BY JENNIFER RUBIN
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry launched his second presidential race Wednesday with the release of a slick video emphasizing his executive leadership and a high-energy speech in aa airplane hangar that looked like a mid-race rally instead of a kickoff. The speech drew heavily on his military experience, and he was surrounded by Navy SEALs and the widow of “American Sniper” Chris Kyle. Perry was enthusiastic but serious and deliberate (eschewing the bouncy and sometimes frenetic delivery we have seen), no doubt an effort to present a very different image than he did in 2012.
He began with his biography of humble beginnings — raised on a cotton farm in Texas. His story provides a contrast to candidates like Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush and others who come from comfortable backgrounds. They are trying to appeal to “everyday Americans”; Perry tried to show he is one.
But this was also a speech about executive leadership, an edge he thinks he has over lightly credentialed opponents: “I have seen American life from the red dirt of a West Texas cotton field, from a campus in College Station, from the elevated view of a C-130 cockpit, and from the Governor’s office of the Texas Capitol.”
The emphasis on his military service and experience was striking and may be more central to his race than some expected. He then pivoted to his indictment of the president, painting a scene at the cemetery at Omaha Beach: “On that peaceful, wind-swept setting, there lie 9,000 graves, including 45 pairs of brothers, 33 of whom are buried side by side, a father and a son, two sons of a president. They all traded their future for ours in a final act of loving sacrifice. In that American cemetery, it is no accident each headstone faces west: west over the Atlantic, towards the nation they defended, the nation they loved, the nation they would never come home to.”
More so than any presidential contender, Perry focused on the failure of President Barack Obama as commander in chief, leading up to events this week: “Weakness at home has led to weakness abroad. The world has descended into a chaos of this president’s own making, while his White House loyalists construct an alternative universe where ISIS is contained and Ramadi is merely a ‘setback’ — where the nature of the enemy can’t be acknowledged for fear of causing offense, where the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism, the Islamic Republic of Iran, can be trusted to live up to a nuclear agreement.”
Perry, in essence, is accepting Sen. Marco Rubio’s premise that this will be a foreign policy election — but making the case that a governor, one tested under fire and with actual military experience, is the best bet for commander in chief. He gave every indication he is going to run right at the Obama-Clinton record. (“We don’t have to apologize for American exceptionalism or Western values. We don’t have to accept slow growth that leaves behind the middle class, and leaves millions of Americans out of work.”)
And he did not shy away from enumerating statistics to feature his economic record in Texas. He reeled off a list of agenda items — create jobs, have a “credible” plan to fix entitlements, develop U.S. energy resources and approve the Keystone XL pipeline, reform the corporate tax code to attract good-paying jobs and dismantle over-regulation (beginning with a freeze on new regulations) and address college and health-care costs.
By telling the crowd all the things he would do on his first day in office, including ending any nuclear deal with Iran, he emphasized his theme of doing, not just talking.
He certainly took a populist bent. He told unemployed and underemployed people, “I hear you.” He continued, “For small businesses on Main Street struggling to just get by, smothered by regulations, targeted by Dodd-Frank: I hear you, you’re not forgotten. Your time is coming. The American people see a rigged game, where insiders get rich, and the middle class pays the tab. ... Capitalism is not corporatism. It is not a guarantee of reward without risk. It is not about Wall Street at the expense of Main Street.” Tweaking Clinton, he called for a “reset” of American government. But more than distinct policies, Perry is pitching himself: “The question of every candidate will be this one: When have you led? Leadership is not a speech on the Senate floor, it’s not what you say, it’s what you do. And we will not find the kind of leadership needed to revitalize the country by looking to the political class in Washington.”
It was a high-octane opening, showing Perry as a more vigorous and serious candidate than he was in 2012.
Will it work?
He’ll have to deliver solid performances month after month and convince Americans that he is not only the best leader but also the most effective opponent to go up against Clinton. In a crowded field with many good candidates, that is a tall order.
The good news: As miserable as Perry’s experience was in 2012, the experience was invaluable and will give him a head start over first-timers.
Jennifer Rubin is a columnist for The Washington Post.