Thursday afternoon in Columbia, South Carolina, former Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) joined Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) and Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) for a “Presidential Town Hall” series that Scott is hosting with the Republican presidential candidates.
Seeking to gain traction in the polls in a crowded Republican field, Perry, one of the only 2016 candidates with military experience, spent most of the time discussing his immigration and foreign policy positions.
Perry took questions from the audience ranging from immigration, border security, what to do with Gitmo, and how to handle the threat from the terrorist group ISIS. He repeatedly criticized President Barack Obama’s lack of understanding of how the world works as an underlying cause for his disastrous foreign policy.
Scott asked Perry about border security, saying that it was a topic that “should be a part of that conversation” about national security.
The key, said Perry, was to look at “results,” as he sought to distinguish his fourteen years as Texas’s Governor from not just President Barack Obama, but impliedly also several of his Republican competitors.
“I hope Americans are looking, after what will have been eight years of a young and inexperienced United States Senator that we took a chance on,” said Perry. “We’re paying a tremendous price in this country, both economically… and foreign policy-wise as well.”
Perry then described his “experience of having dealt with the border for fourteen years as the Governor.” The border, said Perry, is 1,933 miles long, a distance equivalent to traveling from Key West, Florida, all the way up the East Coast to Maine.
“So when somebody says, ‘We’re gonna build a wall!’ I’m kind of like, ‘Have you been to the border?’ I mean, have you really been there?” Perry asked skeptically, drawing laughs from the audience.
“I have,” said Perry, describing how it had become “abundantly clear” that Obama was “not going to deal” with the “massive amount of people that were coming across our border,” who were “actually being driven by transnational gangs and drug cartels.”
“I told the president, I said, ‘Mr. President, if you don’t secure the border, Texas will.'”
According to Perry, they had spent “over $1 billion of Texas taxpayer money in that attempt to fill the gap that the federal government [had] left,” and had experienced some successes, such as a significant decrease in the number of apprehensions, but as Perry has repeatedly said, border security is a federal responsibility and this is not a permanent solution.
“There is nobody [running for president who] has more experience in dealing with this issue than I do, but this is not a state’s responsibility! It’s the federal government’s responsibility!” said Perry, hitting his fist into his hand for emphasis.
“They’re so confused in Washington, D.C., I mean, they get it so backwards… this really upsets me that there’s a billion-plus dollars that could have been spent making our public schools even more competitive, or giving [Texans] a tax cut. There’s so many ways that those dollars could have been spent, instead of trying to fill in where the federal government has failed us.”
“Here’s how you secure the border—it’s not about building a wall,” said Perry, slamming the “simplicity of saying we’ll just build a wall and make Mexico pay for it,” a clear dig at current frontrunner Donald Trump.
“I get the political rhetoric,” continued Perry. “But as a Governor of the State of Texas, I didn’t get to play with political rhetoric, I had to deal with reality.”
A plan based in “reality,” according to Perry, involves putting “the personnel in the right places on that border.” Along the 1,933 miles of Texas’s border with Mexico, this would include “strategic fencing in the metropolitan areas,” and—something that was currently missing—”aviation assets,” including “drones, fixed wing, rotor craft, with downward looking technology that allows us to analyze what’s going on, on that border 24-7, day or night, any type of weather condition,” coupled with “quick response teams” who could move quickly to areas where there were reports of suspicious activity.
“The border with Mexico can be secured,” said Perry. “We know how to do this, but we don’t have the will in Washington, D.C. We certainly don’t have the will in the Oval Office today.”
“You elect me your president, and I will assure you one thing,” vowed Perry, “I’ll secure the border, because I know how to do it.”
Perry has also advocated for rebuilding the strength of the American military, and a reversal of its “historic underfunding,” but he said that should not be viewed “as a call for increased war.”
“Just the opposite: you avoid war by demonstrating an overwhelming capability to win it,” wrote Perry in an op-ed back in April. “The relative stability of the Eisenhower and Reagan years prove this very point. The instability of the Obama years prove it just as well.”
In Columbia, Perry again sought to thread this needle of supporting an expanded American military without necessarily agitating for more war. A major underlying cause for the Obama administration’s foreign policy failures, said Perry, was because he did not know or respect the true cost of war.
Asked if he would keep the terrorist detention center at Guantanamo Bay open, Perry replied in the affirmative, calling the issue “about as simple as anything… the bad guys don’t need to be over here.” He then continued with a broader critique of Obama’s approach to foreign policy.
“This president does not understand how to connect the dots,” said Perry. “If he did, we would not be negotiating with Iran today,” he continued, as the audience applauded. “If he did, we would have the Castro brothers on their knees in Cuba, but we threw them a lifeline. The Cuban people aren’t living any better. As a matter of fact, I’ll suggest to you the Cuban people are probably even living worse.”
“This president does not understand, either he doesn’t have the experience of understanding how foreign policy works, or he is so philosophically out of tune with the vast majority of Americans. One of the two, either way, it’s bad for America.”
Perry then turned to the situation in Iraq, which he called a “wreck,” his voice rising in anger as he described the cause as “this president made a statement during a political campaign to move our soldiers out of there on a date certain and everything is going to heck in a hand basket over there.”
The creation of ISIS, said Perry, was the fault of Obama’s inability to understand how to “connect the dots” in his foreign policy strategy. “If we had left a force there to maintain the peace—we won the peace, we’ve got friends that paid an extraordinary price in places like Ramadi, and Fallujah—and we walked away from it so this president could say ‘I kept my political promise.’ He has served us so poorly, and we need a “President of the United States who understands and has a passion deep in their heart about what war costs.”
The “cost of war” was something that Perry took to heart: “I signed a letter a week from 2003 through 2010 to a Texas family who lost a loved one, either a young man or young woman, who lost their lives in that war on terror,” said Perry, his voice clearly emotional.
“I understand,” he continued. “Having worn the uniform of this country, I know what our young men and women go through. I had a young Navy SEAL that lived with us for two years, Marcus Luttrell. I know what this war cost. I’ve seen it in their faces. I’ve seen it in the families’ faces,” said Perry somberly.
“We need a president who understands that to their soul,” he continued, his voice cracking, “and that will never, ever put those young men and women in jeopardy and harm’s way unless we’ve used up every, I mean every, option that we have.”
However, added Perry, once those other options were exhausted, and military action was required, Americans needed a president who could be a decisive leader.
“We’re going to build an economy where we can build our military back up so that the adversaries know that if you cross that red line, there’s going to be an extraordinary price for you to pay, and America will go, and we will quickly and powerfully crush that opposition, and then we will come home.”
“That’s the kind of president we need in this country,” concluded Perry, as the audience applauded.
Scott, as Senator of an early primary state, will continue hosting the Republican presidential candidates for an ongoing series of town hall forums at various locations across South Carolina. According to the schedule on the website set up for the town halls, TimsTownHalls.com, Scott has already hosted former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-AR) and Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-LA).
Upcoming town halls include Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) on September 2nd, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) on September 7th, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) on September 28th, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina on October 2nd, former Gov. George Pataki (R-NY) on October 16th, former Gov. Jeb Bush (R-FL) on October 24th, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) on November 6th, Gov. John Kasich (R-OH) on November 11th, Dr. Ben Carson on November 13th, Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI) on November 20th, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) on December 7th, and Gov. Chris Christie on December 14th.
Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter: @rumpfshaker.