One-on-one with Rick Perry

2016_Presidential_Checklist_Perry-0d7bcIt seemed like one of those movies with twin brothers played by the same actor, one with glasses and one without. There is the brash, undisciplined one and the nerdy, engaging one. In my case it wasn’t a movie but a 45-minute interview with Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

I was a tough critic of his performance in 2012, but so is he. He told me, “2011-12 was a frustrating, painful, humbling experience but not a bad one in the sense we sometimes learn the most when we are humbled.” He said one lesson is that you have to be physically fit for the presidential campaign grind. “Running six weeks after back surgery was a mistake,” he said flatly. He also made clear how much preparation is needed. He called a presidential campaign “one of the most difficult experiences. Even if I ran for governor four times, that is not enough to really prepare you.”

Perry is not making that mistake twice. He said he now is healthy and has already spent 18 months — with more to come — with experts in foreign and economic policy. Next year he will decide whether to run. If he does, it won’t be a rerun of 2012. “When I walk on that stage, people will see a substantially better prepared, more disciplined candidate,” he said.

In person, Perry is soft-spoken and comes across as serious and knowledgeable. More than once during the interview, I thought, “Where was THIS guy in 2012?”

His strongest suit remains his Texas record. Was there anything he didn’t get to? “If there were things I hadn’t gotten to, I wouldn’t be leaving,” he said. When asked about his greatest accomplishment, he reels off a list including reductions in ozone by 24 percent, 5.2 million new people coming to the state, leading the nation in job creation (one in 12 Americans live in Texas, he said and 3/8 of the private sector jobs in the country during his tenure were created in Texas). He quotes a Democrat, Richard Fisher, president of the Dallas Federal Reserve board of governors, as saying the single most important thing Perry did was tort reform. That meant “34,000 new physicians licensed to practice medicine in Texas and a huge impact on health care availability,” he said.

Perry said, “I look at results. Most governors don’t sit around long enough to see how it turns out.” On education, Perry didn’t sign onto Common Core with other states, but he nevertheless can boast of solid results. He rattles off the numbers: A 228 percent increase in Hispanic high school graduates, 118 percent increase in Hispanics in higher ed, and going from 33rd to fourth among states in math and reading scores.

When I ask him what he got wrong, he said that “in the early days [it was] learning to work with members of the other party, learning to work with members of my own party.” He points to the controversial decision on mandating that all 11- and 12-year-old girls in Texas get the vaccine for the human papillomavirus vaccine. He said the decision (which included an opt-out) was the right one but doing so by executive order rather than through the legislature was a mistake. He remains proud of the health protection afforded to girls and women. “We did have a substantive discussion across the state.”

Perhaps most striking is his adeptness in discussing foreign policy. He called the president’s actions (or failure to act) in Syria, Ukraine, Iraq, Egypt “all foreign policy debacles.” What has gone wrong? He said, “We are sending messages to people not our allies ‘If you hear a red line, don’t pay attention.’ ” Our enemies, he said, are getting the impression that the administration “is not going to impede” them. He mentioned a recent trip to Israel where he met with the prime minister and other high-ranking officials. “Moshe [Yaalon, the defense minister] was tactful but was clear in his disappointment” with the administration.

He pointed to Obama’s “lack of deep expertise” in foreign policy. By contrast, Perry’s been getting frequent briefing by experienced foreign policy hands. “I wish the president had that type of advice,” he said. He became especially animated when speaking about Iran: “I worry about stopping Iran from getting the bomb. When they talk about wiping the State of Israel off the map, I take that seriously.” Unlike Obama, who refuses to identify our enemy as Islamic fundamentalism, Perry is clear. He cites a phrase popular in human rights and among Middle East policy makers to explain the threat to Jews and then Christians in the region: “First they come on Saturday [the Jewish Sabbath] for the Jews, then on Sunday for the Christians.”

Perry scoffed at the Obama administration’s assessment that climate change is our biggest security threat. “I’m concerned about [jihadists] chang[ing] the temperature in New York City,” he said referring to the threat from weapons of mass destruction should Iran get the bomb or should new al-Qaeda states form. “He’s worried about something that may affect us 50 years down the road. I’m concerned [about a threat] right now.”

Perry talks about his potential federal agenda and what he’d bring to the White House in part two of the interview, to be posted tomorrow.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry is taking seriously his preparation for a possible presidential run, meeting with domestic and foreign policy experts. He is also campaigning for governors. In Iowa, for example, he said, “I’m not worried about [GOP Gov.] Terry Branstad. But we have an important Senate race there.” Branstad, who’s at the top of the ticket, “will raise the tide for everyone.”

