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Rick Perry’s high-octane kickoff

Rick Perry (Gabe Hernandez/The Monitor via Associated Press)

Former Texas governor Rick Perry launched his second presidential race with the release of a slick video emphasizing his executive leadership (“We have the power to make our country new again . . . A lot of candidates will say the right things . . . but we need a president who has done the right thing”) and a high-energy speech in a airplane hangar that looked like a mid-race rally instead of a kickoff. The speech drew heavily on his military experience, and he was surrounded by Navy SEALs and the widow of “American Sniper” Chris Kyle. Perry was enthusiastic but serious and deliberate (eschewing the bouncy and sometimes frenetic delivery we have seen), no doubt an effort to present a very different image than he did in 2012.

He began with his biography of humble beginnings — raised on a cotton farm in Texas (“Home was a place called Paint Creek. Too small to be called a town, but it was the center of my universe,” he said. “For years we had an outhouse, and mom bathed us in a number two washtub on the back porch. She also hand-sewed my clothes until I went off to college.”) His story provides a contrast to candidates like Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush and others who come from comfortable backgrounds. They are trying to appeal to “everyday Americans”; Perry tried to show he is one.

But this was also a speech about executive leadership, an edge he thinks he has over lightly credentialed opponents: “I have seen American life from the red dirt of a West Texas cotton field, from a campus in College Station, from the elevated view of a C-130 cockpit, and from the Governor’s office of the Texas Capitol.” The emphasis on his military service and experience was striking and may be more central to his race than some expected. He then pivoted to his indictment of the president, painting a scene at the cemetery at Omaha Beach:

On that peaceful, wind-swept setting, there lie 9,000 graves, including 45 pairs of brothers, 33 of whom are buried side by side, a father and a son, two sons of a president. They all traded their future for ours in a final act of loving sacrifice. In that American Cemetery, it is no accident each headstone faces west: west over the Atlantic, towards the nation they defended, the nation they loved, the nation they would never come home to.
It struck me as I stood in the midst of those heroes that they look upon us in silent judgment. And that we must ask ourselves: are we worthy of their sacrifice? The truth is we are at the end of an era of failed leadership.

More so than any presidential contender, Perry focused on the failure of President Obama as commander in chief, leading up to events this week:

Weakness at home has led to weakness abroad. The world has descended into a chaos of this president’s own making, while his White House loyalists construct an alternative universe where ISIS is contained and Ramadi is merely a “setback” – where the nature of the enemy can’t be acknowledged for fear of causing offense, where the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism, the Islamic Republic of Iran, can be trusted to live up to a nuclear agreement.
No decision has done more harm than the president’s withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. Let no one be mistaken, leaders of both parties have made grave mistakes in Iraq. But in January, 2009 – when Barack Obama became Commander-in-Chief – Iraq had been largely pacified. America had won the war. But our president failed to secure the peace. How callous it seems now as cities once secured with American blood are now being taken by America’s enemies, all because of a campaign slogan.

Perry, in essence, is accepting Sen. Marco Rubio’s premise that this will be a foreign policy election — but making the case that a governor, one tested under fire and with actual military experience, is the best bet for commander in chief. He gave every indication he is going to run right at the Obama-Clinton record. (“We don’t have to apologize for American exceptionalism, or western values. We don’t have to accept slow growth that leaves behind the middle class, and leaves millions of Americans out of work. We don’t have to settle for crumbling bureaucracies that target taxpayers and harm our veterans. And we don’t have to resign ourselves to debt, decay and slow growth. We have the power to make things new again. To project American strength again, to get our economy going again.”) And he did not shy away from enumerating statistics to feature his economic record in Texas.

He reeled off a list of agenda items  — create jobs, have a “credible” plan to fix entitlements, develop U.S. energy resources and approve the Keystone XL pipeline, reform the corporate tax code to attract good-paying jobs and dismantle over-regulation (beginning with a freeze on new regulations) and address college and healthcare costs. By telling the crowd all the things he would do on his first day in office, including ending any nuclear deal with Iran, he emphasized his theme of doing, not just talking. He certainly took a populist bent. He told unemployed and underemployed people, “I hear you.” He continued, “For small businesses on Main Street struggling to just get by, smothered by regulations, targeted by Dodd-Frank: I hear you, you’re not forgotten. Your time is coming. The American People see a rigged game, where insiders get rich, and the middle class pays the tab. . . . Capitalism is not corporatism. It is not a guarantee of reward without risk. It is not about Wall Street at the expense of Main Street.” Tweaking Clinton, he called for a “reset” of American government. But more than distinct policies, Perry is pitching himself:

Now is the time for clear-sighted, proven leadership. We have seen what happens when we elect a president based on media acclaim rather than a record of accomplishment. This will be a “show-me, don’t tell me” election, where voters look past the rhetoric to the real record. The question of every candidate will be this one: when have you led? Leadership is not a speech on the senate floor, it’s not what you say, it’s what you do. And we will not find the kind of leadership needed to revitalize the country by looking to the political class in Washington. I have been tested. I have led the most successful state in America. I have dealt with crisis after crisis – from the disintegration of a space shuttle, to Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Ike, to the crisis at the border, and the first diagnosis of Ebola in America.

It was a high-octane opening, showing Perry as a more vigorous and serious candidate than he was in 2012. Will it work? He’ll have to deliver solid performances month after month and convince Americans that he is not only the best leader but also the most effective opponent to go up against Clinton. In a crowded field with many good candidates, that is a tall order. The good news: As miserable as Perry’s experience was in 2012, the experience was invaluable and will give him a head start over first-timers.