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Rick Perry seeks Ronald Reagan mantle 50 years after iconic speech

Rick Perry seeks Ronald Reagan mantle 50 years after iconic speech
Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks at the announcement ceremony for the new Toyota North American headquarters, to be built in Plano, Texas. He later spoke at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library in Simi Valley. (Larry. W. Smith / European Pressphoto Agency)

Past and potentially future presidential candidate Rick Perry grasped for the mantle of Ronald Reagan on Monday with a scathing denunciation of President Obama that asserted the Democrat was so lacking in competence his tenure would usher in a new season of victories for Republicans.

Perry's address at the Ronald Reagan library in Simi Valley came 50 years to the day after one of Reagan's signature speeches, a sweeping defense of conservative beliefs offered just before the 1964 presidential election.

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"It's no wonder Americans are frustrated; we have entrusted immense power in government and America has never had less faith in its institutions," Perry, the outgoing Texas governor, said during the evening speech.  "The issue is not merely an adversarial agenda enacted by another party. This isn't just R versus D…. It's about basic competence."

Wrapping together myriad GOP criticisms of Obama's tenure,  Perry said, "In the last year we have witnessed government bungle healthcare for heroes, target our citizens under tax laws, fail to operate a website for the president's signature initiative, trade five terrorists for a soldier who disappeared under questionable circumstances, and leave the front door of the White House open where a crazy man could walk in. "

Perry, who has spent months attempting to rebuild his national image after a stumbling presidential effort in 2012, denounced Obama's energy policy and his handling of the economy and said the rise of Islamist militants in Syria "can be directly attributed to the neglect of the president." Domestically,  he echoed — without much specificity — Reagan's call for a federal government that shrinks  its  hold on Americans' lives.

Government "cannot replace the industriousness of individual workers, or assume the responsibility of families," he said. "For too long it has been expanded into our lives, played too central a role. But a simple fact remains: The larger government grows, the smaller our circle of freedoms."

Americans would punish Democrats in 2016 by electing a Republican president, he predicted.

"I doubt very much that after this season of disappointment, mediocrity and decline a slow correction in course is what voters are going to be looking for," he said. "I believe that come 2016, if the American people are given the choice, they will be ready for a clean break from the Obama agenda and anything like it."

Reagan's "A Time For Choosing" speech aired on nationwide television days before Barry Goldwater's landslide defeat. While it failed to help elect Goldwater — who lost  44 states — it set in motion the ascendance of conservative ideals as honed by Reagan, which culminated, 16 years later, in his election as president. The speech was delivered during the Cold War, as American involvement in the Vietnam war built up,  but its themes echo the terms of political debate even now. (Perry argued that recent aggression by Russia was reminiscent of that era. )

Reagan cast the 1964 election as one that would determine "whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capitol can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves."

The future president's assessment of the stakes involved in the 1964 election — that defeat would "sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness" — may appear exaggerated seen in retrospect. But the former California governor and two-term president remains a revered and unifying figure in the Republican party, one whose departures from current GOP orthodoxy are brushed aside.

It was the rose-colored-glasses vision of Reagan that Perry sought to invoke on Monday at the library that bears the late president's name.

Perry offered only a fleeting reference to one issue that links him with Reagan — a more moderate view than the rest of the party on how to deal with illegal immigration. The Texas governor, whose replacement will be elected next week, suffered hugely in 2012 from criticism by other Republicans about his support for some breaks for young people in the country illegally.

"If you ask me to name the number one issue confronting America, I would not say it is our porous border;  I would not say it is the weakest recovery since the Great Depression. I wouldn't even say it's all the challenges that are adding up overseas," Perry said. "The greatest problem of all is that in the face of these troubles so many serious challenges, we don't have the leadership to deal with it. We are experiencing a crisis of competence in America, and the people know it."

Perry gave no firm answer Monday as to whether he would seek the presidency. When asked, he gave a blunt criticism of his own star-crossed campaign in 2012. As he has before, he blamed back surgery in the summer of 2011 for making him "not physically or mentally at the top of my game" — but indicated he also was ignorant of the demands placed on a candidate.

"I was probably a little arrogant — 'I've been elected governor of Texas three times, what can be harder than that' — right?" he said. "The process of preparation, to be considered for the presidency, is a long and substantive path. I did not do that in 2011-12, and I would suggest I paid a pretty substantive price for that."

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This time around, he said, he has been engaged in a two-year program to learn about domestic and foreign policies.

"I may not run for president in 2016," he said, to a smattering of disapproval from the crowd, "but if I don't, the reason I don't run is not that I'm not prepared. I will be prepared."

For political news and analysis, follow me on Twitter: @cathleendecker

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