Texas Governor Rick Perry speaks to reporters at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast.

'I Stepped Right In It'

The Texas governor talks compromise, social issues and how unprepared he was in 2012.

Texas Governor Rick Perry speaks to reporters at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast.

Perry's prepping for a 2016 bid at the presidency.

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Texas Gov. Rick Perry was nowhere near prepared to run for president two years ago – so says Texas Gov. Rick Perry. So he’s now preparing to run in 2016 even as he works through the process of deciding whether to actually do so.

He needs to keep preparing, apparently: He admitted Thursday that he “stepped right in it” with his recent comments comparing homosexuality with alcoholism, which he cited, without prompting, as an example of “being deflected over onto this social issue or that social issue” – something Republicans need to avoid, he said, instead focusing on jobs.

Perry said:

I got asked about an issue and instead of saying ‘You know what, we need to be a really respectful and tolerant country to everybody’ – and get back to talking about – whether you’re gay or straight you need to be having a job. … I readily admit I stepped right in it. … If we spend all of our time being deflected over onto this social issue or that social issue –

At that point a reporter interjected to ask whether he was advocating for a “truce” on social issues – a concept which got Mitch Daniels, then the governor of Indiana, into hot water with the social right – Perry dodged: “Listen we are an incredibly diverse mosaic of a country,” he said before suggesting that these issues are best left to the states. This is a notable re-emphasis for Perry who was defending his "alcoholism" stance as recently as Wednesday night; it's not quite a walk-back because he didn't renounce his weird view, but a tacit admission that it's a losing one to hold. Left unanswered: If a gay couple who were married in, say, California want to move to Texas (because of all the jobs Rick Perry is supposedly creating there), shouldn’t the state of Texas respect their legal status? Shouldn’t a marriage contract entered into in one state be valid in the others?

[SEE: Cartoons about the Republican Party]

In any case there remains a sizable portion of the GOP – Perry will see them if he goes to the “Faith and Freedom Conference” going on in D.C. right now – who won’t want to hear about how social issues aren’t national concerns but are distractions.

Perry spoke to reporters at a lunch today organized by the Christian Science Monitor and while he still hasn’t made a decision some likely areas of tension came out, including a couple of stances on things like social issues – talking about homosexuality was a mistake, he said – and the value of compromise that might set him athwart the proclivities of the party’s activist base. Could a Rick Perry 2016 campaign be focused on winning over the establishment?

His bid for the 2012 GOP nomination was “frustrating, painful and … humbling” he said, noting that the biggest lesson he took away from the experience was the importance of being physically and mentally prepared. Getting elected governor of Texas three times doesn’t prepare you to be president, he said. “Preparation is the single most important lesson I learned out of that process,” he said. “From the standpoint of understanding the global impact of our foreign policy, economic policy both domestically and internationally – there’s a host of areas of which I was ill-prepared to stand up in front of the people of the state of Texas and say ‘Choose me as your next leader.’”

[SEE: Cartoons on Ted Cruz]

Perry jumped into the 2012 race relatively late – August, 2011 – and fairly soon after having back surgery that left him uncomfortable and using pain killers on the campaign trail. Reflecting on the campaign at a post-mortem event in December, 2012 his chief strategist said that Perry either should have gotten in the race much earlier (giving him more time to campaign) or much later (giving him more time to prepare for the race). The outgoing Texas governor vowed Thursday that if he’ll be better prepared.

Of course when he did run Perry got into trouble for saying that those who opposed a Texas law allowing the children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at public universities didn’t “have a heart,” a comment that helped former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney get to Perry’s right on immigration and use the issue as a primary race cudgel. The fact is of course that Perry is on most aspects of the issue quite conservative and he repeatedly took the Obama administration to task Thursday for what he called the federal government’s inept border enforcement (he announced on Wednesday a “surge” of Texas Department of Public Safety personnel along the U.S.-Mexico border), saying that the administration had let the issue of unaccompanied alien minors fester until it reached catastrophic levels. He also said argued against passing immigration until the border is completely secure. “The American people do not trust the federal government [on immigration] … until they secure the border,” he said. “If you’re serious about getting the American people comfortable about the idea that immigration reform” occurring, he said, you also need to reform the Immigration and Naturalization Service. (Never mind that the INS hasn’t existed for something like a decade, its functions having mostly been absorbed by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency in the Department of Homeland Security.) 

It’s not clear to whom Perry refers when he says that “the American people” aren’t comfortable with immigration reform, given that polls generally show broad, bipartisan support for the compromise that the Senate has passed. Instead Perry seems to be borrowing a page from fellow Texan Ted Cruz’s playbook, claiming to speak for “ the American people” just because.

Perry doesn’t seem to think a lot of Cruz. When my colleague Lauren Fox asked whether the junior senator had changed the Lone Star State’s politics, Perry was dismissive, saying that Cruz hadn’t been in office long enough to have an effect. When another reporter asked if Perry, who will be 66 when the next president is elected, might be too old for a party that seems to yearn for a younger face, he replied that for “the Republican Party, having watched this young, inexperienced president bumble from scandal to foreign policy debacle after debacle is substantially more concerning to them than an individual’s age.” Translation: Cruz and fellow junior legislators like Rand Paul can expect to have their resumes compared to Obama’s if Perry does make a bid.

[ READ: Rick Perry's Homophobia Is a Choice]

He also took oblique shots at Cruz and fellow conservative insurgents who have argued for the kind of hard-line, maximalist positions that led to the federal government being shut down. “I’ve taken half a loaf a number of times when the alternative was no loaf,” Perry said. “That’s one of the experiences I bring to the table.” The problem with Washington at the moment, he said, is that too many people – hello, Senator Cruz – would prefer no loaf rather than the other side getting even a slice. This sort of talk is sweet music to many political commentators but could prove problematic in a GOP primary where activists are ever on the look-out for establishment betrayal of the cause. There, “compromise” is a toxic concept, as demonstrated by numerous polls which show that conservatives abhor it, the most recent example being a Pew study on polarization which found that 82 percent of liberals want pols who compromise but 63 percent of conservatives want inflexible leaders.

Taken together these comments – minimizing the importance of social issues, promoting compromise and dismissing the truculent younger generation of conservatives – make it seem like Perry is positioning himself to make an establishment-oriented presidential bid.

Stay tuned.