‘If Jeb Bush’s name were Jeb Smith, he’d be the next president of the United States,” says Texas governor Rick Perry, and then there’s a long pause in the conversation to let pass the unspoken corollary: “And if Rick Perry were the governor of Florida . . . ”
People constantly ask Governor Perry if he’s thinking about running for president. In fact, they ask him if he’s thinking about running for president so often that by now he almost certainly must be thinking about running for president, even if he wasn’t thinking about it before. He plays down that sort of thing (except when he doesn’t) and protests that he’s got plenty to keep him busy in Austin. And he is busy: He’s hip-deep in a ferocious fight to balance the state budget without instituting new taxes or liquidating the state’s rainy-day fund. He has a long list of parochial Texas action-items on his gubernatorial to-do list, like pushing down the cost of a bachelor’s degree from a state university to $10,000 and keeping his bespoke boot heel on the neck of the trial lawyers. But he’s also very busy in his campaign to renew — or reinvent — American federalism, taking an extraordinarily robust view of states’ sovereignty and an extraordinarily restrictive view of the “enumerated powers” listed in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution. He’s written a book about the subject, Fed Up!, which is an order of magnitude more crotchety and idiosyncratic than your average raising-my-national-profile book. (He also published a very personal and occasionally hot-tempered defense of the Boy Scouts, On My Honor, lambasting the feminists and organized homosexuality in a way that suggests he’s not much interested in a Mitch Daniels–style truce on the social issues.)
Lots of conservatives have been in fights over public displays of the Ten Commandments, but Governor Perry is more interested in the Tenth Amendment: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Reestablishing the sovereignty of the states — and rescuing the language of states’ rights from its segregationist connotations — is a pretty good job for a high-profile governor.
Or for a president.
Speaking of presidents: Rick Perry has a complicated relationship with the Bushes, which is to say that he’s hesitant to criticize them and they hate his guts. W. stayed well away from Perry’s gubernatorial-primary melee against Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, whose oatmeal-mushy Republicanism has a distinctly Bushian savor to it. But the mark of W. was all over the campaign against Perry. Former president George H. W. Bush endorsed Senator Hutchison, an unusual step for the habitually reserved retiree, who usually stays well removed from the dirty business of vote-grubbing, surveying the groundlings from the heights of his eminence. Bush père was joined in his support by former vice president Dick Cheney, who offered an endorsement and called Hutchison “the real deal.” Hutchison was further fortified by the Bush clan’s in-house Machiavelli, former secretary of state James Baker, who led the Florida recount fight in 2000 and remains their go-to fixer. W. mouthpiece Karen Hughes came out of the political woodwork to support the insurgency, along with W.’s secretary of education Margaret Spellings. Karl Rove advised Team Hutchison. The gang was all there: All this in a primary challenge to unseat an incumbent Republican governor with one of the most conservative — and most successful — records to be found: Que paso, Bushes?
Part of that was payback. Perry, generally circumlocutious on the subject of W., gave himself a little time off the leash during the 2008 Republican presidential primaries. Often caricatured as yet another snake-handling southern social conservative, Governor Perry backed thrice-married dress-wearing pro-choice lapsed Catholic Rudy Giuliani, on the theory that Rudy would be a badass commander-in-chief abroad and a reliable constitutionalist at home. Politics being politics, the Texan and the New Yorker met up in Iowa, where more than a few Hawkeye conservatives were already getting restive about out-of-control federal spending on the Republicans’ watch. Governor Perry let loose the observation that “George” — and the Bushies hate it when Perry calls him “George” in public — “has never been a fiscal conservative.” Never? “Wasn’t when he was in Texas . . . ’95, ’97, ’99, George Bush was spending money.” He also criticized Bush as being limp on immigration.
The truth hurts, but there’s more to the Bush-Perry friction than that. One longtime observer of Lone Star politics described the Bushes’ disdain of Perry as “visceral,” and it is not too terribly hard to see why. The guy that NPR executives and the New York Times and your average Subaru-driving Whole Foods shopper were afraid George W. Bush was? Rick Perry is that guy. George W. Bush was Midland by way of Kennebunkport. Rick Perry’s people are cotton farmers from Paint Creek, a West Texas town so tiny and remote that my Texan traveling-salesman father looked at me skeptically and suggested I had the name wrong when I asked him whether he knew where it was. (Governor Perry confesses that one of the politiciany things he’s done in office is insisting that the Texas highway atlas include Paint Creek, making him the hometown boy who literally put the town on the map.) Bush is a Yalie, Perry is an Aggie. Bush served in the Texas Air National Guard, and Perry was a captain in the U.S. Air Force, flying C-130s in the Middle East. Bush has a gentleman’s ranch, Perry has the red meat. The irony is that Perry, a tea-party favorite, personifies the hawkish new fiscal conservatism that has allowed the GOP to find its way out from under George W. Bush’s shadow, but he himself remains in the shade of that politically poisonous penumbra.
