Saturday, August 13, 2011

Perry and thrust

A man who once with some rhetorical gravity supported the idea of seceding from the United States now wants to run the United States.

James Richard “Rick” Perry, the 47th governor of Texas, announced this afternoon that he would seek the 2012 Republican nomination to bear his party’s tattered standard against President Obama in the election 451 days from now.

“It is time to get America working again,” he said at the Red State Conference in Charleston, S.C. “... The change we seek will never emanate out of Washington, D.C.”

“It is time for Americans to believe again – to believe that the promise of our future is far greater than even the best days of our past. It is time to believe again in the potential of private enterprise, set free from the shackles of an overbearing federal government. And it is time to truly restore our standing in the world and renew our faith in freedom as the best hope of peace in a world beset with strife.”

Big on the theatrical gesture — the thumbs-up sign, the relentless handshakes, the fist pumping, the animated pointing at supporters from the stage — Perry has overnight given a serious, and much-needed, jolt of populist optic energy to the GOP field’s baseline emotional power supply. A large and not unattractive man, whom the late great Molly Ivins once dubbed “Governor Goodhair,” Perry relishes the physicality of American retail politics. In appearances made in the runup to the Saturday announcement, Perry blew more air kisses than Sarkozy.

His stump speeches, with the governor invoking “Amen” in all the right places, point to a man unafraid either to acknowledge his humble beginnings as a son of sharecroppers from Paint Creek, or to wear his Christian heritage proudly; he’ll be a hit with rural voters and evangelicals in the South and, quite probably, with religious conservatives voting next year in the Iowa caucuses.

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Not that the governor can expect a free ride. Behind the buoyant public mein, there’s a biography. Behind the candidate seeking the highest office is the record of performance for the job he’s already got. For Perry, the facts may be troubling things.

Back in June, and no doubt anticipating a Perry run, Abby Rapaport of The New Republic, wrote a deep-in-the-weeds profile of the governor and his policies that’s likely to give supporters of Perry’s pro-business, pro-growth agenda considerable pause:

The Texas budget for the next two years is a mess of accounting tricks and gutted programs, thanks to an unprecedented budget shortfall. ... Operating at a structural deficit, the state has even begun to attack funding in the once-hallowed ground of education. And while Perry has spent a good bit of June on his non-campaign-campaign, state lawmakers from both parties are fighting tooth-and-nail to legislate around his dictums.

Although he campaigned in 2010 on the premise that, as he told the Associated Press, “Texas is better off than practically any state in the country,” Perry, along with the rest of the state, soon discovered that Texas’s budget gap—$27 billion short of what it would need to maintain its already lean services in the next biennium—was among the worst in the nation. Luckily, Texas did have a rainy day fund—over $9 billion saved up for “economic stabilization.”

Some lawmakers, including many Republicans in the state Senate, advocated using the fund to prevent or at least soften cuts to education and health care. But Perry, who had turned “preserving the rainy day fund” into an applause line, stood firm in refusing to use it to plug holes in the budget for 2012-13. As a result, the budget cuts were draconian—initial proposals cut almost 20 percent from public schools and proposed 30 percent cuts to Medicaid providers.

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Perry has been a reliable champion of oil and gas industries. He went so far in May 2010 as to propose that the disastrous BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was “just an act of God that occurred.” “From time to time there are going to be things that occur that are acts of God that cannot be prevented,” Perry said to the Chamber of Commerce in Washington. He’s generally been an environmental obstructionist, opposing federal efforts to advance EPA greenhouse gas emissions regulations, and fighting White House moves to regulate offshore drilling after the BP disaster.

Perry shored up his conservative bona fides in ways that are bound to antagonize relations with his state’s 2 million Latino voters. Perry backed the state Department of Public Safety's program to request valid residency documents from driver's license applicants who are not American citizens, not likely to endear him to Latino voters across the demographic spectrum, in the primaries or the general, should he get that far.

The state Senate voted to pass the bill on a party line vote, 19 to 12, The Texas Tribune reported on June 15.

Senate Bill 1 became law in July. Police officers in Texas are now empowered to inquire about the immigration status of anyone arrested or legally detained.

Early in the year, Perry presented the Texas state legislature with a package of initiatives intended to get rid of so-called “sanctuary cities” within Texas — a package Perry tried to fast-track with the designation of ”emergency.”

Democrats bitterly opposed Senate Bill 9 and all but begged Republicans in the legislature to do the right thing. “I can’t think of another piece of legislation that I believe will be judged to be so unfair and so inequitable as this piece of legislation,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat. “We must slow down, members. It’s our moral duty to stand up against discrimination. We’re fixing to impact every Hispanic citizen in the state of Texas.”

Since then, it’s gone no further. The better angels in the state House rejected the measure July 2; the bill failed to advance, despite the governor’s best efforts. The issue may help galvanize Hispanic voters by the millions against Perry next year.

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Perry’s entrance in the race is a game-changer for the Republican field. With September dead ahead, Perry’s candidacy turns up the heat on the other challengers to get serious. Sooner or later the vanity candidates can be expected to close up shop (this almost certainly means you, Newt Gingrich). And for the presumed front-runner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Perry’s bid for the nomination means no more laying back in the weeds engaging the other candidates on his own terms, safe behind the walls of a front-runner status that's more hypothetical than he knows.

Right now, Perry stands to be the beneficiary of the bifurcated nature of the Republican Party, a man with the potential to look appealing to the fringe and the bedrock of the GOP at the same time.

His Texas roots, his jibes and slaps at President Obama, a flirtation with craziness that endears him to arch conservatives (who in their number didn’t love the jibe about secession?), the unabashed expression of his Christian faith — all of these will make the Tea Party loyalists in the GOP (and the low-information voters who support them) sit up and take notice.

But his proven ability to win statewide races by casting a spell of pragmatism and common sense on Reagan Democrats and independents also gives Perry a mainstream gravitas that will be hard for his GOP challengers to neutralize.

And for any would-be challengers looking for yet another toe to dip in the water — paging Sarah Palin® — Perry’s entrance in the 2012 race is a signal it’s time to fish for salmon or cut bait. Palin’s interminable chin-pulling about joining the race is on the verge of becoming irrelevant. Parry’s candidacy means that conservative battleground-state voters with evangelical leanings now have another choice for the nomination, one with a history of winning elections again and again and again.

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It’s already been said that with Rick Perry in the race for the Republican nomination, “now things get interesting.” That’s true enough — maybe for no one more than Rick Perry himself.

As the longest-serving governor in the history of Texas, Perry clearly knows what it takes to win. How and how well his political message and his spiritual aspect resonate with a voter base bigger than his own state is an open question -- one that his records on the state economy, the state’s environmental health and the welfare of its citizens suggest it may not be that easy to answer.

A Rick Perry candidacy forces everyone to step up their game. As the campaign heats up and the governor with the aw-shucks touch goes under the microscope, the game changer can expect to have to step up that game of his own.

Image credits: Perry, Perry campaign logo: Oil spill: BP raw feed, May 2010. Palin: Fox News.

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