as Perry mulls another presidential race in 2016, it’s striking that he was campaigning on many of the reforms that Republican Party leaders are now desperately pushing.

Republicans have spent the past several months figuring out how to win over more Hispanic voters, moderating their tone on immigration, pitching education reform as a significant issue, and they have reaped the political benefits of challenging President Obama on balancing budgets and reforming entitlements. On all those counts, Perry was a candidate ahead of his time.

“I think he remains a motivated public official and an energized political figure,” said Perry’s former chief of staff Ray Sullivan. “On that score, I could easily see him seeking another term as governor and making another run at the White House.”

Take immigration reform. Eventual GOP nominee Mitt Romney hammered Perry for his support of in-state tuition for undocumented workers in Texas. That was in 2012. Now Republican standard-bearers Marco Rubio and Rand Paul have changed the GOP’s tune on immigration. Rubio teamed with Democratic colleagues to draft principles that could become the starting point for immigration reform, and Paul broke out some Spanish during a recent speech suggesting a pathway for illegal immigrants to become citizens.

Perry’s support among Hispanics in Texas was decent, especially compared with Mitt Romney’s awkward outreach.  Perry won 38 percent of the Hispanic vote in his 2010 Texas gubernatorial race, while Romney only took 27 percent of the national Hispanic vote. Texas Republicans attribute that to Hispanic voters’ familiarity with Perry, who as the state’s longest-serving governor, has also appointed Hispanics as state Supreme Court justices, as well as secretary of state and transportation commissioner.

“They see his commitment to inclusion. I think Republicans make a mistake when they separate [Hispanic voters] out. They care about the same issues that other Americans care about,” said Deirdre Delisi, a former Perry campaign aide and Texas transportation commissioner.

Perry also staked out a critical position on entitlement reform, memorably comparing Social Security to a Ponzi scheme in his book. Romney attacked Perry for his positions, but then later tapped Paul Ryan, the Republican leader on entitlement reform, as his running mate. Now Republicans are united on the belief that trimming entitlement benefits is necessary to get the budget under control.

Perry is one of the GOP governors holding out against taking federal government aid for Medicaid expansion as part of President Obama’s 2010 health care law.

"The Medicaid expansion amounts to one large, incremental step toward single-payer socialized medicine. That’s where we headed, and I for one will not accept that as long as I’m governor of the state of Texas," Perry said during the Conservative Political Action Conference.

His education-reform ideas in Texas, challenging tenure at higher-education institutions as a way to cut costs for students, also seems prescient. Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia did a speaking tour recently to push for educational innovations. 

This week, Perry said he’ll decide later this year whether to run for president in 2016 and will decide whether to run for a fourth term as governor in June, after the legislative session in Austin. If he runs for reelection and wins, he’d be on track to be governor of Texas for nearly 20 years – an eternity in politics.

Even though Perry’s positions are in line with many of the upstart reformers, he will still have to overcome his moments of infamy on the national stage. People close to the governor caution that his presidential flameout alone won’t diminish his national political prospects. But they admit that overcoming his self-inflicted problems will be a challenge – especially because the 2016 Republican field is deep with promising, younger contenders.

“Making a first impression a second time is always difficult,” said Dave Carney, a former Perry campaign consultant. “If they're going to reintroduce themselves, they're going to need time to work the primary voters.”

Time, not his verbal missteps, is Perry’s biggest issue, others point out. With a crop of potential candidates such as Sens. Rubio and Paul, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as possible contenders, Perry would have to make an early start.

“You really need to start connecting with people and expanding your breadth of contacts. Getting people to see you and hear you talk about the issues of the day,” Carney said. “This is why these early states really matter. Those folks really take this seriously.”

Even so, Perry has reason to feel a sense of redemption. While GOP strategists who know him say it’s too early to tell if Perry will run in 2016, he enjoyed running for president in 2012, despite his problems. Delisi, who has known Perry since 1997, said he was self-deprecating after his mistake.

“I think all of America was watching after that happened. He was able to make fun of himself; it was a very human moment,” Delisi said.  Perry’s allies argue the public’s memory is short and the voters are forgiving.  And they point to the fact that Perry, after experiencing the intense glare of a presidential run, will have a better idea how to navigate potential political minefields.

“Romney was a much better candidate the second time around. Ron Paul won the Iowa straw poll the next time around. You kind of know where the land mines are,” said Matt Mackowiak, a GOP strategist who worked for Perry’s 2010 gubernatorial primary opponent, former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.

While Perry could face Republican competition if he runs again in Texas, the Democratic bench is shallow, and he’s won strong marks from GOP voters.

Insiders say they’re not sure whether Perry will run again for governor, but what’s clear is they don’t see him moving to lobbying or academia if he does retire.

“He will not ride off into the sunset,” Delisi said.