But he is a very different sort of man. Those who know both Bush and Perry say that Perry has even sharper political instincts — and none of the Bushes’ patrician compunction about deploying them. Governors do not stay popular long in Texas — Bush was the first one to be consecutively re-elected since the four-year term was instituted back in the 1970s, and Perry was the second — and by 2010 Perry already had served in office far longer than any other governor, giving him plenty of time to make enemies. He’d already endured a freak show of a general-election campaign in 2006, when he was challenged by a Republican, the much-renamed former Austin mayor Carole Keeton McClellan Rylander Strayhorn, as well as by the independent candidacy of New York City transplant/mystery novelist/country singer Kinky Friedman (who, with his band, the Texas Jewboys, is the author of such ditties as “Ride ’Em Jewboy” and “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore”). There was a Democrat in the race, too, former congressman Chris Bell, along with a Libertarian and a right-wing write-in candidate. Perry was elected with less than 40 percent of the vote, which gave Senator Hutchison the impression — wildly wrong, as it turns out — that Perry’s blood was in the political water. She came into the race with the backing of the Bushies and a good deal of the Washington Republican establishment, which often has endured Perry’s blunt upbraidings and bitter scoffs. In liberal Austin, they were gleefully setting his political obituary into type.
Perry shrugged off the Bushies’ maneuverings and ground Hutchison’s political ambitions into a fine paste, pantsing her so badly that eventually she was forced to announce that she would relinquish her Senate seat, too, something she plainly was not much inclined to do. He gave equally rough treatment to his general-election opponent, Democrat Bill White, the former mayor of Houston, an affable, business-friendly candidate in whom lonely Texas Democrats had invested a great deal of hope and money. It was seek-and-destroy. “Six weeks before she got into the race, there was no way Kay was losing,” says one observer. “Six weeks after she got into the race, there was no way she was winning.” One Hutchison adviser tells of coming out of an early focus-group session convinced that she was dead in the water. “It wasn’t the year to be running against Rick Perry from the left in Texas,” he says.
Perry vs. the Bushes, Perry vs. Washington, Perry vs. the Establishment: That’s potent stuff for racking up votes in Waco and Amarillo, and the conservative suburbs of Dallas and Houston. But it’s not just Perry’s politics — it’s his policy, too.
Here’s something you won’t hear an up-and-down-the-line conservative like Perry saying all that often: “If you don’t like medical marijuana and gay marriage, don’t move to California.” Don’t move to California is a major theme of Texas’s economic-development program, and in fact Californians are moving to Texas at a pretty good clip, as economist Arthur Laffer documented in his report “Rich States, Poor States” (see “Going Alamo,” National Review, July 20, 2009). Perry is content for Californians to let their freak flags fly, though he confesses that he recoils from some of the implications of his hard-line constitutionalism: The thought of flag-burning, for instance, makes Rick Perry one angry Eagle Scout. But his laissez-faire attitude is surprisingly broad, something he has in common with another distinguished governor, Sarah Palin, whose libertarian streak on questions like marijuana use is an underappreciated component of her political character. “Don’t make me accept it as normal,” Perry says, “and do not make me pay for it. But that’s classic Tenth Amendment, and I’ll fight to the death for California’s right to decide for themselves how they want to live.” And then he adds with an earnest, butter-wouldn’t-melt smile: “You want high taxes and an onerous regulatory climate, that’s your choice.” As he says this, he swivels around excitedly in his desk chair, the cuffs of his trousers hiking up to reveal a pair of cowboy boots emblazoned “Liberty” and “Freedom.”
Perry loves federalism in principle, because it is a critical part of his understanding of the well-balanced American constitutional order — and also because he’s confident that if it comes down to competition among the states, Texas is going to come out on top. He has a firebrand’s style but a traditional conservative’s skepticism of ideology. Asked to describe his governing philosophy, he chuckles, “Don’t spend all the money.” Like most governors, he is not particularly interested in ideological purism or abstract intellectual consistency. He’s a free-market guy, to be sure, but he also likes to brag about the state’s Enterprise Fund and Emerging Technology Fund, which it uses to bribe (my word) businesses to set up shop. Yes, practically every state and city in the country has an “economic development” program like that, and they’re all kind of distasteful to hardcore free-enterprise ideologues, but Texas gets more for its money than do most states, including a rate of job growth that is phenomenal compared with the rest of the big states’.
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.
