Rick Perry Is Not an Idiot

He’s a savvy politician and an inventive policy thinker. Dismiss him at your peril.

Rick Perry Glasses.
The former Texas governor has earned the right to wear his smart-kid glasses.

Photo by Christopher Halloran / Shutterstock

On Thursday, Rick Perry announced that he is running for the GOP presidential nomination. Having served as governor of Texas for an impressive three and a half terms, during which the Lone Star State thrived economically, you’d think that Perry would immediately be considered a top-tier candidate. So why isn’t he being taken as seriously as Jeb Bush, a man who hasn’t run for office since 2002, or Scott Walker, a governor who has accomplished far less, or Marco Rubio, a first-term senator who’s never really run anything? There is a simple explanation. Basically, people think he’s not very bright. But that’s simply not true. Perry is extremely socially perceptive, a quality that has helped him connect with people from many different backgrounds. He’s demonstrated superb political judgment, and he’s proved to be a pragmatic and creative policy thinker. Though no one would mistake Perry for an intellectual, he has the kind of smarts voters should be looking for in a chief executive.

That’s not to say that Perry doesn’t have some convincing to do on this front. This is not Perry’s first rodeo. When he last ran for president, in the 2012 cycle, he embarrassed himself rather spectacularly. Some of you will remember the time when Perry was unable to name the third of the three federal agencies he hoped to abolish as president during a debate in November 2011, and yes, that wasn’t exactly an encouraging sign. There are many Perry devotees who will note that Perry had back surgery in July 2011, and that he was in awful shape throughout his short-lived presidential campaign. Who can say?

What I can tell you is that apart from Perry’s doomed 2012 bid, he had never lost an election in a political career that stretched back to 1985. And this is not simply because Texas is a monolithically Republican state. Perry started out his political career as a Democrat, switching parties in the late 1980s at a time when the GOP was on the rise but Texas Democrats were still more than capable of winning statewide. In 2010 he faced a serious primary challenge from U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a formidable fundraiser who ran to Perry’s left, and a less serious challenge from Debra Medina, a Tea Party activist who ran to his right. In 2006 he had to navigate a tricky four-way race, during which he lost a substantial amount of support to Carole Keeton Strayhorn, a popular Republican who ran as an independent. Part of the reason Perry has been so politically successful is his willingness to embrace innovative approaches to campaigning. Sasha Issenberg, author of The Victory Lab, chronicled how the Perry campaign worked with a team of political scientists to determine the most efficient way to transform campaign spending into political support.

But a bigger part of Perry’s success is that, to paraphrase another Texas sage, he knows when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em. Though Perry had been involved in any number of political controversies over the course of his 14 years as governor, two of them stand out. Shortly after his 2006 re-election, Perry issued an executive order mandating that sixth-grade girls in Texas be vaccinated against the human papillomavirus—a decision that seemed unusual for a man widely seen as a social conservative. It later surfaced that Perry was close to a pharmaceutical lobbyist, Mike Toomey, who had pressed the case for the vaccine mandate. Regardless of the wisdom of the vaccine mandate itself, Perry was wise enough to abandon it within weeks, before too much political damage was done by his ostensible conflict of interest.

It’s not just that Perry knows when to give up on a losing cause. He also knows when to claim credit for a winning cause. You will hear many people claim that as governor, Perry led the way on criminal sentencing reform, an area where Texas has been a national leader. As Alexis Levinson of National Review reports, in 2007, state lawmakers decided to devote substantial resources to treatment programs for nonviolent offenders, with an eye toward keeping them out of prison. This effort proved successful, and Texas has continued to push the envelope on creating a more humane and effective criminal justice system. Under Perry’s tenure, three prisons have been shut down as the inmate population has fallen. Yet in the years before 2007, he was very skeptical about prison reform efforts, and had to be dragged along by Republicans in the state legislature. So when Perry touts Texas’ success in moving to community supervision and giving nonviolent offenders access to vocational programs, keep in mind that he’s a convert.

Perry has done more than just claim credit for good ideas. He’s advanced a number of thought-provoking ideas himself. On higher education, for example, Perry tried to find a way to square the circle between a desire to keep tuition low at public colleges and universities and also wanting to limit the burden on taxpayers. To that end, Perry called on Texas’ higher education establishment to develop a plan for a $10,000 undergraduate education. Perry’s goal was not just that students wouldn’t have to pay more than $10,000, but that by making better, more efficient use of new technologies, higher education institutions would deliver an education that would cost no more than that. Though Perry set an ambitious goal, his quest for a lower-cost B.A. appears to be making modest headway.

Less well-known is Perry’s equally ambitious 2001 call for “binational health insurance,” an idea that was lambasted by Rick Santorum in 2011 yet also has much to recommend it, as Kevin Williamson argued that year. Essentially, Perry made the case that health insurance plans that allowed people to purchase care on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border could drive down costs drastically, as low-cost medical providers in Mexico could outcompete their U.S. counterparts not just on cost, but also on quality. Moreover, this binational approach would generate employment opportunities in Mexico, which is not a bad thing from the perspective of those who want to give Mexicans with modest skills a good reason to remain in their native country. Half-baked? Perhaps. But when you consider how intertwined various Texas cities are with their Mexican neighbors, the idea of binational health insurance starts to make a lot of sense.

On economic development, Perry created two controversial agencies, the Texas Enterprise Fund and the Texas Emerging Technology Fund, that he’s used to woo employers to the state, in a decidedly un-free-market approach. One might object to Perry’s embrace of industrial policy—I certainly do—but on his watch Austin has emerged as one of America’s leading startup hubs, and there’s no question that Perry’s effort to attract tech firms big and small has been a part of its success.

Granted, Perry has his faults. Having served as governor for an unusually long time, he made more than his fair share of enemies, which is a big part of why he is currently under indictment. Though Perry knows Texas extremely well, it remains to be seen if he has as strong a grasp of the federal issues he’ll have to wrestle with as president. But one thing is clear: Perry is at least as qualified for the presidency as Bush, Walker, and Rubio, and we’d be foolish to discount his chances.