In 2006, country music singer and satirist Kinky Friedman was in such a snit at losing his independent candidacy for Texas governor (he won 12 percent) to Rick Perry that he refused to concede. “When I die, I am to be cremated and the ashes thrown in Rick Perry’s hair,” he snarled. Such was his contempt for the man he had dismissed as “Governor Goodhair” during the campaign.
But three days after the election he recounts that the governor “called to give me a gracious little pep talk, an act of random kindness effectively talking me down from jumping off the bridge of my nose.” Now Kinky Friedman, the Lone Star state’s self-described “Jewish cowboy,” has become a most surprising fan of Perry’s presidential candidacy.
“Obama has done for the economy what pantyhose did for foreplay,” he wrote in the Daily Beast. “Texas is kicking major ass in terms of jobs and the economy, and Rick’s fingerprints are all over it.” Rick Perry often has a disarming effect on his political opponents. “Running against Perry is like running against God,” marvels John Sharp, the Democrat who narrowly lost to Perry in a 1998 race for lieutenant governor. “Everything breaks his way. Either he’s the luckiest guy in the world or the Lord is taking care of him.”
Perry has won six consecutive statewide elections against Democrats in Texas over the last two decades. And that doesn’t even count his 2010 smackdown of Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison in the Republican primary. Perry, trailing by 20 points and with the entire Bush political machine from Karl Rove to Dick Cheney endorsing Hutchison, skillfully turned the election from a referendum on him to a critique of his opponent’s Senate record. He portrayed her as an elitist habitué of Washington salons and a backer of Wall Street bailouts so big her nickname should be “Kay Bailout Hutchison.” Perry wound up winning by 21 points, and swept to victory in the fall over former Houston Mayor Bill White by 13 points.
But Perry’s prairie populism, his firm religious convictions (“God is how we got here”), and his Texas swagger mark him as a man who will never be able to charm true liberals. They view him as the Rio Grande reincarnation of Sarah Palin and are just as dismissive of him as they are of her. “A ‘C’ and ‘D’ student who hates to govern, loves to campaign, and barely has a sixth grader’s understanding of economics would lead our nation into oblivion,” is how CNN commentator James Moore put it. “Bush without the brains,” was MSNBC commentator Ed Schultz’s dismissive conclusion.
Even some Republicans joined the pile on. “Rick Perry’s an idiot, and I don’t think anyone would disagree with that,” claims Bruce Bartlett, a former George H. W. Bush Treasury official. All of this led Politico to run a long feature asking, “Is Rick Perry Dumb?”
In the end, the article came down far more on the side of “no” than “yes.” He may be uninterested in the details of issues that aren’t on his political plate, but he certainly has the ability to focus. Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, a certified brainiac, recalled how Perry demonstrated knowledge of the nuances of economic policies in a meeting at which he told Texas businessmen how Louisiana had built its film industry. “He knew in detail what Louisiana had done and then pushed Texas to be more competitive,” Jindal said. He dismissed questions about Perry’s intellect as “elitism from those who only like Republicans who either raise taxes or lose elections.” Perry pollster Mike Bacelice says his client comes from the Ronald Reagan school of management: “Trust the right people and manage well.” Perry himself was eager to take on the issue of intelligence question raised by Politico and turn it around by saying the real topic should be the “dumb” policies of President Obama.
“What’s dumb is to oversee an economy that has lost that many millions of jobs, to put up unemployment numbers — over his four years will stay probably at 9 percent — to downgrade the credit of this good country, to put fiscal policies in place that were a disaster back in the ’30s and try them again in the 2000s. That’s what I consider to be the definition of dumb,” he told Sean Hannity on his radio show. That’s what is called political pivoting.
ANOTHER WAY IN WHICH Perry is turning a potential criticism into an asset concerns the frequent comparisons made between him and President George W. Bush, whom he succeeded as Texas governor in 2001. “I’m not sure voters are ready for another Texas governor,” says GOP pollster David Hill.
But Perry has worked to distance himself from Bush for years, which explains in part the animus many Bush loyalists have toward him. “This big government binge [under Obama] began under the administration of George W. Bush,” Perry has said. In his book Fed Up!, Perry makes his distance with Bush’s approach even starker: “The branding of compassionate conservatism meant that the GOP was sending the wrong signal, that conservatism alone wasn’t sufficient or worse yet, was somehow flawed and had to be re-branded.”
All of this has raised hackles among the Bushmen. “George Bush won crucial independent voters with his message of compassionate conservatism,” says Mark McKinnon, a key aide in both of Bush’s presidential campaigns. “I worry that today’s Republican firebrand version of conservatism is dragging the party so far right it will repel independent voters.”
Electability in the general election will also be a major argument against Perry by supporters of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who has inherited much of the GOP’s traditional business support and what remains of its moderate wing.
In late August, Mark Thiessen, a columnist for the Washington Post, revealed that Romney advisers were warning that “at a time of our choosing” they planned to attack Perry as opposed to the very idea of Social Security and Medicare. They would quote passages in his book that call Social Security “a Ponzi scheme” and note Medicare will need dramatic reform. Of course, such attacks could boomerang with GOP primary electorates, as Newt Gingrich learned when he criticized Rep. Paul Ryan’s proposed Medicare reforms as “right-wing social engineering.”
And Perry says talk about his unelectability is just that. He noted that the latest Gallup Poll had him trailing President Obama by only 47 percent to 45 percent at a time when only about half the country knows much about him. Mr. Romney, who going into this fall was far better known to the general public, nosed out Obama by a couple of points in the Gallup survey.
