Above: Rick Perry backstage at the Reagan Library before former United States Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell's leadership forum.
Maybe Rick Perry’s hipster glasses cleared up his vision in more ways than one. Suddenly the guy who couldn’t count to three has become the voice of reason in the increasingly unreasonable Republican Party. After a lifetime of governing Texas like a bully — and a brief period as a national punching bag — Perry appears to have become a thoughtful person in his political twilight. Where was this guy for the last 20 years? Perry trotted out this new persona in May when Governor Greg Abbott ordered the Texas State Guard to monitor Jade Helm 15, a military exercise that some thought was a U.S. invasion of Texas.
Instead of sticking up for the military, Ted Cruz cuddled up to the crazy people, saying, “I understand the reason for concern” and demanding assurances from the Pentagon that it was not, in fact, invading Texas. It fell to Perry, who coddled secessionists in 2009, to point out that insinuating that the U.S. military could be party to an armed overthrow of Texas was out of bounds even in a party where many have a hard time admitting that the president of the United States is not in league with Islamic terrorists.
“You know, I think our military is quite trustworthy,” he said. “Civilian leadership — you can always question that, but not the men and women in uniform.”
Less noticed was when Perry threw states’ rights under the bus. In a July speech before the National Press Club, Perry — who once wrote a really bad book about the 10th Amendment — said he was fed up with Republicans who use states’ rights to deflect racism.
“I know Republicans have much to do to earn the trust of African Americans,” Perry said. “Blacks know that Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964 ran against Lyndon Johnson, who was a champion for civil rights. They know that Barry Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He felt parts of it were unconstitutional. States supporting segregation in the South, they cited states’ rights as a justification for keeping blacks from the voting booth and the dinner table.”
That same month in another speech in downtown Washington, D.C., Perry called Donald Trump a “cancer on conservatism” for “wrongly demonizing Mexican Americans for political sport.
“He offers a barking carnival act that can be best described as Trumpism: a toxic mix of demagoguery, mean-spiritedness and nonsense that will lead the Republican Party to perdition if pursued,” said Perry, though to be fair many would apply that description to Perry’s tenure as Texas governor as well.
None of this should be newsworthy. But these days basic decency is met with hurricane-strength headwinds in Republican primaries. Perry’s maturity is only remarkable because he’s running at a time when saying the indefensible is good politics for Republicans.
If Perry is doing this to boost his presidential campaign, it’s not working. A good poll for Perry is one in which he finishes above 1 percent. His fundraising is so bad that he can’t afford to pay his campaign workers. He’s the top pick by political insiders polled by Politico to be the first to drop out of the race. By the time you read this, he may have already exited the stage. He’s gone from 2012 frontrunner to “Oh yeah, he’s running” territory.
But winning might not be the point. He’s proven that he’s no longer the village idiot of the Republican primary. Now he’s just the wacky next-door neighbor, stopping by to criticize the top-tier candidates. In his electoral dotage, he’s become Kramer to Trump’s Seinfeld. Costanza? Dream on.
Those with long memories might marvel at Perry’s emergence as the voice of sanity in the Republican Party. We’re talking about the same Perry who, in the Trumpian fashion he now deplores, falsely claimed that unauthorized immigrants were committing thousands of murders and who pushed discriminatory voter suppression legislation and redistricting maps into law.
Perry’s transformation is far from complete. He recently called Planned Parenthood “an organization that rips apart and sells the body parts of aborted babies,” and his hypothetical to-do list for the White House starts with revoking the nuclear deal with Iran and “securing the border.” But for the most part, Perry is closing out his political career as a guy willing to speak truth to those who still have power, a development that tells us more about today’s Republican Party than it does about him.