His prominent, dark-rimmed glasses are the first noticeable difference between the Rick Perry who bombed on the campaign trail in 2012, and the 2016 version of the Texas governor touring the country and talking up the importance of initiating thoughtful, civil blue state/red state conversations, “even in a winsome way.”
Winsome is not the first adjective I would expect from Perry, who’s always presented himself as a guy’s guy. The definition of winsome is “charming, often in a childlike and naïve way,” and oddly enough, it fits what Perry is trying to do as he attempts a comeback in presidential politics as an affable face of conservatism with a back-to-basics economic message.
He is coming off a 14-year successful run as governor of Texas, and says the single most important thing he does in public life is create a climate where business can succeed and jobs are created. One of every 12 Americans live in Texas, and three of every eight new jobs created are in Texas, he told reporters at a lunch in Washington on Thursday sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor. It’s a formula he thinks could work elsewhere and he blames the Obama administration for disrupting the country’s economic engine with its pesky environmental regulations.
“Based on what I consider to be science that is not settled, calling CO2 a pollutant is doing a disservice to the country, a disservice to the world,” he said. “I’m substantially more concerned about Iran changing the temperature in New York than some 50-year role that could be played by environmental choices made today.”
Presumably, that means he thinks there’s a greater threat of Iran dropping a bomb on a major city than any dangers from a warming planet. Like other Republicans who deny the science of climate change, Perry prefaces his remarks saying, “I’m not a scientist,” but he has no hesitation to reject what the great majority of scientists say, and he faults Obama’s EPA for “strangling” the economy with its policies.
Among the issues that tripped up Perry in 2012 was his support for allowing undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition for college. Mitt Romney and the other GOP candidates assailed Perry as soft on the issue, and since then the Republican base has moved even further to the right. With thousands of unaccompanied minors entering his state from Central America, Perry has a ready-made issue on which to look tough, and this week he ordered a surge operation on the Southern border. With hurricane season approaching, he warns that the influx of “unaccompanied alien children” might mean there would be no place to house Texas citizens displaced by extreme weather.
Perry’s harder line position on immigration and on climate change line up well with the Republican primary electorate, and it’s way too early to make sweeping judgments, but in the jockeying for position, Perry tends to get eclipsed by fellow Texan Ted Cruz. “We all get our 15 seconds of fame,” he said, shrugging off the comparison. “Ask me in eight years if Ted Cruz has made an impact on the state.”
Perry called his failed 2012 bid for the GOP nomination “painful” and “humbling.” He said the most important lesson he learned from the experience was the importance of preparation. “If I do make that decision [to run again], I will be prepared,” he said. “I was ill-prepared to stand up in front of the people… and say, ‘Choose me as your next leader.’” Exactly what he’s doing to get ready, he didn’t say, but fielding questions for an hour from a room full of reporters must be part of the drill.
Asked what he finds appealing about making another run for president, he said, “I’m a patriot, I do care about where the country is headed. I’m a competitor.” Whether he decides to formally announce or not, he said he wants to continue to talk about the 10th Amendment and be a champion for states’ rights. He wants to be “a person of influence,” he said, adding with a winsome smile, “And with my eyes somewhat beginning to fail, I’m getting to be a bit of an elder statesman.” That opened the door to a question about his age, that he would be 66 if elected president in 2016. “66 is the new 46,” he quipped, adding that voters will want experience after “watching this young, inexperienced president bumble from scandal to embarrassing debacle.”
Perry blamed his poor performance in 2012 on recent back surgery, and painkillers that made him seem disoriented. This time around, he said, “I’m healthy, I did two things. I quit running and replaced that with a lot of core exercises, a lot of sit-ups, pull-ups, crunches, and planks. And I ride an indoor bike for 45 minutes every day. And then I stopped wearing cowboy boots.” He said he still gets some pain “in my backside” and a couple of ibuprofen take care of that. His amiability is his strong suit, and if Republicans are looking for someone with the spoonful of honey to make the medicine go down, Perry may be able to recapture some of the magic he had in 2012 before he so spectacularly flamed out.