Three years ago, a Texas reporter named Jay Root set out to chronicle the behind-the-scenes maneuvers that would land Governor Rick Perry in the White House. He couldn’t have guessed that, in the end, the story wouldn’t have much to do with ad buys or endorsements or personality conflicts. The real event, of course, played out in public, in the on-stage meltdown that gave Root the title of his 2012 e-book: Oops!
Yet that unforgettable moment when, during a nationally televised debate, Perry could recall only two of the three cabinet departments he proposed to eliminate, was just the final indignity in a short campaign full of them. Remember that ad in which Perry complained that “gays can serve openly in the military, but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school,” or the parodies it provoked? How about that rambling, free-and-easy speech Perry gave in New Hampshire that caused everyone to assume he was either drinking or still taking painkillers from his back surgery three months earlier? It was, according to James Carville, the worst campaign in American history.
But it turns out there may have been a behind-the-scenes explanation after all. Perry’s campaign had insisted all along that he wasn’t taking painkillers—which might have been the problem. According to Root’s reporting, the governor was a sleep-deprived zombie in the fall of 2011, thanks to back, leg, and foot pain, not to mention sleep apnea. He hadn’t recovered from the surgery as fast as he’d hoped. The morning before one debate, Perry told an aide: “I didn’t sleep a wink.” Then he went onstage and said this:
I think Americans just don’t know sometimes which Mitt Romney they’re dealing with. Is it the Mitt Romney that was on the side of against the Second Amendment before he was for the Second Amendment? Was it was before he was before the social programs, from the standpoint of he was for standing up for Roe v. Wade before he was against verse Roe v. Wade—he was for Race to the Top—he’s for Obamacare and now he’s against it—I mean we’ll wait until tomorrow and, and, and see which Mitt Romney we’re really talking to tonight.
Even that teen Miss South Carolina had to cringe.
But if you go back and watch the clips now, you can see the bags under Perry’s eyes. At the time Texans were baffled to see Perry so baffled. This is not the governor they’ve been watching for fourteen years now. Around here, Perry’s known for bluff and bluster, not delirium. Texans just don’t do shambolic.
Perry’s job now is to obliterate the nation’s first impression of him, and he’s been hard at work on that: talking about marijuana decriminalization with Jimmy Kimmel; showing up on the Sunday morning talk shows and in the New York Times Magazine; touring the border with Sean Hannity; visiting Iowa four times in eight months; picking a fight over foreign policy with Rand Paul in the op-ed pages of the Washington Post.
Much hay has been made of the governor’s new look, including the square-framed glasses he has been sporting lately. “Rick Perry’s run for the Republican presidential nomination was, arguably, doomed when he couldn’t count to three,” jabbed Noreen Malone in the New Republic. “Is it any wonder that since the summer, Perry’s been appearing in public wearing hipster-professorial glasses? Now this looks like a man who could remember at least ten pieces of information.” More potshots came when word broke that Perry, hoping to alleviate continuing back pain, had decided to take off his cowboy boots for good. “Tell Rick that boots can be purchased with normal heels,” Texas’s state land commissioner quipped to a reporter. “I lament the fact that our governor could now pass for a West Coast metrosexual and has embarrassed us all with his sartorial change of direction.”
Dress shoes…nerdy spectacles…does this all add up? When reporters ask Perry whether he’s running for president, he doesn’t play coy. “It’s a possibility.” “I’m not going to ride off into the sunset.” “Over the last eighteen months, I have focused on being substantially better prepared.”
That preparation has included long meetings with scholars at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and most of the major conservative think tanks. Avik Roy, whose brilliant work for the Manhattan Institute and Forbes earned him a spot advising Romney on health care policy, has been meeting with the governor, too. “I think that the media is underestimating Governor Perry,” Roy says. “If Perry does decide to run in 2016, I bet he surprises a lot of people with how improved he is as a candidate.”
Mark P. Jones, chair of the political science department at Rice University, thinks Perry will run, foremost, to restore his national reputation. The next twenty years will be a lot more pleasant for him if he never has to hear the word “oops” again. “While it is quite unlikely that Perry will win the GOP primary or the presidency,” Jones says, “he can still emerge from the 2016 primary process as a winner by running a solid and respectable campaign and therein largely erase the less than flattering image created by his failed 2012 bid.”
Perry’s most obvious asset, in a time when polls show that voters still care more about jobs than just about anything else, is the fact that the Lone Star State is booming. The governor travels the country—particularly in overregulated, slow-growth states with Democratic governors—talking up Texas, and his tours have sealed the popular image of the state as hospitable to business. (Although there’s still work to be done: Texas ranked thirtieth in regulatory freedom in the most recent “Freedom in the 50 States” study by the Mercatus Center.)
