Rick Perry’s Return Could Be A Swan Song — or A Redemption Song

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Someone once said that second marriages are a triumph of hope over experience. As Rick Perry prepares to announce his candidacy, he can be grateful this doesn’t seem to apply to second presidential campaigns.

The good news for Perry is that he is arguably the most underrated presidential candidate in recent memory. This matters because we tend to measure a candidate’s performance based on whether he meets or exceeds expectations. Last time, this worked against Perry; this time, he hopes to benefit from being “misunderstimated.”

(***Before we continue, a quick disclosure: My wife consults for RickPAC — which, depending on your perspective, arguably makes me either uniquely qualified or disqualified to opine on Perry’s likely candidacy. I’ll leave that up to you.)

There are benefits to starting below the radar. This time around, Perry has been afforded the time and space to acclimate to the demands of a campaign (rather diving into the deep end, as he did last time). In this regard, one could argue Perry in a more enviable position than, say, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who perhaps peaked too soon, inviting coverage and scrutiny. In a “buy low, sell high” world, if Perry were a stock, you’d probably want to buy now.

That’s not to say he’s likely to win nomination, although stranger things have happened. But Perry can also “win” merely by running a solid race that puts his 2012 stumbles in the rear-view mirror. People love a good comeback story, and Perry may be poised to deliver. Let’s not forget that he is the longest serving governor in Texas state history (though Texas has a constitutionally weak governorship), or that there was a reason he was initially viewed as a rock star last time around. And let’s not underestimate the benefits of his having run before. Republican nominees rarely win the nomination on their first time out, and at least part of the reason is that there are lessons learned from a losing campaign. (The question is whether the lessons learned outweigh the baggage.)

To have a chance, Perry will have to pass a series of small tests. And then, he probably has to over-perform — he has to have a “moment” — in some high-profile situation (this is one of the reasons why getting into debates could be vital) in order to exorcise his past demons and quell skepticism about his mastery of facts and ability to recall information.

But it’s not as if he doesn’t have the talent to pull this off. Perry is utterly likable in a retail setting, and should he meet expectations in this wholesale media environment, he could then run up the score in places like Iowa and New Hampshire — where voters will then be receptive to his warm personality and charm. (Again, there is a competence threshold that must be passed before handshakes and retail politicking will matter.)

I know this sounds like happy talk. It’s entirely possible Perry’s candidacy won’t work — that he will simply reinforce, not undermine, negative stereotypes and perceptions created in ’12. I’m not in any way trying to downplay that train wreck — or the challenge it will be to overcome that. While his 2012 candidacy began with much hope and fanfare, he started too late, and ran out of gas even before the memorable “oops” moment when he couldn’t remember the third governmental agency he would shutter.

But the measure of a man isn’t whether he stumbles, but whether he gets up, and that’s why I think he has earned our respect. Perry didn’t respond to his misfortune by turning bitter. Nor did he blame the liberal media — or play the victim (the notion that his back operation contributed to his poor performance seems legitimate). Instead, he conceded the fact that he was unprepared, and that this was partly the result of arrogance on his part. In a world where politicians tend to avoid admitting mistakes or taking responsibility, this sort of introspection and honesty is refreshing. In the wake of the 2008 campaign, the consensus was that Sarah Palin should go back to Alaska, finish out her term as governor, and bone up on the issues. She didn’t. But Perry seems to have done just that. It takes a certain amount of humbleness to learn from your past mistakes. This strikes me as something we should look for in a leader.

I’m not suggesting Perry is the next Ronald Reagan, but, at least, he has a shot at a silver lining. To be sure, Perry had a much smoother path to being the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney in an admittedly weaker 2012 field. This time, not only will he have to face stiff competition from other conservative candidates, but he likely won’t be the only veteran (as long as Lindsey Graham is in the race), and he definitely won’t even be the only Texan. (Speaking of which, that Texas swagger might still be too reminiscent of George W. Bush to do him any favors — though the hipster glasses certainly do help.)

Look, nobody said this was going to be easy. A famous Head & Shoulders ad from the 1980s suggested that “you never get a second chance to make a first impression.” Rick Perry is banking on the fact that they were wrong.