Perry points to the case of Los Angeles–based LegalZoom — Perry likes talking about California almost as much as he likes talking about Texas — a high-tech startup that chose Austin as the site of an expansion project that brought 600 jobs to Perry’s constituents. He’ll mock the Obama administration’s “investments” in green jobs and other voguish progressive-chic enterprises, but he’s happy to use that same language to describe his administration’s undertakings. Austin attracted LegalZoom, he says, because the company’s executives “found the right mix of factors including our work force, our quality of life, and investments from the Texas Enterprise Fund and the city of Austin. . . . Those jobs are among the tens of thousands of jobs that the Enterprise Fund has brought to Texas, along with nearly $15 billion in capital investment.” This isn’t hypocrisy, it’s a core conviction that federalism isn’t just about constitutional niceties and coming up with new ways for Republicans to avoid taking positions on tricky social issues, but is also about saying: Get out of the way, California, and Washington, too: I’m better at this than you are. For most governors, it’s not government “investments” that are the problem, but the question of whether they pay off. Senators can get away with playing philosopher-king, but governors have to govern, for better and for worse.
The day before our interview, Perry was in front of a joint session of the Texas legislature, delivering his state-of-the-state speech, and he reported on some of the state’s investment returns: Texas has weathered the housing meltdown better than most states, and its job-growth rate is the envy of the nation. People who haven’t followed Perry’s career will be surprised to learn that he’s particularly proud of Texas’s environmental record — 27 percent reduction in ozone levels, 53 percent in mono-nitrogen oxides — and that he’s suing the Environmental Protection Agency in order to defend the state’s flexible permitting rules, which he credits with improving air quality without placing unbearable burdens on business. He boasted about the schools and about Texas students’ scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. (As blogger Iowahawk reported, white, black, and Hispanic students in Texas’s allegedly ramshackle public schools outperformed their ethnic-group peers in high-tax, union-run Wisconsin in 17 out of 18 NAEP measures, and bested the results of most of the so-called progressive states.) Perry took time to excoriate a liberal Austin congressman, Lloyd Doggett, whose attaching strings to federal education funds “singled out our state for punishment in pursuit of his own agenda.” He praised the reform of eminent-domain laws and talked about folding the state’s department of rural affairs into its department of agriculture: governor stuff.
But it very often seemed that Perry was making a speech better suited to a joint session in Washington than to one in Austin. He called for a federal balanced-budget amendment. He hated on unfunded mandates. He demanded the repeal of Obamacare. And he lavishly excoriated Washington for its refusal to secure the Mexican border: “It’s frustrating that we’re still having these border-security conversations, but Washington remains an abject failure in this area. It is part of that frustrating paradox where Washington neglects their responsibility for areas clearly within their purview, while interfering in other areas in which they’re neither welcome nor authorized.” Perry’s vision for securing the border? National Guard troops to reinforce law-enforcement agencies, 3,000 new border-patrol officers along the Texas stretch, and Predator drones (to provide real-time intel, not to smoke aspiring day-laborers with Hellfire missiles).
It was, in other words, the sort of speech a governor might give if he was thinking about running for president.
“Rick doesn’t want to run for president,” says one longtime ally. “Rick wants to be asked to run for president. He wants to be drafted.” The main obstacle to a Perry campaign, he says, is Perry’s acute political intelligence, which may be telling him he won’t win. “It’s a hard hill to climb for a governor of Texas.” And it’s one that Perry may have made unnecessarily steep for himself. There’s the usual messiness at the intersection of business and politics: The Dallas Morning News
reported that at least $16 million from that Emerging Technology Fund went to companies with investors or executives who were Perry donors, and he backed an abortive, boondogglish transportation-infrastructure project known as the Trans-Texas Corridor, which went down in ignominy, largely on opposition from conservatives and property-rights activists. One of the stranger episodes of Perry’s governorship was his signing an executive order mandating the vaccination of sixth-grade girls against the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus (HPV), which causes cervical cancer and genital warts. Though the executive order included an opt-out for parents who objected to the vaccine, the move lit a fire under the Religious Right, which argued that the program was a concession to the culture of promiscuity. It didn’t help matters when it came out that the maker of the vaccine, Merck, was a Perry campaign donor. Perry found himself on the outs with the very conservatives who are his core constituency.
Kay Bailey Hutchison and Bill White both made these featherweight ethical issues central to their campaigns against Perry, with White quick to throw around the word “corruption.” There was nothing manifestly improper or venal about any of this, and in truth nothing much remarkable: If you have a system under which the state awards patronage to private businesses and businesses make campaign contributions, there’s going to be some overlap, and it’s going to look bad. (Cf. Goldman Sachs and Barack Obama.) Perry’s opponents never got much traction with that line of argument, mostly because there isn’t much to it, but Republicans in Austin say that the governor is not eager to relitigate those questions on a national stage. The leading contender against Barack Obama in 2012 is “Generic Republican,” which may give great hope to Mitt Romney but does nothing for Rick Perry, who is a genuine wildcat tea-party threat to the Washington consensus and who as a presidential candidate could be sure to receive blisteringly hostile treatment — not just from the Obama campaign and its media proxies, but also from a fair number of Republicans and from the prep-school establishment he’s built a loyal conservative following by smacking around.