I soon came to see that I was wrong. And I think a lot of people, even in Texas and certainly around the country, continue to be wrong about Perry in just the same way. The governor himself is largely responsible for that; he hasn't needed a majority of Texans to like him to get re-elected, and in a way, it suits his purposes when people discount him. But having watched Perry closely for four and a half years now, and interviewed him on several occasions, I am convinced that he's actually quite smart about politics and that he's not much of a far-right ideologue.
To the first critique, that Perry is a moron, I would respond that he has been governor for more than ten years now and he has actually made very few political missteps. The HPV vaccine order (which was overturned several months later) was probably the biggest. The other controversy that has caused him the most headache in Texas was the Trans-Texas Corridor, his plan to build a network of new roads, including a new interstate that would cut a swathe up the state. This would have been largely financed by toll roads, with the proceeds going to private contrators. The project was wildly controversial, partly because it would have yielded a number of eminent domain actions, and it was officially killed last year. On the TTC, however, I think Perry got more trouble than he deserved. The state's infrastructure is inadequate, especially given its population growth and trade volume. Given that voters and politicians are allergic to tax increases, tolling isn't an implausible financing option.
At the national level, Perry was widely criticised after seeming to suggest that Texas might secede from the United States. I never saw that as anything other than bluster--there is no serious secessionist movement in Texas--and when I asked him about it, several years ago, he dismissed it, in good humour, as people itching to take umbrage. I later saw him joke about it to a conservative audience, as an example of the shrill offendability of mainstream media, a view the audience seemed to share. I think his stonewalling on the Cameron Todd Willingham execution has been horrible, but given widespread national support for the death penalty, most Americans won't see it that way.
Overall, then, I see no evidence that Perry is as stupid as his critics suggest. Quite the contrary. I wouldn't seek his opinion about the new Derek Parfit but when it comes to politics, especially, he's pretty shrewd. To give one example, at the beginning of the 2010 election cycle, most pundits were expecting a serious primary contest between Perry and Kay Bailey Hutchison, the state's senior senator. Hutchison had better approval ratings than anyone else in the state, she is considered more moderate than Perry, and she has, of course, won statewide contests before. Perry suggested that he wasn't even thinking much about the campaign, predicted that she didn't really want the job, and anticipated a blowout. He called it right. I also note that although Texas Democrats are always going on about the supposed idiocy of Governor Goodhair, they seem to find it difficult to rustle up candidates to challenge him, or indeed, to effectively articulate their vision of governance against his. As I wrote in 2009, for Texas Republicans, Texas Democrats are the ace in the hole. Perry has now won the gubernatorial election three times, in 2002, 2006, and 2010, and has never actually lost an election since he began his career in politics as a state representative, in 1984. If that's dumb luck, I'd like to have some for myself.
On the second point, that Perry is a far-right ideologue, I would again disagree. It's an comprehensible perception because he talks the talk, but his sizzle-to-steak ratio is rather high.
In May, for example, Perry signed a bill that will require women seeking an abortion to have a sonogram beforehand. He had declared this an emergency priority for the session, and the legislation was fast-tracked. That's obviously a staunch pro-life measure (although not really extreme: a handful of other states already had it on the books.) Consider, however, that Republicans hold every statewide office in Texas and they absolutely dominate the state legislature. If they had wanted to they could have passed a bill that would have required women seeking abortions to stand on Congress Avenue wearing a sandwich board soliciting comments on their decision.
On other issues, Perry has been less draconian than his reputation suggests. He has been criticized from the right on immigration, for example--immigration being an issue where Texas is considerably more liberal than the nation as a whole. In 2001, for example, he signed legislation that allows undocumented Texan students to qualify for in-state tuition at state colleges and universities, and he has defended it recently. Perry has also come under fire from social conservatives, notably Rick Santorum, for saying that he's fine with New York's new gay marriage law. He has subsequently tried to clarify that he is "obviously" not fine with gay marriage itself, merely the 10th-amendment concept of states taking some decisions for themselves, but the implication is that as a president, he wouldn't give much attention to the issue.
My interpretation of this is that Perry simply doesn't care that much about social issues. Of course he'll throw some red meat to the base if it's not too much hassle, as with the new sonogram bill. But it just doesn't get him going. He rarely enterprises on these issues. He knows how to play to the base--as in last weekend's prayer rally--but that's because he's shrewd, or if you prefer, opportunistic. As governor, social issues haven't been central to his administration and I don't think they would be if he were president, either.
What does get Perry going is economic issues. His strongest ideological commitment is to small-government conservatism--although he's not pure on that either, because he will engage in some tacit industrial policy if it's a matter of boosting job creation. He is first and foremost a business conservative, and once you understand that about him, everything else makes more sense. That’s why, for example, he’s a big booster of renewable energy even though he’s a climate change sceptic and doesn’t want the EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. That’s why he wanted to build the Trans-Texas Corridor and why he is so enthusiastic about tort reform. That’s why he seems to spend most of his workday trying to poach jobs from other states. That’s why he doesn’t have a very aggressive stance against illegal immigration. That's why he'd rather cut education spending than close tax loopholes.
The virtues of this approach are, of course, debatable. I think the most compelling line of critique against Perry's tenure is that his passion for the low-taxes, low-services model may have limited the state's ability to make adequate investments in education, health care, and infrastructure. And those are areas where public spending may have long-term effects on economic productivity. But there are plenty of things Perry could say in response: that as we have seen elsewhere, budget discipline is necessary to forestall fiscal catastrophes; that you can't spend your way into good outcomes; that the single best indicator of social welfare is the unemployment rate. In any case, I hope that's the kind of conversation we could have with Perry in the presidential race. It goes to some core philosophical questions about the role of government.
But as a starting point, when he announces, I would suggest that we all keep in mind that Perry is not an idiot and not an ideologue. Democrats, you misunderestimate this one at your peril.
For a partial list of my recent articles and posts on Perry, click here.