When Rick Perry opened his presidential campaign with a dazzling display of what GOP consultant Alex Castellanos called "mad cowboy disease" -- threatening Ben Bernanke with ugly treatment if he ever ventured into Texas, questioning President Obama's patriotism, denying the global-warming "hoax" -- one of the Texas governor's greatest vulnerabilities as a candidate became immediately obvious: He enjoys nothing more than raising eyebrows (and hackles) with incendiary talk.
Whereas George W. Bush adopted a swaggering, plain-speaking populist persona, Perry -- the poor ol' farm boy from Paint Creek -- is the genuine article. Unless his savvy campaign guru, Dave Carney, can glue Perry's tongue to the roof of his mouth while he sleeps, the campaign is practically guaranteed to dish up an endless stream of heavily accented, overheated rhetoric. It's one reason the press, in Texas and now nationally, has always fawned over the man: As long as the subject doesn't venture into actual policy points, which usually elicits clichéd nonresponses, Perry is a human treasure trove of outrageous quips. Among other things, Perry loves to call Social Security a Ponzi scheme, and he has, over the years, called President Obama just about every printable name in the book. The federal government does not merely oppress the states and people; it assaults and attacks and bombards and invades and declares all-out war on them. And of course, as you've no doubt heard, there was that little matter of flirting -- and not just once -- with the notion of Texas seceding from the Union. Tea Partiers eat this up as eagerly as reporters do; the rest of us elitists will see Perry, in the words of National Review editor Rich Lowry, as "bizarrely retrograde" and "a byword for Red State simplemindedness."
In part because of his unquestioned entertainment value, and also thanks to the crafty timing of his entry into the race, Perry has been elevated to front-runner status by the media. In recent weeks, he's been made to look like the inevitable, and formidable, right-wing alternative to Mitt Romney in the GOP primaries. And he might well be. His three terms as Texas governor and his much-touted record of job creation give him a patina of credibility and leadership bona fides that Michele Bachmann, the other favorite of the Tea Party and Christian right, can't match. (I discussed this on Democracy Now! earlier in the week.) He is a vigorous, often compelling, force on the stump. And he can baby-kiss and backslap with the best of retail politicians.
But as I learned from covering him for nearly three years in Texas, Perry has serious liabilities as a candidate, and they don't begin and end with the tendency to shoot off his mouth (or his beloved Ruger LCP, with which he claims to have killed a coyote with while he was out jogging last winter). His ten-year record as Texas governor, along with his ideological and political eccentricities, will offer ample fodder for attacks from Bachmann on the right, Romney in the center, and, perhaps eventually, Obama on the left. (And nobody can possibly predict what he'll say about foreign policy.) Here's a short list of Perry's major pitfalls as the campaign begins.
The Texas Miracle Mirage
Perry's sole claim to a great accomplishment in ten years as governor rests entirely on the sandy soil of myth. In his years-long prelude to the presidential race, Perry has toured the country widely, touting his economic record in Texas -- and encouraging other states, and Republican parties, to take note and follow suit. (Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Rick Snyder in Michigan, Rick Scott in Florida, Bob McDonnell in Virginia, and John Kasich in Ohio are busy doing just that.) He can point to one number that is genuinely impressive: In the last two years, the state has added about 40 percent of the total number of new jobs nationwide.
It's impressive until you look at the kinds of jobs being created -- a whole lot of low-wage ones, that is. Along with Mississippi, Texas now has the highest percentage of minimum-wage workers in America. Perry credits job growth to a "fair and predictable regulatory climate" -- Chamber of Commerce-speak for ultra-light regulations -- which have led to both environmental atrocities and the nation's highest workplace death rate. The population surge in Texas has also created a huge cheap labor force -- and that, above all, is what has attracted big numbers of crummy jobs to the state. Even with all those new jobs, Texas's unemployment numbers are about the same as those classic examples of regulation and liberalism run amok, Massachusetts and New York.
Acts of God
During the most severe Texas drought in decades, Perry declared a "Day of Prayer for Rain" earlier this year. It didn't work, but that didn't douse Perry's faith -- or his emphasis, which will scare many a mainstreamer and libertarian alike, on invoking a higher power with a televangelist's zeal. Soon after asking two radical preachers of the New Apostolic Reformation -- a highly political Pentecostal movement -- to "pray over" him, Perry informed the world that he was being "called" to run for president. (For more on Perry's "Army of God," check out Forrest Wilder's excellent exposé in The Texas Observer.) His prayer-and-fasting stadium rally in Houston, The Response, had the governor hugging the necks of evangelical extremists who would give George W. Bush the heebie-jeebies. This ain't megachurch; it's mega-dominionism.
