Until the current border crisis, talk about Gov. Rick Perry as a serious 2016 presidential contender has generally been met with a lot of eye-rolling. Now, however, the media and voters are seeing a Rick Perry largely absent in the 2012 race — shrewd, self-possessed, competent and calm. A number of circumstances work to his benefit in this situation, providing him with his first real opportunity to re-introduce himself to non-Texas voters:
- He has credibility on the issue, not only because he warned the federal government about the impending crisis but because he’s spent years dealing with enforcement issues.
- His compassionate stance toward those illegal immigrants already here (e.g. in-state tuition) that got him in hot water in 2012 now acts as validation that he is not an extremist nor is he uncaring on the issue.
- He has the good fortune to face off against the president at a low ebb in approval and with no obvious GOP competitor for the limelight. He looks big, the president small.
- He is underscoring the difference between Washington D.C. politicians who talk and governors who do things.
- He gets respectful treatment from the media, which recognize his expertise on the subject and have no qualms about using him to bash the White House for its remarkably inept handling of the crisis.
- When and if he does run for president the first image that pops into voters’ minds may not be the 2012 debate performances, but instead the 2014 border crisis.
In order to capitalize on the situation Perry should use his free media attention to talk not only about the border but about other pressing issues on which he has significant experience such as energy policy. If he can do that — either in media interviews or in set speeches — he can go a long way toward re-establishing his pre-2012 reputation. He is, after all, the longest serving governor of a state that far outstripped all others in job creation and the only likely candidate on either side who served in the military.
On one level, one can imagine that if had not run in 2012 he’d be at or near the top of the list for 2016. However, as he has acknowledged, the 2012 run was both awful and extremely helpful to him. In 2014 we see a more mature and humbled version of Perry, one without the Texas swagger. It is that more serious figure, bespectacled and more relaxed, whom voters now see.
If Mitt Romney was too stiff and too “perfect” (perfect wife, perfect career, perfect hair) and therefore inaccessible to most voters, Perry’s 2012 pratfall has given him a way to relate to voters. Most voters at one time or another have failed (albeit less publicly) and had to pick up the pieces. In doing just that and demonstrating leadership qualities, a persona unfamiliar to many non-Texans, he is laying the groundwork for a potential comeback. And we all know the media love to tear politicians down and then craft the “comeback kid” storyline. Whether it is sufficient to vault Perry into the upper tier of 2016 contenders remains to be seen.