Democrats have tried to challenge the idea that Texas is an economic powerhouse, but they keep failing for reasons the journalist Erica Grieder lays out in her book Big, Hot, Cheap, and Right: What America Can Learn from the Strange Genius of Texas. The most common misconception is that the state’s numbers are inflated by the oil and gas boom, but Greider cites data from June 2011—when “the Texas oil and gas industry was at a high point”—that show the industry accounted for just 13 percent of job growth.
Some Democrats also try to argue that low unemployment in Texas just means a surfeit of badly paying jobs, but they’re misreading the effects of mass immigration by unskilled laborers. The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas put out a report in March showing that from 2000 to 2013, Texas has been the engine of middle-class job creation for the entire country. The rest of the United States added to the payrolls in the top and bottom wage quartiles, but actually lost 720,000 jobs in the lower-middle and upper-middle brackets. On the other hand, Texas created 811,000 middle-class jobs (out of some two million in all).
Democrats also cry that the Texas model—low taxes, low government services—leaves too many out in the cold. But the skies in Houston are blue, whatever you’ve heard. The schools do reasonably well, considering the large population of English language learners, and they do it for very low cost.
It’s true that a quarter of the population has no health insurance, but this could actually help Perry in the primary, given the unpopularity of Obamacare. You can trust that he truly does not think it’s his job to insure everybody. Unlike more than a handful of other GOP governors who have folded to demands to expand Medicaid, Perry makes the case that the program is broken, given that several studies have found that Medicaid patients suffer worse outcomes than the uninsured.
Instead, Perry’s approach to health care has been to try to lower costs, in part by limiting malpractice damages with a 2003 tort reform law that attracted so many doctors that even the New York Times took notice. At a speech I caught recently, he told the story of a doctor who had moved his practice from Arizona to Texas, thereby cutting his malpractice insurance costs from $77,000 a year to $7,000. “We are now approaching 34,000 more licensed physicians in the state of Texas than in 2003,” Perry told Texas Monthly recently. In a process that mystifies so many liberals, the increase in supply has kept prices down. Between 2003 and 2009, insurance premiums in Texas grew between 33 and 44 percent slower than in Massachusetts, according to a comparison Roy conducted. “The Perry-led reform of Texas’ medical malpractice system yielded dramatic results,” Roy concluded.
That focus on the bottom line isn’t limited to the doctor’s office. During Perry’s time as governor, the state’s budget has stayed roughly in line with inflation and population growth. The credit’s not all his: Texas has a weak governor’s office, the legislature is controlled by Republicans, and low taxes, with correspondingly reduced public services, have a long history. Still, it’s a track record of fiscal restraint that none of his competitors can match.
Some of Perry’s efforts to grow the economy, however, might not sit well with primary voters. The governor has convinced the legislature to put a billion dollars at his disposal in two economic development accounts—slush funds, really—called the Texas Enterprise Fund and the Texas Emerging Technology Fund. A state audit of the Enterprise Fund published in late September found staggeringly weak controls: hundreds of millions of dollars given away without applications or formal assurances that jobs would be created. By contrast, a proper job-creation program may give away just as much on empty promises, but it fills out all the forms correctly. The Austin political class, even the guys who helped Perry run it, feigned outrage, but that sort of crony capitalism has deep roots in the state. A New York Times investigation in 2012 found that Texas leads the nation in corporate welfare, with some $19 billion in giveaways each year.
Perry says the funds help close deals and create jobs. Lately, he’s been talking up a $40-million payment to Toyota, which recently agreed to relocate its 4,000-employee headquarters to a Dallas suburb. Toyota, however, is the rare company that couldn’t even pretend to be grateful for the sweetener, which amounted to a rounding error in the company’s $23 billion profit margin for the year. A Toyota spokeswoman told the Houston Chronicle that the incentive “wasn’t one of the major reasons” for the move, and its CEO for North America told the newspapers that he wanted headquarters to be closer to the company’s plants. “At any given moment, there are going to be some companies moving into Texas,” says Greg LeRoy, executive director of Good Jobs First. “What happens is he sees a few high-profile relocations, like Toyota, and he jumps to the front of the parade.”
The companies that Perry can more credibly claim to have lured with incentives and subsidies are responsible for a small fraction of the state’s job creation. LeRoy cites data for the first seven years of the Perry administration showing that Texas imported 28,375 jobs from other states, which is a gain of just 0.23 percent. “Almost all the net job creation over time comes from expansions and start-ups,” LeRoy says. “He’s clearly using a natural market event—he’s presiding over a large state economy—and he’s using it for political gain.”