Perhaps more disturbing, even to fellow Christians, Perry has a habit of blaming the Lord for man-made problems, sometimes sounding positively Pat Robertsonian. The BP Oil spill in the Gulf last year, he famously declared, might well have been an "act of God." And so, it turns out, was America's economic downturn. On Texas televangelist James Robison's TV show, not long before he announced his presidential run, Perry let loose with this biblically (and politically) incorrect zinger: "I think in America, from time to time, we have to go through some difficult times. And I think we're going through some difficult economic times for a purpose: To bring us back to those biblical principles of, you know, you don't spend all the money. You work hard for those six years, and you put up that seventh year in the warehouse to take you through the hard times. You know, not spending all the money, not asking Pharaoh to take care of everybody ... because, in the end, it's slavery, you're just slaves to government." In case you're looking for guidance, Perry also offered Robison's viewers advice on how to pray effectively.
In ten years as governor, Perry does not have one single major legislative achievement to his credit -- a tribute, perhaps, to the strength of his Grover Norquist-style conviction that government should do as little as humanly possible. But some of his highest-profile policy initiatives are bound to make right-wingers wonder if he's really the tiny-government purist he claims to be. His greatest failed project was the Trans-Texas Corridor, introduced in 2002 -- a massive infrastructure (!) project that would have built a huge network to transport energy, goods, and people across the state. The corridor would have violated many a Texas landowner's eminent-domain rights -- and doled out huge contracts to foreign (!!) companies for construction.
In a move that has received national attention already, Perry tried in 2007 -- at the urging of his former chief of staff-turned-Merck-lobbyist -- to force all 11-year-old girls in Texas to get the then-new HPV vaccine. (He now says this was a mistake; the former lobbyist and aide, meanwhile, is heading one of Perry's SuperPACs.) Libertarians don't like that. Bachmann might also take aim at Perry's deal, in 2006, to lower property taxes (OK) in exchange for a new tax on businesses' gross receipts (blasphemy). And the fact that Perry, early in his tenure, signed into law a Texas version of the DREAM Act, allowing undocumented immigrants to attend state universities with in-state tuition, will surely be fodder for discussion in Limbaugh-land.
As Bachmann and Romney will undoubtedly be pointing out, Perry has lured companies to Texas and "incentivized" them to expand their workforces with huge government handouts from his Texas Enterprise Fund -- doling out some $380 million to companies, many of which have rewarded him lavishly with campaign contributions. Almost half of Perry's "mega-donors," reports the Los Angeles Times, have been generously "gifted" by the Texas government. Poultry magnate Joe Sanderson, to name just one example, gave Perry's campaign $165,000 and received $500,000 from the Texas Enterprise Fund to open a facility in Waco.
Perry offers his corporate sponsors appointments to state boards and commissions, a flimsy regulatory environment, and a continual chipping away at people's freedom to file lawsuits -- most recently, with a "loser pays" version of tort reform. "I'm a pro-business governor, and I don't make any apologies about it," Perry told Iowans this week. Big business loves him back -- especially corporate giants like homebuilder Bob Perry, "Superfund King" Harold Simmons, and the fabulous Koch Brothers. Despite his Tea Party and Christian Right rhetoric, corporatism is Perry's true and only ideology. It swells the campaign coffers but won't be so appealing to the populists.
The New Mississippi
When Texans used to lament their lack of good schools and social programs, the comforting cliché of last resort was, "Thank God for Mississippi." At least somebody had it worse. And under Governor George W. Bush, some Texas institutions got marginally better -- including public education. Under Perry's leadership, every measure of social and economic well-being -- with the lone exception of job growth -- has plummeted to Mississippian levels, and often lower.
"Thank God for Texas," denizens of the Magnolia State can now say, looking west to see the largest percentage of uninsured people in America (more than 25 percent of Texans have no coverage), the lowest high-school graduation rate in America, the highest carbon-dioxide emissions, and some of the highest teen-pregnancy rates and lowest Medicaid reimbursements. You name it: If Texas hasn't fallen to 50th in a particularly category, it soon will -- especially after Perry engineered $4 billion in cuts to public education and another $4 billion to Medicaid earlier this year. GOP primary voters might not care that Texas is the harshest place in America to be anything but rich -- but general-election voters will, if it comes to that (and if Democrats hammer home the point effectively).
States' Rights on Steroids
From Nixon and Reagan forward, the issue of states' rights -- often cast in kinder, gentler terms that don't echo George Wallace too uncomfortably -- has been a popular talking point for conservative Republicans. But no major politician has taken the concept to heart like Perry, whose Tea Party debut on Tax Day 2009 featured him shaking his fist at the feds outside Austin City Hall and bellowing defiantly: "States' Rights! States' Rights! States' Rights!" The potential problem for Perry, beyond the unseemly connotations of an angry Southern politician circa 1963, is that even many ardent Tea Partiers will have serious qualms about Perry's John C. Calhoun-like purism on the subject.
In Fed Up!, his anti-government screed published in 2010 -- a must-read for the hearty of stomach -- Perry called for repealing not just the 16th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, allowing federal income taxes to be levied, but also the 17th -- the one that called for U.S. senators to be elected by popular vote. (That's populism?) And yes, there's more: Following his states' rights cry to the logical extreme, Perry declared that California should be perfectly free to legalize marijuana if it wants, and that he has no problem with states allowing same-sex marriage -- or, in effect, any social policy at all. What will Christian conservatives make of this? It's safe to say that we'll find out before too long.