Energy department nominee Rick Perry: I regret calling for the elimination of the Energy department

A key point from this morning’s confirmation hearing. To think, if only he’d had this epiphany sooner, the “oops” moment that helped sink him in 2012 never would have happened.

There’s an easy joke to be made here about conservatives warming to the idea of big government in the age of Trump, but that would be unfair to Trump. It’s too easy to imagine Perry giving this same speech as President Ted Cruz’s Energy nominee. This isn’t a lesson about Trump corrupting tea partiers, it’s a lesson about how some tea partiers clearly never cared as much about shrinking the federal government as their hottest rhetoric suggested. (But then, we’ve known that since last year’s primaries.) This guy is actually reduced to pleading ignorance about the tasks performed by the department to explain away his earlier demand that it be eliminated, an admission that at least some of his small-government views are a product of bad information — even though he ran for president on them twice. I wonder which other federal agencies’ virtues he might come to appreciate if a tutorial on them came packaged with a job offer.

I have learned a great deal about the important work being done every day by the outstanding men and women of the DOE. I have spoken several times to Secretary Moniz and his predecessors. If confirmed, my desire is to lead this agency in a thoughtful manner, surrounding myself with expertise on the core functions of the department.

My past statements made over five years ago about abolishing the Department of Energy do not reflect my current thinking.

In fact, after being briefed on so many of the vital functions of the Department of Energy, I regret recommending its elimination.

A lot gets written about Trump’s ideological influence on the party but most of it is overstated for the simple reason that Trump himself doesn’t have a consistent ideology on many subjects. (On some, like protectionism, he does.) How much is Trumpism “influencing” someone like Perry and how much is it really just creating political space for him to reveal a less hostile view of federal government functions that he already held without fear of a backlash from the populist right? He once called Trump a “cancer on conservatism,” but maybe Trump’s not the cancer. Maybe he’s the one who diagnosed it.

One more tidbit from this morning’s Perry testimony:

I believe the climate is changing. I believe some of it is naturally occurring, but some of it is also caused by manmade activity. The question is how do we address it in a thoughtful way that doesn’t compromise economic growth, the affordability of energy, or American jobs.

In Texas, we have a record of taking action to address environmental challenges, including climate change. Despite a fast-growing population and one of the largest petro-chemical refining industries in the world, we saw our climate and air quality improve.

Man-made global warming is another subject on which he was more skeptical in 2011, when he was trying to make it through a Republican presidential primary, but revising his position now is of a piece with revising it on the importance of the Department of Energy. The GOP’s Senate majority is tight; although it’s hard to imagine Perry not getting confirmed, strong-form skepticism of climate change might make the Susan Collinses and Lisa Murkowskis in the caucus nervous and could galvanize the left into pressuring red-state Dems into blocking him. If he wants the job, he really has no choice but to make some concessions to the idea, just as he really has no choice but to oppose eliminating the department. But that all speaks to the larger point: So many conservative plans about what they’ll do once they retake power disintegrate upon contact with political reality. There’s not enough public support to undertake massive overhauls of government on the order of eliminating departments, just as there wasn’t enough public support for Cruz to stop Trump in the primaries. All you’re really seeing in Perry’s testimony is a stalwart grassroots righty adjusting to the facts of political life in Washington.

Update: Here’s Perry in 2014 (at 32:00) talking about climate change. He seems agnostic about whether natural activity or man-made activity is driving it but stresses that we can’t let policy strangle American innovation. It’d be interesting to do a comprehensive compare-and-contrast of his public rhetoric on various issues before and after his 2012, as he began retooling his message after that year with an eye to another run in 2016. His emphasis from 2013 to 2015 was on jobs, growth, and his Texas’s economic success, believing, correctly, that jobs would matter more to Republican primary voters than, say, the Tenth Amendment and red-meat tea-partyism would. A more measured view of climate change is of a piece with that.