The first diagnosed case of Ebola in the United States, and the revelation that dozens of others in Texas are now being monitored, is a potential health crisis that gives Republican Gov. Rick Perry another real-time leadership test and a chance to look presidential — or ineffective — on a national stage.
The once and possibly future White House candidate has seized on similar opportunities before. He deployed 1,000 National Guard troops to the Texas-Mexico border this summer after assailing what he called the Obama administration’s inaction amid a surge of unaccompanied immigrant children pouring into U.S. territory. Perry also helped lead emergency response efforts during a series of hurricanes that have hit Texas since he took office in December 2000, and he threw open Texas’ doors to refugees in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
“There have been many times in his 14 years, given floods, wildfires, hurricanes and now with this health crisis, where he’s had a chance to learn what works,” said Robert Eckels, a former Harris County judge who worked with Perry to bring hundreds of thousands of Katrina evacuees to Texas in 2005. “No matter where he goes next, he will take that with him.”
Perry has been trying to rehabilitate his political reputation since his 2011 “oops moment” during a nationally televised presidential debate. Wearing professorial spectacles, he’s been studying with policy experts and traveling extensively, trying to show would-be Republican primary voters that he’s wiser, humbler and more seasoned.
The governor nailed the part as a calming presence during a Wednesday news conference on the Ebola diagnosis in Dallas, saying, “Rest assured, our system is working as it should.” But the same event later got dicey, when Dallas hospital officials standing alongside Perry acknowledged that they had initially sent patient Thomas Eric Duncan home with antibiotics, even though he reported that he had recently been in Liberia.
It underscored how precarious this potential opportunity is for Perry. Just as the Ebola case could boost him nationally if things go right, it could make him look weak if the virus spreads. Indeed, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a potential 2016 rival of Perry’s, and other Republicans have already begun criticizing the federal government for downplaying the Ebola threat — and Perry has potentially opened himself to similar attacks.
In an appearance on Fox News, Perry said, “This isn’t an outbreak, it’s one case,” and he praised the Centers for Disease Control for being a “very willing participant and partner in this.”
“Right now Perry’s saying and doing the right things,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “If he is ultimately able to shepherd and neutralize this situation, it will certainly benefit his 2016 aspirations.”
Perry spokeswoman Lucy Nashed said media appearances aside, the governor and his staff are working closely with federal, state and local health officials. Organizers say he postponed a scheduled political appearance Monday morning in Bedford, New Hampshire, because of Ebola-related “urgent state business” back home.
Perry’s critics say his actions are more about ego than leadership.
“Our hope is he starts to do what is right, which is step aside and listen to local leaders,” Will Hailer, executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, said of the Ebola case. “I don’t know if a bunch of photo-ops and jumping in the middle of it is going to help.”
During recent trips to Iowa and New Hampshire, where presidential primary season begins, Perry bragged about dispatching the National Guard to the border in August. That move has been cheered in national conservative circles, though some South Texas sheriffs and business leaders have worried about border “militarization.”
After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Perry made national headlines by striking a more-welcoming tone, helping to bring refugees to Houston’s Astrodome. State officials eventually found permanent housing for thousands who stayed in Texas, though internal emails later revealed that Perry’s staff sought to limit how many evacuees streamed into Texas while still protecting the governor’s image.
Perry has suggested he’s fine with voters judging his crisis-management skills, telling the recent Texas Tribune Festival in Austin: “You’re defined by events that you may never see coming.”