For years now, Republicans have blurred the distinction between pro-market and pro-business, nowhere more than in Texas. There are signs that this is changing. In June, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost a primary election in Virginia to an unknown economics professor named Dave Brat, who ran a populist campaign against crony capitalism. The party’s leadership in Washington seems to be taking the message halfway seriously; for a minute it even looked like a few rowdy backbenchers had convinced their leadership to kill off the Export-Import Bank, which exists mainly to subsidize the exports of large American corporations.
The anger over crony capitalism might just be a Tea Party thing, but Jon Bond, a political science professor at Texas A&M, points out that the Tea Party is supposed to be Perry’s base. The governor is supposed to be the guy that “appealed to Tea Party conservatives, but he had political credentials that appealed to the Republican establishment.” Will voters figure out that so-called economic development is mostly just a multi-billion scam that lets politicians take credit for job creation?
However modest Perry’s chances might seem, two recent events seem to be pushing the narrative right in his direction. The first, of course, is the governor’s ongoing legal troubles. In September, Perry was indicted for vetoing the funding of the Travis County District Attorney’s Public Integrity Unit after its chief proved herself less interested in public integrity and more interested in public drunkenness. When she’s sober, D.A. Rosemary Lehmberg fires assistants who refuse to lie to internal affairs investigators and persists in unethical vendettas against Republicans such as Tom DeLay long after they’ve been exonerated. When she’s drunk, she drives all over the road, and then berates and threatens the officers who arrest her.
“Y’all are gonna be in jail, not me,” she said at one point during her infamous booking video. You might think that’s just the sort of thing lawmakers had in mind when they created a felony for anyone who “by means of coercion…influences or attempts to influence a public servant in a specific exercise of his official power…” A Travis County grand jury decided, however, that Lehmberg’s actions didn’t qualify.
Then came another Travis County grand jury to say that Perry’s actions—when he vetoed the funding for this dissolute public integrity unit after suggesting that Lehmberg really ought to resign—did count as criminal coercion. The man responsible for this novel legal theory is one Michael McCrum, a former Obama nominee for U.S. Attorney and a very special prosecutor.
Perry had been working under the assumption that governors have the authority to veto legislation. It’s an easy assumption to make, since the state constitution explicitly allows it, and it has been standard practice nationwide since the founding of the republic. Against this mountain of historical fact we are offered by McCrum a higher, mystical understanding of the law. Like some beardless Jerry Garcia, McCrum got shown the light in the strangest of places by looking at it right. Start with Texas Penal Code section 39.02, which prohibits officials from misusing government property in their possession. The right way to look at it is to let your eyes glaze over, wave your fingers in front of your face, watch the tracers, and then wait for the universe to whisper a secret directly into your soul. Or something. Because it’s not there in the text. I’ve tried squinting five different ways, and still can’t see how a law meant to keep bureaucrats from stealing office supplies has anything to do with veto power.
Yet McCrum wouldn’t be swayed from his hallucinogenic epiphany: this veto was a criminal misuse of government property because it, like, harmed the person who was supposed to get that property. He’s going to blow his own mind when he realizes what that theory means: any veto involving money is a crime. On its face, the idea is absurd, which is why liberals from former Obama advisor David Axelrod to Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz to the New York Times’s editorial board have all belittled the indictment.
But let’s rejoin McCrum on his acid trip and consider the nearly cosmic implications. He realizes that all of the governors have been breaking the law whenever they veto funding, and he must save them. “Stop,” he cries out. “You’re breaking the law. I’ll have to bring charges.” Then another McCrum materializes to warn our first McCrum that in threatening to accuse and indict the governors, he is illegally trying to influence the exercise of an official power. Then McCrum C shows up to tell McCrum B that he has just illegally attempted to influence McCrum A in the same way. Then D appears. McCrum’s trip has turned into a nightmare of infinite regression, like those fractal posters and M.C. Escher drawings beloved of acid freaks everywhere.
The problem here isn’t just McCrum: it’s bad laws. The Texas legislature meets for just three or four months every other year, and the lack of practice shows in its handiwork. Law professor and free speech expert Eugene Volokh points out that case law indicates coercion is only criminal when the threat itself is unlawful—e.g., “Let me go or you’ll be the one in jail!”—and that statutes reflected that understanding from 1989 until 1994, when the legislature mysteriously and thoughtlessly erased the distinction. A court would have to decide whether the distinction still exists. If it doesn’t, then all sorts of lobbying, opinion journalism, and routine politicking are potentially criminal. And that’s all Perry’s guilty of here—routine politics.
