If Texas Governor Rick Perry didn't get you intrigued when he announced his candidacy for president on Saturday -- well, you'd best brace yourself for a long primary season. You won't be able to ignore him for long. His speech at the RedState Gathering in Charleston was vintage Perry, alternating between hardline, take-no-prisoners rhetoric and the occasional aw-shucks grin. The guy's got charm and an uncanny ability to get a friendly crowd fired up. Saturday's speech got the Red Staters so wild that when Perry said the key phrase -- "I declare to you today as a candidate for president" -- he actually had to motion them to quiet down.
Only a few hours after officially entering the race, Perry was already outpolling GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney at the Iowa Straw Poll. Romney wasn't really campaigning for the event, but he was on the ballot (unlike Perry) and had participated two nights earlier in an Iowa debate.
Perry, a "career politician" who's never lost a race, has both a gift for campaigning and a team with a gift for strategy. In his three races for governor of Texas, a job he inherited when George W. Bush exchanged Austin for Washington, he's packed his calendar with event after event, from small-town gatherings to giant auditoriums. He's bound to do well at retail politics in places like Iowa. None of his gubernatorial match-ups has been particularly easy: In 2002, he was outspent 3-to-1 by his Democratic opponent. In 2006, he faced a field with three other candidates, including a Republican-turned-independent state comptroller. The sitting governor squeaking by with 39 percent of the vote. By 2010, he had to face a primary against Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, one of the most popular politicians in the state who also had overflowing coffers. Each time, Perry won, a testament to how savvy campaigning can overcome what is, at best, a very spotty record in the eyes of progressives and even some conservatives.
Hutchison spent a significant amount of time and money begging voters to remember the political disasters of Perry's tenure. There was 2007, when he tried to mandate all 11-year-old girls get a vaccine for the human papillomavirus (HPV). While some public-health advocates cheered, conservatives rose up against the governor and killed the plan. Not only was the mandate an unpopular extension of power, but Perry's former chief of staff was lobbying for Merck, the only company that produced the vaccine at the time. Then there was his idea for a Trans-Texas Corridor, introduced in 2002, which would have created a gigantic, integrated network to transport energy, goods and people across the state. When people discovered the plan would be largely funded using private (including foreign) companies and toll roads, and that farmers could lose their acres to eminent domain, it soon turned politically toxic and died a slow death over the next eight years. It was a costly misstep that left Perry, a former Agriculture Commissioner, without the support of the powerful state Farm Bureau.
Not only were these proposals unpopular -- they also seemed to contradict the brand of small-government conservatism Perry now touts so loudly. He was, on Tax Day 2009, one of the first prominent politicians nationally to fling himself wholeheartedly into the Tea Party movement, decrying those who deemed Tea Partiers "extremists" and introducing a states' rights emphasis that is the heart of his campaign book, Fed Up! Based on Saturday's speech, Perry's main interest these days is keeping government small and financially responsible, while growing jobs. His critique of Obama-style government came straight from his good friend Grover Norquist's talking points: "'Spreading the wealth' punishes success while setting America on course to greater dependency on government. Washington's insatiable desire to spend our children's inheritance on failed 'stimulus' plans and other misguided economic theories have given us record debt and left us with far too many unemployed."
It's the small-government, light-regulation philosophy, Perry says, that has Texas is in such good economic shape. He will boast, again and again, that his state balanced its budget this year despite a $27 billion deficit -- without raising a penny of taxes.
The message of Texas' "economic miracle" is likely to win over a number of voters. Who doesn't like job growth in the midst of recession? It's just not a full portrayal of the governor's actual record in Texas.
The state is indeed without equal in growing jobs over the last two years. But Texas also ties with Mississippi for the highest percentage of minimum-wage jobs. Beyond those, as one Austin American-Statesman story pointed out, the education, health care and government sectors of the state together accounted for almost half of the state's new jobs over the last two years.
The billions in spending cuts that Perry proudly holds up came in those very fields. The governor spent most of this year's legislative session promising to veto any efforts to raise revenue. Instead, the Texas Legislature -- with Perry's blessing -- slashed the budget by 8 percent. School districts sustained an unprecedented $4 billion cut, leading to teacher layoffs. Government employees are losing their jobs in droves. It's not quite the rosy image Perry's campaign presents on the campaign trail. And the deficit was caused, in the first place, by a 2006 "tax swap" endorsed by Perry which lowered property taxes and replaced the revenue with a new business "franchise tax" -- which brought in far less and led to plummeting revenues.
In the past, Perry's campaigns have been stunningly effective at simply shrugging off missteps that could easily kill most other candidates. His campaign team has been more than willing to experiment with grassroots outreach, online organizing and whatever other strategies might help give Perry an edge. They can deliver devastatingly negative ads late in the race and keep Perry looking as friendly and well-coiffed as ever. (He didn't get the nickname "Governor Goodhair" for nothing.) In his gubernatorial campaigns, Perry has rarely stood before a negative audience; in 2010, he didn't even meet with newspaper editorial boards, and he refused to debate his Democratic opponent. It didn't hurt him. Perry offers his own neatly packaged narrative has substituted for positive media attention in conservative Texas.
With Saturday's announcement, Perry has opened the lid on a Pandora's box of press coverage. Should coverage move away from the horse-race side of the GOP primary, national reporters and political opponents may begin to actually pick apart Perry's record. There's a chance that this very gifted politician will actually have to engage in some conversations about his own policy successes and failures. There's also a chance that Perry will cannily sidestep the issues, or find a way to appeal nationally while ignoring tough questions from the press.
The governor of Texas has never faced serious national scrutiny before. Then again, the national press has never faced someone quite like Rick Perry.