Perry also isn’t backing down on his more controversial statements. He told an audience in Ottumwa, Iowa, in August that he stood by his book. “Social Security is a Ponzi scheme for young people,” he declared. “The idea that they’re working and paying into it today, that the current program is going to be there for them, is a lie. It is a monstrous lie on this generation, and we can’t do that to them.”
Another Romney line of attack may be to note that Perry was a Democrat until he was just shy of 40 years old, going so far as to serve as Al Gore’s Texas chairman in 1988. But Perry is ready for such attacks, explaining that when he was growing up Texas was so Democratic he “never even met a Republican until I was 25 years of age.” As for Gore, Perry noted that in 1988 the Tennessee senator hadn’t fully ventured into the ozone layer on environmental issues and was the most conservative Democrat running that year. Perry himself says he was completely disillusioned with his ancestral party at that point. “I made both political parties happy when I switched,” he told me.
So far Romney’s attacks on Perry have avoided the overt use of sharp elbows and have centered on
sly digs at the Texas governor’s quarter century in public office. By comparison, Romney aides note their man has a record of creating private-sector jobs as a venture capitalist. “I won’t just have been somebody who watched jobs be created, I actually created jobs,” Romney told an audience in New Hampshire in August. “I spent four years in government. I joke that I didn’t inhale.”
IT WILL BE THE JOBS ISSUE — and Texas’ record in creating them — that will define Rick Perry’s presidential run. Since he became governor in 2001, the U.S. as a whole has had a net loss of private-sector jobs, while Texas — which has only 8 percent of the nation’s population — has had a net gain of 825,000 jobs.
Richard Fisher, president of the Dallas Federal Reserve Board, told me that if you look at the number of jobs created since the recession technically ended in June 2009, Texas has accounted for 48 percent of net new jobs created in the U.S.
Fisher also disparages claims that the jobs are all low-paying jobs at McDonald’s or Walmart, paying the minimum wage, or that they were primarily caused by the oil and natural gas boom. According to Tom Pauken of the Texas Workforce Commission, the annual median wage in Texas in 2010 for all occupations was $31,500 a year, only 7 percent below the national average. That difference is easily explained by the fact that Texas has a younger workforce than most states and a higher percentage of workers in lower-pay agriculture jobs near the border with Mexico.
As for where the job growth has been, three sectors of the economy have grown faster than the energy sector, which alone added 40,500 net new jobs in 2010. Last year, Texas added 57,900 new jobs in trade, transportation, and utilities, a total of 53,400 jobs in professional and business services, and 44,900 net new jobs in the hospitality industry.
For each of the past seven years, CEOs polled by Chief Executive magazine have rated Texas first in the nation for economic development climate and job growth. What is the secret of Texas’s success? Rick Perry isn’t shy about his answer. “It’s all about four points,” he told me. “First, don’t spend all the money. Keep the taxes low and under control. Have regulations that are fair and predictable so business owners know what to expect from one quarter to the next. And reform the legal system so that frivolous lawsuits don’t paralyze employers who are trying to create real wealth.”
If there is one issue which Perry has made a personal crusade, it is lawsuit reform. Working with the legislature, he has helped pass curbs on frivolous lawsuits, implemented a first-in-the nation system under which the loser pays all court costs in many lawsuits, and reformed medical malpractice law.
Dick Weekley, the co-founder of Texans Against Lawsuit Abuse, says Perry showed genuine political courage in resisting calls for watered-down reforms that wouldn’t have addressed the core problem. He recalls that in 2002 Perry vetoed a bill strongly supported by doctors that would have required them to prompt payment from health maintenance organizations. In the eyes of tort reform advocates, the bill was a Trojan Horse compromise negotiated between doctors and trial lawyers. “There was a huge response from physicians,” Kim Ross, the former top lobbyist for the Texas Medical Association said. TMA went so far as to endorse Tony Sanchez, Perry’s millionaire Democratic opponent in the 2002 election. “Perry sent a signal that he wanted real reform and would stand his ground,” Weekley told me. “Soon the medical lobbyists playing footsie with the trial lawyers were gone and the obstacles to real reform started falling.”
THAT SAID, Perry has shown less success in areas where he hasn’t focused his attention or priorities. Far from reducing subsidies to business, he has embraced them as a form of development aid to entice firms to move or expand in Texas — often with mixed results. On immigration, he has incurred the wrath of some Tea Party activists for, a decade ago, signing a bill allowing the children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at public universities early. In education, he has never really pushed for fundamental reforms such as school choice at the K-12 level, though he gets points for challenging the claims that pampered public universities shouldn’t share in budget sacrifices and efficiency efforts.
Perry also talked big but delivered little on health care. Early in 2010, following the passage of Obamacare, Perry made a big show of saying his state would have to pull out of Medicaid, the joint federalstate program that pays for health care for the poor. “We need to get out of it, before the added costs eat us alive,” he told the Wall Street Journal editorial board. “And with the budget shortfall we’re anticipating we may have to act this year.”
But when Byron Schlomach, a former Texas budget analyst who is now with the Goldwater Institute in Arizona, called a top Perry aide to inquire about any plans to withdraw from the program he was told the administration hadn’t looked at the issue at all. “I didn’t appreciate them much for that,” Schlomach told me. But he nonetheless remains a Perry fan. “Virtually every fake reform that Governor Bush claimed credit for, besides education, Perry made real,” he says. “Perry is way closer to the real deal than Bush ever thought about being. Find me a politician without warts and I’ll show you a horse with wings.”
Rick Perry has no prospects of being able to fly, but as a political war horse he has won every race he ever entered and brought him some policy prizes during his tenure as governor. He’s one horse no political handicapper would want to wager too much money against his going the whole way.