Many Americans remember Gov. Rick Perry as the man who could not remember. He was the presidential candidate who famously forgot, in a nationally televised debate, the third federal department he wanted to shut down.
But this week, after Democrats scored a rare legislative victory on his home turf, blocking a bill that would have put strict limits on abortions, the national spotlight is revisiting the governor of Texas. And how he handles this moment could affect his hopes as a 2016 contender — and his reputation as a leading figure of the Republican far right — as much as the inglorious “oops moment” from his ill-fated 2012 run.
While the Democrats can stage rallies and demand abortion rights, it is Perry and his Republican-led Legislature who have the power to get abortion measures passed. And when his work is done, he no doubt will portray himself on the national stage as an unapologetic defender of bedrock Republican principles — the kind voters in those early primary states say are in danger of slipping away.
“The only way to get a second look is to become a champion of the conservative values that the base considers more important than anything else,” said Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “They’re looking for some one who is not going to tiptoe through the tulips. And Rick Perry seems to enjoy crushing tulips.”
It is still far too early to predict Perry’s future. He has not ruled out another run for governor next year. Nor has he definitively thrown his cowboy hat into the 2016 ring, though he is clearly contemplating it. Whatever he does, the fight over abortion rights in Texas will figure prominently into his political talking points.
The plotline features two twists that were entirely unpredictable 10 days ago: the spectacular failure of a restrictive abortion bill in the staunchly conservative Texas Legislature, and the meteoric rise of a filibustering Democrat — Sen. Wendy Davis, of Fort Worth — in the mostly reliably Republican megastate in the country.
What Perry did next was more predictable, at least for those who know him: He threw gas on the fire by offering personal criticism of Davis, a single mother who rose from humble beginnings in a trailer park to graduate from Harvard Law School with honors. Speaking at the National Right to Life convention in North Texas on the heels of the chaotic abortion debate in the Legislature, Perry said that Davis, of all people, should know that “every life matters.”
“It’s just unfortunate that she has not learned from her own example,” he said. Explaining the comments to reporters afterward, Perry noted that Davis’ mother, a sixth-grade dropout who became a single mother herself, might have chosen a different path and not had a baby.
“What if her mom had said, ‘I just can’t do this, I don’t want to do this’?” Perry said. The remarks enraged Davis’ defenders. They portrayed Perry as crass and mean-spirited, and have characterized the abortion legislation he seeks as part of the Republicans’ so-called war on women.
The anger against Perry among liberal activists was on display at a rally that drew as many as 5,000 people to the Texas Capitol on Monday. They wanted their voices heard on the first day of the special session, called by the governor, to complete work on the abortion restrictions and a few other matters.
People waved or displayed placards, banners and posters reading, “Proud of Texas, Ashamed of Perry.” About 400 people put messages on wire coat hangers, which organizers planned to deliver to Perry’s office. One message read: “Hands off my ovaries!!!” Another: “You’re being replaced, bro.”
This energy has given new hope to Democrats, who have not won statewide office since 1994. But Perry stands to benefit from the liberal outrage as well.
A day after delivering his remarks about Davis at the right-to-life convention, Perry pursued his theme on the radio program of Laura Ingraham, the conservative talk-show host.
“How many young men and women across this country didn’t get to accomplish what Wendy Davis just accomplished because they weren’t born?” he said.
Perry’s defenders say the angry response to his remarks is overblown. The reaction was cooked up by liberal activists and carried by news media outlets that Perry’s conservative base does not trust or rely on for news anyway, said Ray Sullivan, a consultant and lobbyist who served as chief spokesman for Perry’s presidential campaign.
Regardless of the blowback, Perry is expected to win passage of the abortion legislation, which would ban abortions after 20 weeks and greatly increase regulations on the facilities that provide them. Opponents say it could shut down nearly 90 percent of the state’s abortion clinics.
In 2003, Perry had to call three special sessions to pass a redistricting measure that Democrats tried to boycott, fleeing the state and temporarily denying a quorum. Then as now, Sullivan said, the governor thrives on the kind of combat the minority party is giving him.
“There are very few politicians who really enjoy the competition and stress of political battles or campaigns,” he said. “He loves them and is energized by them and has proved to be highly successful at them.”
It is not yet clear yet whether Perry can use the abortion battle to redeem himself from his failed presidential run. In recent appearances, he has continued to demonstrate a predilection for gaffes. In a recent speech delivered in Washington, he said Lebanon when he meant Libya. And it went unnoticed in the news coverage of his remarks about Davis that Perry erroneously said the Legislature had passed major abortion restrictions over the “past 100 years.” The written copy of the speech said, correctly, 10 years.
If he keeps reminding people why he blew his once formidable lead in the 2012 race, Perry will have trouble convincing Republican voters to give him another chance in 2016 no matter what happens in the abortion debate.
Matthew Dowd, former strategist for President George W. Bush, said Perry is on safe ground by arguing for abortion restrictions in a conservative state like Texas, so to that extent he has a winning issue.
What puzzles him is why Davis and her allies are allying themselves with Hollywood actresses and handing Perry the cultural and ideological battles he so desperately needs to revive his standing — at least with the right.
“The best thing to do with Rick Perry is to make people laugh at him,” Dowd said. “If you get into a sort of ideological thing, and into a back and forth, that’s how Rick Perry survives.”
New York Times reporter Manny Fernandez contributed to this report.