It seemed like one of those movies with twin brothers played by the same actor, one with glasses and one without. There is the brash, undisciplined one and the nerdy, engaging one. In my case it wasn’t a movie but a 45-minute interview with Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
I was a tough critic of his performance in 2012, but so is he. He told me, “2011-12 was a frustrating, painful, humbling experience but not a bad one in the sense we sometimes learn the most when we are humbled.” He said one lesson is that you have to be physically fit for the presidential campaign grind. “Running six weeks after back surgery was a mistake,” he said flatly. He also made clear how much preparation is needed. He called a presidential campaign “one of the most difficult experiences. Even if I ran for governor four times, that is not enough to really prepare you.”
Perry is not making that mistake twice. He said he now is healthy and has already spent 18 months — with more to come — with experts in foreign and economic policy. Next year he will decide whether to run. If he does, it won’t be a rerun of 2012. “When I walk on that stage, people will see a substantially better prepared, more disciplined candidate,” he said.
In person, Perry is soft-spoken and comes across as serious and knowledgeable. More than once during the interview, I thought, “Where was THIS guy in 2012?”
His strongest suit remains his Texas record. Was there anything he didn’t get to? “If there were things I hadn’t gotten to, I wouldn’t be leaving,” he said. When asked about his greatest accomplishment, he reels off a list including reductions in ozone by 24 percent, 5.2 million new people coming to the state, leading the nation in job creation (one in 12 Americans live in Texas, he said and 3/8 of the private sector jobs in the country during his tenure were created in Texas). He quotes a Democrat, Richard Fisher, president of the Dallas Federal Reserve board of governors, as saying the single most important thing Perry did was tort reform. That meant “34,000 new physicians licensed to practice medicine in Texas and a huge impact on health care availability,” he said.
Perry said, “I look at results. Most governors don’t sit around long enough to see how it turns out.” On education, Perry didn’t sign onto Common Core with other states, but he nevertheless can boast of solid results. He rattles off the numbers: A 228 percent increase in Hispanic high school graduates, 118 percent increase in Hispanics in higher ed, and going from 33rd to fourth among states in math and reading scores.
When I ask him what he got wrong, he said that “in the early days [it was] learning to work with members of the other party, learning to work with members of my own party.” He points to the controversial decision on mandating that all 11- and 12-year-old girls in Texas get the vaccine for the human papillomavirus vaccine. He said the decision (which included an opt-out) was the right one but doing so by executive order rather than through the legislature was a mistake. He remains proud of the health protection afforded to girls and women. “We did have a substantive discussion across the state.”
Perhaps most striking is his adeptness in discussing foreign policy. He called the president’s actions (or failure to act) in Syria, Ukraine, Iraq, Egypt “all foreign policy debacles.” What has gone wrong? He said, “We are sending messages to people not our allies ‘If you hear a red line, don’t pay attention.’ ” Our enemies, he said, are getting the impression that the administration “is not going to impede” them. He mentioned a recent trip to Israel where he met with the prime minister and other high-ranking officials. “Moshe [Yaalon, the defense minister] was tactful but was clear in his disappointment” with the administration.
He pointed to Obama’s “lack of deep expertise” in foreign policy. By contrast, Perry’s been getting frequent briefing by experienced foreign policy hands. “I wish the president had that type of advice,” he said. He became especially animated when speaking about Iran: “I worry about stopping Iran from getting the bomb. When they talk about wiping the State of Israel off the map, I take that seriously.” Unlike Obama, who refuses to identify our enemy as Islamic fundamentalism, Perry is clear. He cites a phrase popular in human rights and among Middle East policy makers to explain the threat to Jews and then Christians in the region: “First they come on Saturday [the Jewish Sabbath] for the Jews, then on Sunday for the Christians.”
Perry scoffed at the Obama administration’s assessment that climate change is our biggest security threat. “I’m concerned about [jihadists] chang[ing] the temperature in New York City,” he said referring to the threat from weapons of mass destruction should Iran get the bomb or should new al-Qaeda states form. “He’s worried about something that may affect us 50 years down the road. I’m concerned [about a threat] right now.”
Perry talks about his potential federal agenda and what he’d bring to the White House in part two of the interview, to be posted tomorrow.