It’s funny how little you hear about Rick Perry anymore, even in Texas. His last legislative session is behind him, and in less than a year’s time he’ll be handing over the keys to the governor’s mansion after a fifteen-year lease. (Well, if you set aside the business with the molotov cocktail.) He’s gone from coyote-killer to lame duck, and all eyes are on his likely successors.
But he’s still here—still governing—and he’s still toying with the idea of running for president. Maybe he doesn’t have a chance, but maybe that’s not part of his calculus. Even a moderately competent presidential run would be a better nightcap on his career in public life than the—well, you know. The “Oops” business. If he does well enough, he might be a suitable VP candidate for a nominee who needs more deep-fried credentials with the base. And failed GOP presidential candidates who win renown with conservatives often cash in for lucrative paychecks: for their campaign assets, future media appearances, and speaking engagements.
Whatever his reason for running, he still seems to be setting it up. And he’s clearly trying to reinvent himself—starting with his Warby Parker-fied hipster glasses. His recent trip to Davos showed a new side to Perry, comfortable, he’d like to seem, among the world’s powerful and moneyed classes. Neo-Perry, if you will. And to that end he’s been making some noises that seem at odds with Perry the younger, the fellow who came to power in 2000. In Davos, he talked up criminal sentencing reform, adding that states should be allowed to experiment with marijuana decriminalization and legalization.
That brings us to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) where Perry spoke Friday. The conference is a major event on the Republican calendar, and it attracts politicians and activists from all across the country. By all accounts, Perry got a rapturous reception. Politico attests that he “delivered one of the best-received speeches” at the conference so far, “bringing the audience to its feet and eliciting loud cheers.”
The speech was quintessential Perry, chock full of passion and red meat. “Let the sleeping giant of American prosperity create prosperity again,” he exorted. “You are the path to the future—a light on the distant shore. You represent a renewed hope that America can be great again,” he told the crowd, nearly shouting, to a din of rapturous applause.
But it was afterward, when Perry joined a panel on criminal sentencing reform that included Grover Norquist and former NYPD commissioner (and felon) Bernie Kerik that he really distinguished himself—bragging, unusually, not on Texas’ economic success but on steps the state had made to reform its prison system.
“We shut a prison down last year. You want to talk about a real conservative government? Shut prisons down,” Perry said. “Save money. That’s what can happen with drug courts.”
Perry, of course, has increasingly little ability to influence policy in the state. But as a trusted figure in the conservative movement who can advocate in support of sentencing reform, a movement that might be otherwise associated with the widely-loathed (among conservatives) U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, he could do a great deal of good for the country. It would be a fitting last act.