Perry is more at ease, less forced in conversation than he was four years ago. He even looks and sounds different. Gone is the Texas swagger (and much of the twang). In his distinctive black eyeglasses, he looks more like a middle-aged businessman than a Texas pol. But that doesn’t mean he is without controversy. He got himself in hot water last week by comparing homosexuality to alcoholism. But unlike in 2012, he quickly corrected course at a GOP gathering in D.C.:

“I got asked about issues and instead of saying ‘you know what, we need to be a really respectful and tolerant country to everybody,’ and get back to talking about, whether you’re gay or straight, you need to be having a job, and those are the focuses that I want to be involved with,” Perry said at a luncheon Thursday hosted by The Christian Science Monitor. “I readily admit, I stepped right in it.”Perry said that the GOP needs to “be the party that’s going to talk to everybody, and say ‘listen, you may not agree with all of my positions but giving you and your family and your loved ones the opportunity to live a better life because we’ve created a climate in this country where you’re going to have a job and a good job and a good-paying job.”“If we do that then I think we’ll be successful,” he said, instead of the spending “all of our time being deflected over on this social issue or that social issue.”Perry also reiterated his insistence that gay rights and other social issues should be decided at the state level, saying Americans will be “happier” if they are allowed to “go live in environments in which they are most comfortable.”

That’s extraordinary when you think about it. It is now flat-out unacceptable on the national stage, even for a rock-solid social conservative, to demean gays or to demonstrate a lack of inclusiveness. Perry’s critics will cite the incident as evidence that he’s the same candidate who stumbled in 2012. But a fairer reading is that he and his advisers are more engaged and have a better political antenna to know when they’ve gotten off track. Moreover, it reveals a candidate who knows where he can make inroads and where he is unlikely to reach beyond his core base of support.

In part one of my interview with him, I noted that Perry now projects a more knowledgeable and humble demeanor than he showed in 2012. He also has a coherent vision of what he wants to do.

He told me that in Texas, the most important single thing he does is promote job creation by getting four things right — tax, regulatory, legal and education policies. But as a believer in the 10th Amendment, he would not go to Washington to micromanage education. So what would a federal agenda under Perry look like?

He began with a basic statement: “The fact is indisputable that you cannot implement an effective foreign policy if we don’t have the right economic policy.” Under President Obama, neither is getting done, he claimed. Obama, according to Perry, is the “anti- jobs president.” “His EPA is killing jobs,” he said. (He mentioned that the besieged coal industry is building a slew of new plants — in Germany.) Meanwhile, “President Obama is not paying attention to one of the basic requirements of the Constitution — to defend the country and secure the border.” That means items such as border security are being off-loaded on the states.

So if Perry’s revived foreign policy depends on a robust economy, how does he turn around the economy? The answer essentially is energy. Perry’s argument makes sense on several levels. It is an optimistic, pro-growth message. It will set up a contrast with the Democrats. And it is an area in which he is entirely conversant.

Certainly he wants to reform taxes and ease the stranglehold of regulation on employers, but the centerpiece of his vision for 2016 is a domestic energy revival. “The American economy can turn around quickly,” he told me. “It is going to be done by a thoughtful, expeditious energy policy. That means approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. It’s clearly sending a message on federal lands.” Domestic energy development itself creates jobs, but he sees more than that. “Results are what I’m interested in. The result would be to drive down the cost of power, ” he explained. “Then manufacturing comes back on shore.” He asserted that there is one thing that stands in the way of this brighter economic picture: “There is a small sliver of extreme environmentalists. They are putting people’s future in jeopardy.”

Perry also now shows greater concern for the impact that economic growth has on individuals’ lives. It is not just income from a job but “the dignity of work,” he said, that matters. He exclaimed: “To give people hope!” He got enthused as he described a young boy in Texas, a dropout born out of wedlock who now, because of a boom fueled by energy innovation, “earns $100,000 a year, has a three-bedroom, two-bath house and can send his kids to college. That is directly related to the policies of the state.” He compared Texas to New York. “The [natural energy resource] is not different. It is the environment above ground in Albany and Austin that is different,” he observed.

My sense is that Perry is an intensely competitive person who doesn’t want his last act in politics to be the awful “oops” debate moment in 2012. Until 2012, he was known as the most successful governor of his generation. If he continues his campaign preparation and shows the more sober, conscientious side I saw on display, he will be well positioned to at least restore his image and remind voters of his Texas-sized accomplishments. But with a divided field, no front-runner and a host of candidates with far less experience than Perry has, who knows how far he can get? After all, Americans love a comeback story.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn for The Washington Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.

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