Time is a flat circle: Rick Perry is upon us again.
You didn’t think former Gov. James Richard Perry, of the Paint Creek Perrys, was leaving us for good, did you? It has been 30 years since Perry entered public service, almost half of which he spent as a governor whose level of dominance over the state verged on a personality cult. He entered the Texas House the year The Goonies came out; became agriculture commissioner the year of R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion;” and won the lieutenant governor’s gavel amid Y2K panic. A child born on the day Rick Perry became governor of Texas would now be behind the wheel with her learner’s permit, and would have known the state under other leadership for just four months.
Perry was never going to go away quietly, oops or no. If you were to make the case for his presidential ambitions, you could point to his survivor’s instinct and his long history of success as a political chameleon—first a Democrat, then a Republican; first a believer in certain parts of the infrastructure of big government, then a tea partier; a Christian conservative, or a Tenther libertarian. What are his actual beliefs? Does he have any, or is he motivated solely by his love of the performance of power? If the latter, it might be the most presidential thing about him.
His task this presidential campaign, which got its official start today at a hangar owned by the Million Air luxury aviation service company at the airport in Addison, north of Dallas, is this: to be taken seriously again. In 2011, his campaign was a last-minute, unfocused mish-mash, launched to exploit a gap in the GOP field. He delivered metric tons of red meat, but was outed as an immigration moderate (for a Republican) by Mitt Romney, and his campaign died long before his excruciating debate moment.
Now, his campaign seems more focused—premised on a couple of core messages. He placed a heavy emphasis on his respect for The Troops, and a coterie of retired Navy SEALs and veterans of wars dating back to World War II accompanied him on stage. Pete Scobell, a SEAL turned country singer, introduced the vets one by one. “Rick Perry has what it takes to lead,” said Scobell.
He was “the man who we need in Washington,” where “for too long, we’ve lacked leadership.” Obama has disgraced veterans. Implied in Perry’s focus on the military and his own service record: Few others in the Republican field have served in the military. Rick and Anita Perry had helped and comforted veterans, including the twin former SEALs Marcus and Morgan Luttrell, Scobell told the crowd. The virile Perry had even given Marcus advice on his “love life.”
When Perry appeared, he did so to the tune of a country-rap remix about himself—a probable first in the history of American political campaigns. As he spoke, he was flanked by the stern and solemn Luttrells as if they were his honor guard. Perry stood in front of an impressive backdrop: a giant C-130A flown in from Arizona for the occasion, at presumably significant expense. The plane was similar to the one he used to fly as an officer in the Air Force. The decision to launch the campaign in an enormous metal airplane hangar in North Dallas in June had its trade-offs: By the end of his long speech, Perry was sweating heavily.
Perry emphasized, at great length, his hardscrabble upbringing in Haskell County—the outhouse, his hand-sewn clothes—his time as a cotton farmer, his service as a rural legislator. Instead of lunging for the rawest, reddest red meat on hand, he preferred to simply reiterate the core values of the conservative base: “Our values come from God, not the government.”
He hammered on foreign policy—something he’s been doing more and more of since his last presidential campaign. He compared the pull-out from Iraq to America’s withdrawal from Vietnam. “Cities secured by American blood are now being taken by our enemies,” he told the crowd.
If America becomes confident again, America will vanquish its enemies, somehow. “We don’t have to apologize for American exceptionalism or Western values,” Perry said. On his first day in office he promised to halt “all pending regulations from the Obama Administration,” issue an executive order to build the Keystone XL pipeline and nullify any deal Barry signs with the Iranians.
He dinged big banks, while saying he would unleash the power of the American economy. (He reminded the crowd that “capitalism isn’t corporatism,” which is a little strange to hear from the man who controlled the purse strings of the Texas Enterprise Fund.) He offered a hand to “millennials,” who he called “forgotten Americans.” In sum, the American people’s faith in government had to be restored, and he, who needed a second chance himself, would be the one to do it.
Missing in Perry’s speech: a treatment of the two decades he spent in Austin, entrenching himself as the state’s top political club-wielder and enriching himself and his friends. Also missing—the word “indictment” did not come up. For example, Anita Perry did not say, “Rick Perry, my husband, is currently under felony indictment.”
That would have been a buzzkill. But it’s true. Plane or no, SEALs or no, back-to-basics messaging or no, there’s a serious chance that Perry will be knocked down by legal troubles as his campaign advances. But even if the case drags on indefinitely, or indeed if he’s ultimately acquitted, the indictment will weigh on him. If you’re a GOP-leaning plutocrat and you’re out to back the winning horse, you’d have to really be moved by the spirit to give your millions to a dude who stands a chance of being convicted, even if those chances might only be, say, 10 or 20 percent.
On the other hand, there are reasons to believe Perry will do better this time. Here’s one: The GOP field will likely have enough members by the time things get going in earnest to make up a pretty crummy football team. If Perry can meet a minimal level of Seriousness—in part by vacuuming up enough rich men’s money—he’ll look good by comparison. And recently, he hired Avik Roy of the Manhattan Institute as a policy advisor. (Roy is a serious figure in conservative policy circles who helped Mitt Romney in 2012, and his decision to back Perry is interesting at the least.)
But Perry doesn’t need to win the nomination to win—if he just does well enough to wash out the stains he left last time in the American popular imagination, it’s a victory. There are worse gigs to have in this culture than a former semi-successful Republican presidential contender, especially for those who love money and fame. Who knows, though? Maybe he’ll go back to flying.