Remembering Rick Perry, the Smart Guy Edition

Perry-2016 was designed to appeal to the moderate voter, but it didn't work out that way.
Perry-2016 was designed to appeal to the moderate voter, but it didn't work out that way.
Photo by Gage Skidmore

It was always going to be this way. Despite his infamous painkiller-fueled bid for the GOP presidential nod in 2012, we all knew that former-Gov. Rick Perry hadn't given up his dreams of presidential glory just as surely as we knew that he would never really make it very far. Still, what we find most intriguing about Perry's last presidential run, which formally ended last Friday, was how reasonable he actually managed to seem at times—and how little good that did him in the packed field of Republican contenders that continue to veer even harder to the political right. 

That's really the strangest thing about the Perry 2016 experience. This time it wasn't an "Oops" moment or two that undid his candidacy. It was actually the fact that Perry couldn't distinguish himself in a race where only the most stridently conservative blowhards (Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Sen. Ted Cruz have all mastered this style of rhetoric) were going to get any real attention. Last time around, Perry was the wild card on the stage, but during this brief run he tried his hand at being moderate and reasonable, the sort of candidate that brings (at least for these Tea Party-dominated times) a more nuanced approach to the complex issues he'd have to handle as president. It was a pretty nice thought.

Of course, not everyone bought into the transformation. Some chortled as Perry ditched his cowboy boots this time around, informing reporters that he couldn't wear them anymore because of his back. Perry re-emerged on the GOP presidential campaign circuit donning a pair if black-framed glasses seemingly designed to egghead-up his chiseled features, to give him the look of a professorial type just slumming it as the Lone Star State's longest serving governor. Then, just before throwing his hat into the ring, Perry got saddled with a pair of felony indictments. 

Still, we were eager to watch Perry face-plant once again on the national stage. (This isn't mean-spirited, we just watch politics the way some people watch America's other national pastime, baseball.) But as we've noted previously, Perry surprised us this go-round. Instead of the 2012-era sprinting-to-the-right Perry, we were given a Perry who was playing on the national stage as something of a moderate within the crowded field of primary candidates. 

Of course, Perry's 2016 run wasn't without his gaffes and oddities. There was that incredibly weird cartoon campaign ad. And, of course, it's pretty awkward to run for President with a pair felony indictments for abuse of office hanging over your head. And, like any good politician, Perry ducked his fair share of questions. Like in a New Hampshire forum in August, when Perry was asked about immigration, he attempted to dodge the question, and then the moderator just kept asking until it became painfully clear that Perry was never going to give a straight answer, as noted by Breitbart. Then there was the time Perry challenged Trump to a pull-up contest after Trump stated that Perry didn't belong on the main debate stage.

But Perry still managed to do some things that quite frankly surprised us this time around. For one thing, compared to Trump and Cruz, Perry managed to come across at times as reasonable and even a bit presidential.  

There was his fascinating speech on race at the National Press Club in July. “For too long, we Republicans have been content to lose the black vote because we found we didn’t need it to win. But when we gave up trying to win the support of African Americans, we lost our moral legitimacy as the party of Lincoln, as the party of equal opportunity for all,” Perry said. “It’s time for us once again to reclaim our heritage as the only party in our country founded on the principle of freedom for African Americans.”

Perry went on to say that the Republican party has been so focused on states rights and the 10th Amendment that they've forgotten they were once the party that championed the 14th Amendment (the one that provides a broad definition of citizenship and guarantees equal protection under the law). He even admitted that the federal government has an "important and legitimate role" in ensuring civil rights. This would be a, shall we say, interesting statement from anyone in the Republican party. But for the guy who spent his last years in the governor's mansion bucking against all things Washington D.C. and openly flirting with secessionist rhetoric whenever the mood struck him, it was one hell of a shift in tone for the longtime Cowboy-in-Chief of Texas. 

(Keep in mind that this is the same guy who called the president lazy, who compared Social Security to a "Ponzi Scheme" and who took numerous public "stands" against the federal government, including rejecting the Affordable Care Act healthcare exchanges which left more than one million Texans under the federal poverty line without health insurance.)

Perry didn't just tackle his party's problems with race. After Trump sounded off about how he was going to build a wall between Mexico and the United States to keep the Mexican criminals and "rapists" out of the country, Perry popped up on ABC's "This Week" with an unexpected take on the Donald's stance. “Donald Trump does not represent the Republican Party,” Perry said during his interview. “I was offended by his remarks.” This was an interesting position for Perry to take considering the stink-eye he got from fellow Republicans for supporting in-state college tuition for the children of undocumented immigrants. 

But in the end, Perry's attempt to become the voice-of-reason candidate doomed him to be overshadowed by the wanna-be commanders-in-chief with louder voices, more rigidly conservative views and more shocking hair. Now that his run has formally ended, some are writing that Perry was exactly what the Republican Party needed, but that even though he set out determined to avoid the mistakes of his last run, his history of easy wins in Texas (until the 2012 GOP presidential primary, he'd never lost an election) fundamentally failed to prepare him for the real rodeo of a national campaign.

Unfortunately, in a race dominated by the attention-hungry grandstanding wing of the party (those happy to win headlines by, say, calling Mexicans rapists), Perry-2016 was just another ho-hum Republican politician without the hard-right stump speeches or even the cowboy boots. Perry instead took another track and divested of all the things that, for better or worse, helped him grab the spotlight and hold onto it, particularly during his later years in Texas politics. On the national stage, he became about as interesting as wallpaper. 

Perry didn't stand a chance this time around. Think he'll keep the glasses? 

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