WASHINGTON, D.C. – When it comes to personal stakes, there may be no Trump Cabinet nominee who has as much on the line with his confirmation hearing as Rick Perry.
Certainly, the political risk will be low at the former Texas governor's appearance before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources as he aims to become the next U.S. Secretary of Energy. This position — and Perry — are far less controversial than President-elect Donald Trump's nominations for the Justice Department and State Department.
But for Perry, his confirmation hearing marks his highest-pressure audience since his 2011 downfall.
It was lost on almost no one in politics last month when Trump tapped Perry to take over the very department that Perry forgot during a presidential debate in 2011 while trying to list the three he wanted to eliminate. The mockery amid the appointment news was immediate and brutal. Adding further fuel for quips was Perry's recent stint on Dancing With the Stars.
His allies shrug it all off.
“Rick Perry has been underestimated and attacked as a rural Aggie for his entire career," said former longtime aide and chief of staff Ray Sullivan. "He has been underestimated his entire political career. In Texas, that underestimation has proven to be fatal for his political and policy opponents, by and large."
That "oops" moment was indeed over five years ago. In 2015, Perry briefly returned to the presidential campaign trail, openly conceding he had not been prepared for his first White House run. He packed his revamped stump speech with statistics, historical references and boasts of the fine arts culture in Texas. So much so that some wondered if he was overcompensating for the failed 2012 campaign.
But the GOP field that year was so crowded that, when the first primary debates came about in August, Perry was relegated to an undercard slot for second-tier candidates, missing his shot at showing his more studied side to the prime-time audience. His campaign ran out of money soon after, and he ended his second presidential bid in September 2015.
The former governor campaigned relentlessly for former primary rivals – first U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, a fellow Texan, and later for Trump once he secured the GOP nomination.
All signals show that Perry is treating his confirmation hearings with the same level of preparation as that second presidential campaign.
After meeting with U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell earlier this month, Perry could be heard saying as he walked past the Senate chamber, “I gotta go study my lessons for the night. Preparation. Preparation. Preparation."
Sources familiar with that process say they are confident in his energy policy fluency, with topics ranging from nuclear energy to the environment. There has been at least one mock hearing, and Perry spent the last several weeks meeting with senators on the committee.
But as crucial a moment as Thursday will be in Perry’s career — and of interest to his longtime friends, adversaries and observers back home in Texas — his confirmation is hardly of much consequence amid the atmospherics and drama of the Trump transition.
The focus among Democrats in the last week centered mostly on the alleged Russian hack of Democratic institutions and on two other nominations: former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson’s appointment as secretary of state and Alabama U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions for attorney general.
“There are bigger fish to fry,” a Senate Democratic aide not authorized to speak on the record told the Tribune.
Being an afterthought could well mitigate the pressure for Perry, but Democrats are still likely to engage in some intensive questioning.
Well-known firebrands — U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Al Franken of Minnesota, both Democrats — will serve up questions on the minority side of the committee, and Democrats telegraph that ethics and environmental policy will be a central focus in their cross examinations. But Perry will also have long-standing allies in the room, including Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, who will introduce him to colleagues.
Back in Texas, Perry's detractors will also be watching.
“Rick Perry’s history here in Texas ... should alarm the senators,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, a Texas advocate on the environment, ethics and campaign finance. “The job that he would do as secretary of energy requires very significant and thoughtful analysis — where he’s managing the nuclear arsenal of the country — and his decisions are going to have a huge impact on the energy future of the country, and they can’t be made thoughtlessly or based on crony politics.”
“We can’t afford for him to have an ‘oops’ moment,” he added.
That dig is indicative that there will be no room for error for Perry's image. But the odds for the real end game — confirmation — are stacked in his favor in a GOP-controlled U.S. Senate.
His backers dismiss the old jab, arguing it’s an isolated sentiment among liberals who do not understand Perry, his political success in Texas or that he has beaten the odds before.
“It’s what his opponents do,” said Sullivan, the former Perry aide. “It’s fine ... it hasn’t worked.”
- Rick Perry’s energy legacy is more complicated than you think.
- Perry met with senators earlier this month, ahead of his Senate confirmation hearing.