In a surprising twist, he looks like a conservative establishment candidate as the jockeying begins for the 2016 presidential race. He is still anti-Washington, still steeped in states’ rights and Tea Party rhetoric, still quite conservative, but not quite so eager to burn down the castle. He is turning into Cruz’s big brother: It’s the same family, but Perry wants to be the one you trust with the car keys.
Joke all you want, but watch: The governor is pretty good at this sort of maneuver. He was a Democrat who loaned his time to Al Gore’s 1988 presidential campaign, when the Republican nominee was a Texan named George H.W. Bush. Two years later, as a Republican, Perry ambushed the state’s popular agriculture commissioner, Jim Hightower, a Democrat, in a statewide race that set him on his current political trajectory.
In 2009, Perry was the first prominent Texas politician to catch the scent of the Tea Party, giving full-throated support in speeches that had folks thinking he might be a new breed of secessionist.
He repelled challenges from U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, an establishment favorite, and Debra Medina, an activist for Ron Paul and the Tea Party, in the 2010 primary for governor. That race proved the governor’s street cred with the hottest wave in conservative politics. He painted Hutchison as the embodiment of Washington politics and the Republican establishment in a state that was ready for something different. Medina tried to do the same to both elected officials, but Perry’s voice was the loudest, and he won without a runoff.
He wrote a book — Fed Up! — about his distaste for the federal government and his enthusiasm for the insurgent wing of the party and the power of the states to innovate.
That was the foundation, in some ways, for his entry into the presidential race the next year. He checked the boxes: Southern, evangelical, fiscal conservative, acceptable to the Tea Party, acceptable to much of the establishment and a proven campaigner.
It all fell apart. Perry was out of the running before 2012 even started. (He officially got out of the race in early 2012, well after he fell out of the running.)
As he rebuilds his national image, he has gently criticized both Cruz and Christie, and supported U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas — a known member of the Republican establishment — at a campaign event last week. Cornyn has not drawn a dangerous challenge, although there were efforts to recruit one. U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler, is a favorite of a strong Tea Party faction in his part of the state. He decided early on not to challenge Cornyn.
David Barton announced this month that he was turning away recruitment efforts. Barton, a former vice chairman of the Republican Party of Texas, is straight out of Perry’s chapter of the GOP.
Seeing the governor endorse Cornyn — an ally, but from the traditional Republican branch as opposed to the populist one where Perry has been perched — is a signal to both sides.
Perry doesn’t appear to like President Obama’s health care law any more than Cruz does, but would have chosen other tactics. “Everybody gets to go out and do their thing,” Perry told The Dallas Morning News when asked about Cruz. “That’s his thing. My thing is governing.”
Lest you think he has become a rogue liberal, he told ABC News on a recent trip to Iowa that Christie, who has a hot hand in politics after his recent re-election, might be no more than a local taste: “Is a conservative in New Jersey a conservative in the rest of the country?”
And do not ignore the cosmetic change. The Texas governor put those glasses on to add a little gravitas to the cocky demeanor that was punctuated with that famous “oops” two years ago.
It is a rebranding campaign. He is a couple of years older, more experienced, conservative but not ready to hold his breath until he turns blue. See if they’ll give him a second chance.
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