Oops, he’s running again! Rick Perry wows CPAC

Conservatives say Perry’s pain-free, rested and ready for 2016. That just shows how weak the GOP field really is

By Joan Walsh

Published March 7, 2014 6:33PM (EST)

Rick Perry                            (AP/Susan Walsh)
Rick Perry (AP/Susan Walsh)

Apparently the 2016 GOP primary roster is so broken that one of the most spectacular flameouts of 2012 is getting a mulligan. Yes, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is blaming his embarrassing public meltdowns on 2011 back surgery, appears to be taking another shot – and this time, his admirers say, he’s going to be the charismatic and conservative red-state wrecking machine we were warned about three years ago.

NRO’s Tim Cavanaugh kvelled:

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Glenn Beck’s “The Blaze” loved it too: “Rick Perry gives fiery anti-Obama speech: ‘It’s not too late for America.”

Even by mainstream reporters, Perry’s speech to the Conservative Political Action Committee was widely judged to be the most popular (at least so far; Mike “Uncle Sugar” Huckabee, who is actually the GOP frontrunner in some 2016 polls, has yet to charm the crowd.) Certainly his combination of full-throated Obama-bashing and broad-brush anti-government attacks charged up the crowd.

“Get out of the health care businesses, get out of the education business,” he shouted. “My fellow conservatives, the future of this nation is upon you! It belongs to you! You have the power to change America. [...] You are the path to the future, a light on a distant shore.” Perry praised his fellow red-state governors -- South Carolina’s Nikki Haley, Florida’s Rick Scott and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker -- but curiously left out Gov. Chris Christie, who didn’t exactly bring down the house with his own speech on Thursday.

Even before he wowed CPAC, though, Perry was being rehabilitated on the right. A worshipful Weekly Standard piece from Wednesday declared “his legacy in Texas may be that as a faithful and vigorous steward of the state's economic health during a period of plenty of uncertainty and turmoil.”

It also included some fan-boy fawning: “I take note of his appearance. He’s got a black sports coat over a black polo shirt, with dark gray pants. He’s wearing black-framed glasses, too. With all this talk about culture, he’s looking less like the gun-toting, big-talking Texan of the Republican presidential primary, and more like Steve Jobs.” Hmmm. The glasses were a hit at CPAC, too.

Looking back at 2014, Perry wants us to believe his lack of focus, forgetfulness on the stump and sometimes downright loopy behavior – like falling in love with a bottle of maple syrup in New Hampshire --  was entirely about back surgery.

Asked by CNN’s Jake Tapper what he learned from his embarrassing 2012 run, he quipped, “I won’t have major back surgery six weeks before the announcement.” But Perry’s team denied a 2012 Politico report that pain medication led to his erratic behavior. After a Politico e-book reported that Perry’s pain meds were “an open secret” on the campaign trail, and featured stories of campaign staff hearing Perry belting out “I’ve been workin’ on the railroad” – all the verses – in the mens’ room, campaign officials blasted Politico. Perry’s staffers have blamed pain and sleep problems, not medication, for their boss’s poor 2012 performance, but in “Double Down” John Heileman and Mark Halperin reveal he was also taking the drug Lyrica to reduce nerve pain, which can have side effects including dizziness, sleepiness and attention problems. Those conflicting accounts would get a lot of attention in a new campaign.

It wasn’t just Perry’s goofy campaign flubs that doomed him in 2012, however. His book “Fed Up!” was a sampler of Perryisms that made him an easy target, from calling Social Security an unconstitutional pyramid scheme to declaring all bank regulation “unconstitutional.” In fact, pretty much the entire 20th century was unconstitutional, according to Perry. His 2016 opponents would still have a lot of fun with the book, and with Perry’s legacy.

Then there are Perry’s occasional forays into decency, which cost him with his party’s far-right base. He lost favor with xenophobes by defending charging in-state tuition to successful but undocumented students in Texas last time around. This year, a weird CPAC applause line could come back to haunt him. Perry demanded that the federal government “defend our country, provide a cogent foreign policy, and what the heck, deliver the mail, preferably on time and on Saturdays.” Of course conservatives have starved the U.S. Postal Service in order to drive it out of business, and have long supported proposals to cancel Saturday service.

I’d look for Perry to say he misspoke on that – “oops!” – shortly.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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2016 Elections Cpac Cpac 2014 Editor's Picks Gov. Rick Perry Texas