As soon as Rick Perry uttered his infamous “oops” during the Republican presidential primary, most Americans likely figured the Texas governor’s political career would soon fade to black. Even before he forgot which federal departments he wanted to axe, Perry’s performance had been less than inspiring, and the aftermath only made things worse, culminating with an overtly homophobic ad complaining that “there’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military, but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.” I’m guessing once Perry finally suspended his campaign, those outside Texas imagined he’d return to Austin and quietly wait out the rest of his gubernatorial term.
But his latest decisions—including a string of more than two dozen vetoes—seems to only further confirm what most Texas insiders have been saying for months: Perry is paving the way for a second act and a second bid for the White House. And he’s not moving toward the center.
The series of votoes has placed him clearly on the right and in a position to play to a national audience. Republicans dominate the Texas Legislature, and any bill that passes through it by definition has significant Republican support. Among other things, Perry chose to kill a measure meant to stop wage discrimination against women and a bill to require transparency for dark-money groups—both issues Tea Party Republicans at the national level have opposed. (Significantly for state governance, he also vetoed measures to allow the legislature some oversight of the University of Texas Board of Regents, which has been at war with the school’s president, Bill Powers.) Perry also took out his veto pen for smaller line items, like nixing $1.5 million—pocket change in the budget—that would have funded the University of Texas’s Mexican-American Studies Center. In doing so, he could both take a small swipe at the university and also offer a nod to those in his party not so pleased by studies of Mexican history or culture.
Meanwhile, Perry is also burnishing his conservative credentials in other ways. During the regular legislative session, his presence loomed darkly over Medicaid expansion, preventing more moderate Republicans from considering measures that would increase healthcare coverage for low-income residents—one-in-four Texans are uninsured. He brought the legislature back for a special session to task them with passing redistricting maps—hoping to keep a couple Congressional seats in Republicans hands, which could win him some favors in Washington. He added to the agenda a charge to pass an abortion ban for all pregnancies over 20 weeks, which would make Texas among the most restrictive states in the country. Just to keep things interesting he also added a measure to prevent groping from Transportation Security Administration officials at airports—a major focus for Tea Party folks and followers of conspiracy-theorist Alex Jones. All of it puts Perry on the far right, socially and politically.
Economically, Perry’s making his case by going to enemy territory—liberal states on both coasts—and urging companies, in particular gun manufacturers, to relocate to Texas. He ran television ads in California and Illinois noting why businesses would be better off in Texas, and just yesterday prompted a confrontation with Connecticut's Governor Dannel Malloy when he started urging gun makers in Connecticut to relocate, after lawmakers passed gun control measures in the aftermath of the Newtown shooting. Perry’s interest in business has always been a big part of his political platform, as he often reels off the companies that move to Texas for its super-business-friendly climate. (If only consumers in the state got such a good deal.)
Plenty in Austin are speculating as to whether Perry plans to make another bid for governor or simply wait to run for president. At the very least, a presidential bid would give Perry a chance remake his national image and be remembered for something other than “oops.” While it’s hard to think of another politician screwing up quite that badly and then seeing national success, plenty of folks have come back from disappointing runs and recreated themselves. A run for president, and showing the country he’s not an idiot, would help Perry regardless of whether he’s actually got a shot at winning or simply angling for a presidential appointment. But Perry’s term is up in 2014, and he’s already held the office longer than anyone else. Another bid for governor is risky at best; Attorney General Greg Abbott, who’s made a name for himself suing the Obama Administration, already has $18 million in the bank and a significant staff ready for the 2014 race. Perry, however, currently commands a huge lead over Abbott in polls. Polls aren't nearly so nice when it comes to his presidential aspirations. Perry garnered a paltry 10 percent measure of support in the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll, while Ted Cruz, the state's newly elected senator and a Tea Party favorite, got a whopping 25 percent. Perry faces choppy waters either way, but there's no question he's gearing up for a run for something.
No matter what he chooses, it's hard to imagine anything will be worse than his last campaign.