At Conservative Confab, Rick Perry Reaches for Presidential Gravitas

Perry's eagerness and Gingrich's grim affect provided a strong contrast.
Perry's eagerness and Gingrich's grim affect provided a strong contrast.

Today’s attendees of the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s pre-session policy conference were treated to an unusual privilege—the chance to see two figures at the bleeding edge of Republican politics in the same room. Yes, you got it right: Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich, together again. The two sat for a lunchtime talk with Stephen Moore of the Heritage Foundation.

Every public appearance Perry makes these days is an opportunity to gauge how much progress he’s made since the “oops” days. In his formal speeches, and in media appearances, the answer is “not much,” more often than not. When he’s suitably relaxed and in a casual setting, like today, it’s a bit more complicated. You can see parts of his personality that would do well in another presidential run, and Newt’s dour presence on stage helped highlight them.

And boy, does Perry want it. Both men flamed out in the 2012 presidential election, but it’s easy to forget that Gingrich—who even at the time seemed to be one of the numerous GOP candidates who run for president solely to refresh their personal brand and juice their future speaking fees—did significantly better than Perry, who was running in earnest. Gingrich won two states, South Carolina and Georgia; Perry won some punchlines.

But Gingrich, who gives off a weirdly antisocial vibe much of the time, clearly doesn’t care anymore, if he ever did. Slumped in his chair like an overstuffed tourist in a beach chair, he launched into periodic wordy invective of the kind that briefly charmed Southern voters during the last go-round.

The EPA, he intoned to his audience, was a tool of “liberal ideological implementation” purposefully designed to destroy American industry. He called New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio a “quintessential nut-case left-wing fantasist,” while Perry, momentarily distracted, played with his fingertips. When Gingrich was asked for the first three things he would do as president, Gingrich told the crowd he agreed with Perry’s list, then told the audience they should buy his friend’s recently-written thriller, Day of Wrath, a chilling tale about ISIS and the Mexican border.

If Gingrich was dour, Perry was a bit of a doofus, but not in an altogether unappealing way. He had no books to sell. He spoke about the need for Republicans to peel away Democratic constituencies with a message of opportunity: The party of the donkey had failed to craft an economic message for the middle and working class, and his experience in Texas, he said, would allow him to take advantage.

But the party had to “not take the bait on social issues that pull us apart.” That wasn’t advice he had followed in his last campaign, when his advisors responded to a slide in popularity with crude gay-baiting. But he seemed to believe it well enough today.

In formal settings, Perry comes off as stiff and a little lost: Today, he wore the sunny effusiveness that wins rooms. While Gingrich dropped references to Faulkner and grimly intoned about the country’s future, Perry impressed upon the crowd his marketable background: “When the child of tenant farmers can become governor of Texas, that’s a great story.”

And while Gingrich talked about the necessity of getting teens to work to keep them out of gangs—”Benjamin Franklin was apprenticed when he was 13”—Perry told the room that “the best days of this country, the best days of this state are in front of us.”

He leaned eagerly toward the crowd to speak, and toward Gingrich when Newt spoke. When he concluded his last riff on the universality of the “Texas model”—he’s made a decision not to call it a miracle anymore—he clenched his fist in satisfaction with his message and delivery.

Still, it’s possible to imagine this Perry impressing rooms full of Iowans and South Carolinians. And though the 14-year governor might feel like old news, it’s worth remembering that the two GOPers most in the news now for their 2016 prospects, Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney, both last held office in 2007.

Christopher Hooks is a freelance journalist in Austin.

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Published at 6:03 pm CST