Then there’s, the child migrant crisis at the border. Perry has always been able to finesse the immigration issue, pounding border security without alienating the Latino voters who will eventually determine Texas’s future. In the last primary, the rest of the field tried to seize upon his support for a 2001 state law allowing the children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition, and Perry killed his own popularity by insisting that anyone who disagreed with him didn’t “have a heart.” That was a rare misstep. He usually has an intuitive feel for the sweet spot, which Northerners lack: hammer “increased security” all you want, just don’t start talking deportation.
When Perry announced in July that he was sending 1,000 National Guard troops to the border, he struck precisely the right balance—even if that balance meant being perched just over the edge of non-sequiturdom:
The plight of these unaccompanied alien children has rightfully captured the national attention as we learn the details of their harrowing journeys. Equally as concerning, however, is the fact that unaccompanied children only make up twenty percent of those crossing the border illegally. And as the brave men and women of our border patrol are pulled away from their law enforcement duties to give humanitarian aid, drug cartels, human traffickers, individual criminals are exploiting this tragedy for their own criminal opportunities.
When Brit Hume asked Perry what the point was, given that the troops couldn’t arrest anyone, the governor basically admitted that the operation was expensive theatrics. But theatrical doesn’t mean frivolous. “They need to be right on the river,” Perry told Hume. “They need to be there as a show of force, because that’s the message that gets sent back very quickly to Central America.” Perry understands that rumors and perceptions affect migration. Congress may not have understood the significance of its 2008 law requiring most unaccompanied child migrants to be released from custody—it passed unopposed—but Hondurans and Guatemalans sure did. The number of children coming illegally from Central America shot from 3,933 in 2011, to more than 20,000 in 2013, to almost 40,000 in the first nine months of the current fiscal year. Perry may have been the first American politician to notice.
Back in May 2012, he wrote President Obama a letter advising him that there had been a 90 percent year-to-year increase in child migrants apprehended over a six-month period. By “failing to take immediate action to return these minors to their countries of origin and prevent and discourage others from coming here, the federal government is perpetuating the problem,” Perry wrote.
The letter seems prophetic now, but the administration didn’t even reply to him, more or less dismissing Perry as a grandstander. Other Republican candidates may think they can get to Perry’s right on the issue, but all they’ll have is their talk, while he will have action and foresight on his side.
Not all tough talk is created equal, however. Expressing concern about terrorists from Syria sneaking across the border appeals to hardliners without alienating immigrants, but it’s also nonsense. Scott Henson, who writes the widely read Texas crime blog Grits for Breakfast, says that Perry tends to use demagoguery as political cover for sensible reforms, at least in the area of criminal justice. Perry trumpets his enthusiasm for the death penalty so often that nobody would think to call him soft on crime, which has allowed him to sign into law dozens of sensible bills that a Bill Clinton or a Gray Davis would never touch. These include laws establishing drug courts and expanding probation, parole, and mental health programs, while closing three state prisons. He’s reformed laws on jailhouse lineups, confidential informants, evidence discovery, and DNA testing. But more than any single law, Perry has ushered in a remarkable period in the history of the state, one in which Texas has begun to come to terms with the excesses of its hang ’em high jurisprudence.
Henson cautions that Perry’s role in many of the bills was more passive signer than architect or advocate. Would he push for sentencing reform at the next level? “Probably not, based on his record,” Henson says. “Although, he’s owning the criminal justice reform issue much more now than he has during most of his governorship, for what it’s worth.” That won’t be enough to get a libertarian to abandon Rand Paul, but it’s the sort of thing that makes Perry much more appealing than a generic tough-on-crime Republican. He didn’t sign those bills because they were good politics; he took a little risk because it was the right thing to do.
The same goes for Perry and entitlement reform. He was bold enough three years ago to call Social Security a Ponzi scheme. The way to get votes on that issue is to lie like everyone else. Perry’s honesty was treated as just another gaffe by reporters too lazy to look up the trustees’ reports on Medicare and Social Security.
The bottom line is that if Perry can stick around long enough for voters to take a good look at his résumé once jockeying for 2016 begins, he’s got a shot at becoming the consensus candidate. He may not inspire the excitement of a Ted Cruz or a Ben Carson, but he could be everybody’s second choice. The Texas economy continues to hum along like a well-oiled Toyota. The governor knows how to work the immigration issue without alienating Hispanics. He talks the talk on entitlement reform. If the legal case against him goes to trial, and barring a jury of Forrest Gump’s peers, he will be able to brag about having fought the law without the law having won.
All Rick Perry needs now is an opening—along with a good chiropractor and some comfortable shoes.