AUSTIN — As he exited the presidential race last year, Texas Gov. Rick Perry uttered a memorable assessment of his performance: “It was the weakest Republican field in history, and they kicked my butt.” Yet, he might be coming back for more in 2016.
Perry’s campaign is best remembered for his one-word utterance on a Michigan debate stage in the fall of 2011: “Oops.” He could not remember the third of three federal agencies he wanted to eliminate. The meltdown was an embarrassing coda to a campaign that was already terminal by the time of this unfortunate brain lapse.
Perry announced last week that he would not seek a fourth full gubernatorial term in 2014. That surprised almost no one in Texas. He has served longer than any governor in Texas history. What does surprise many here and around the country is that his early exit from the 2012 race served only to whet his appetite for another presidential campaign.
The day after his announcement last week, Perry sat in the beautifully restored governor’s mansion near the Texas Capitol and talked about the state of the Republican Party and his future. Toward the end of our interview, I asked him how his lousy introduction to the national stage would affect his chances if he were to run again. His response: “You mean in the way Bill Clinton’s introduction was bad?”
He was referring to Clinton’s famous and interminable nomination speech for Michael S. Dukakis at the 1988 Democratic National Convention. I noted that Clinton’s moment was one address (however bad) at someone else’s convention, as opposed to a series of weak performances in debates by a declared presidential candidate.
“Listen,” he said. “America’s been a country of second choices.” Did he mean second choices or second chances? “Both,” he said. “Second choices and second chances. . . . If one performance or a series of performances pretty much blackballs you, then it does. But I don’t think that’s what this country’s all about.”
Perry believes he has a story to tell the country and will spend some of his remaining days as governor trying to deliver it to a national audience. He believes that his calling card for a possible second presidential bid is the vibrant Texas economy. “This isn’t an accident anymore,” he said. “It’s not a fluke.”
Perry is fond of citing the statistic that 30 percent of all the job creation in the United States over the past decade occurred in Texas, and he thinks he deserves some of the credit. “I actually have a blueprint that’s working pretty well,” he said. “Whether I run for president or not, I think it’s very important for this country to have an open and honest discussion about blue-state versus red-state politics, for people to really think about how is the tax policy, how is the regulatory policy, how does this legal environment in my state compare to another state.”
Perry’s Democratic critics say the Texas record is more checkered. Despite the growth in jobs, Texas lags behind many other states on services provided to those in the lower rungs of the economy. The percentage of people without health insurance in Texas is among the highest in the country, and the percentage living in poverty is above the national average.
Perry believes Republicans lost in 2012 because they did not deliver a compelling message on the economy, and he acknowledges that he did not do so in his campaign.
“President Obama is a very, very capable campaigner and, obviously, put a great campaign together,” he said. “I’m not sure he won the campaign because of his record as much as we probably lost it because of our lack of being able to express the hope for the future of improving the economy of this country.”
Perry’s 2012 campaign was undone, in part, because his rivals portrayed him as too soft on immigration. As politicians in Washington debate the future of immigration, Perry wonders why lawmakers on their way to photo ops along the border haven’t stopped in Austin to ask his views.
He opposes the recently passed Senate bill that includes a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Asked his position on the matter, he replied: “We have a path to citizenship. It’s been there all along. You can go get in line.” He said that he favors some changes to allow more skilled and other workers but that “the idea that we need to create some new, expedited path to citizenship, I don’t agree that we need to be doing that.”
He said he would focus almost exclusively on securing the border, which, he said, could be done “without building a 15-foot-high fence” and for a lot less than the $38 billion in border spending added to grease its passage in the Senate.
He seemed content not to address the question of what to do about the roughly 11 million people who are in the country illegally. “We’ve been dealing with them for lots of years,” he said. Would he leave them in the shadows? “I don’t know how you’re going to deal with them otherwise,” he added. “You’re not going to go round them up and send them back to their country of origin.”
Perry has said that if he runs for president again, he will be far better prepared than he was as a late entrant in the 2012 race. But he is an old face at a time when the party is looking to a new crop of candidates. Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), former Florida governor Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) and others draw attention. Perry does not. Even Sen. Ted Cruz, a conservative Texan elected last year, is drawing more notice than Perry.
Perry won’t decide until next year, but preliminary preparations must begin sooner. There are practical challenges to deal with early. Raising money will probably be more difficult for Perry as a former governor than it was as a sitting governor. His political team has splintered, and his 2012 campaign was notable for its infighting and dysfunction.
What Perry will be thinking in 15 or so months is anybody’s guess. For now, in the face of the skepticism and doubt about his prospects, he remains unbowed. Asked whether he thinks his performance in 2012 would be essentially disqualifying should he try again, he brushed the question aside. “Not insurmountable,” he said. “Not from my perspective.”