The diagnosis of an Ebola case in Dallas may give Texas Gov. Rick Perry that rarest of things in national politics: The second chance to make a first impression.
At a press conference Wednesday announcing the details of the case, Perry was front and center -- playing the dual role of information provider and, maybe more importantly, calmer of nerves. “This case is serious,” Perry said. “Rest assured, our system is working as it should.”
For Perry, it's a return to the national spotlight that he left with a whimper in January 2012 when he ended a disastrously bad presidential bid. That candidacy, which began in August 2011 to much fanfare, collapsed, largely, because of Perry's inadequacies as a candidate. While his "oops" moment during a presidential debate came to epitomize his flailing bid, there were any number of other off -- or downright odd -- moments during his five months as a candidate.
Perry has spent virtually every minute since he dropped out of the race working to rehab his image. He got glasses. He started traveling to early caucus and primary states (again). He floated the possibility that he would run for president (again). All of it was met, generally, with a collective eye roll by the professional political class who viewed him as yesterday's news. Donors, activists and the media tend to want new blood in presidential races, not folks who are viewed as having had their chance and blown it. Perry was forever battling the "oh yeah, you're the guy who forgot the third federal agency you wanted to get rid of" narrative. And it was a fight he wasn't going to win.
Until, maybe, now. Being at the forefront of the fight against Ebola -- the first-ever case in the United States -- affords Perry an opportunity to bend the story about him heading into the 2016 presidential election. Rather than Perry as fumbling dunderhead, there is now a chance for a Perry as competent chief executive narrative to emerge. (Before I go any further, let me note: Perry's high profile on Ebola is not because of 2016 calculations. But, it absolutely impacts how he is perceived -- whether he intends it to or not.) There are very few moments that can draw the attention of the entire country anymore -- outside of the SuperBowl is there any regularly scheduled event that can? -- but this Ebola story can. Fear is a powerful driver.
We've seen this happen before with politicians. Rudy Giuliani became America's Mayor -- and a presidential candidate -- for his handling of the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie saw his popularity soar during and after Hurricane Sandy thanks to his aggressive handling of the state's response. It can work the other way too. President George W. Bush's numbers -- and reputation -- never recovered following his administration's botched handling of Hurricane Katrina. That same storm destroyed the political career of then Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco.
Perry will be in the national eye for, at least, the next week -- and maybe longer if the infected man winds up having spread the illness to others he came into contact with. That means daily appearances in front of the national media who have flocked to Dallas to cover the story. It means time on the national news and, probably, on the Sunday political talk shows too.
Taken together, it's a chance for Perry to reshape how he is perceived ahead of what he would clearly like to be another presidential bid in 2016. And that's a chance almost no politician ever gets.