And that’s the weird thing about our politics: Perry is a charismatic, iconoclastic conservative, arguably enjoying the best real-world record of any governor in office today. Americans are worried about jobs, and jobs are the one subject on which Perry simply cannot be beat. If he were the governor of Florida . . .
Perry’s ambitions may or may not be national; his interests certainly are. “This is a dark period, economically speaking,” he says, and adds that he’s worried that further economic turmoil may lead the Obama administration and big-government politicians of both parties to press for yet more federal intervention into the economy, health care, and every other aspect of American life, another New Deal–scale expansion of Washington’s footprint. His prescription — a renewed emphasis on the states and a narrower interpretation of the enumerated powers of the national government — is not universally popular, even among conservatives. Part of that is the legacy of the words “states’ rights,” a fact that Perry is candid about. “That was a tragic time in our history. And shameful. And anytime anybody uttered the words ‘states’ rights’ after 1865, they’ve been tinged as segregationist or racist.” On the other hand, the states are real things with real interests and real rights; they are not mere administrative subdivisions of the federal government, even if they’ve been treated that way for generations. There is more to states’ rights than Bull Connor or George Wallace pre-Jesus. But those images are powerful, and they are enduring. And their cynical, promiscuous abuse is, as Perry protests, “an easy way not to have to debate.”
Perry’s views on the Constitution are difficult to fault: It says what it says, and what it says can be updated occasionally. The Reconstruction amendments, he points out, were one example of that. “I have no problem changing the Constitution from time to time: I want a balanced-budget amendment. There’s a process for that, for amending the Constitution. It ought not be up to nine — excuse me, five — jurists to ‘read the people’s will’ and change it. There’s a reason that there’s a high hurdle for amending the Constitution. I like Justice Kennedy, and I respect him. But it gets to a point that the meaning of the Constitution is hanging on what Anthony Kennedy had for breakfast this morning. I hope he had two cups of black coffee and read the Federalist Papers.”
But the Supreme Court is, in Rick Perry’s view, mostly an enabler. The fundamental problem is the political class. “Human nature is such that they want to acquire more power,” he laments. “Why is government so big in Washington, D.C.? Why is it as big as it is in Texas?” Human nature is a complex problem, but Perry returns to his simple solution: Don’t spend all the money. “There have been two budgets cut in Texas, real budget cuts where we spent less one year than the year before: 2003 and 2009. Yes, it was painful.” And it probably will be painful again this year as Texas deals with diminished tax receipts necessitating serious budget cuts. “But something’s changed in America — a radical change in the electorate, and that was April 15, 2009.” Perry is referring to the first round of tax-day tea-party protests, for which he thanks President Obama — and President Bush. “That was spurred by this administration’s power-grabbing and reckless spending. Obama created a sense of immediacy, a sense that we have to do something now. But . . . Medicare Part D was not good public policy. But it was our guy, so . . . ” He winces at the thought of No Child Left Behind. “Yeah, that’s a cool name, but it’s a monstrous intrusion into our affairs. Look, I like George” — George! — “but that’s not good public policy. That’s what Kay didn’t understand. She kept saying, look what I’m doing for you, look what Washington is doing for you. But that’s not what we want.”
And what do Americans want? That can prove mysterious. Perry ruefully recounts the story of a failed campaign to get Boeing to move to Dallas when the firm was shopping for a new corporate headquarters, having had its fill of Seattle (a little of which goes a long way). The aerospace giant chose Chicago instead. Chicago — that chapped a lot of Texans, no doubt rekindling dim ancestral memories of being rudely treated by uppity Chicago meatpacking executives at the end of the Chisholm Trail. And they were especially ticked off when they started hearing that Boeing had selected Chicago because some of the informal decisionmakers — nobody says “executives’ wives,” but that’s what they mean — felt that downtown Chicago was more culturally vibrant than downtown Dallas. (It is.) That was back in 2001, and Perry revels in reciting a long list of cultural institutions, galleries, concert halls, and venues that opened in the Dallas–Fort Worth metroplex around that time and since. “All of that was done with private money,” he says. “We let our citizens keep their money, which they work hard for, and they decided — they decided — that they would invest in the arts and culture.”
The kicker is that Perry recently ran into former Boeing CEO Phil Condit at the airport, and learned that the retired executive is living in . . . the suburbs of Dallas, of course, which offer a whole lot less urban vibrancy than downtown Chicago but do offer such contemporary amenities as jobs, good schools, and a real-estate market that isn’t the stuff of nightmares — along with a state income-tax rate of 0.0 percent, all of which add up to a standard of living that’s attractive both to rich guys like Condit and regular schmoes, who are moving to Texas by the millions. Think of it this way: Barack Obama beat John McCain by less than 10 million votes across the whole country; nearly half that many people have moved to Texas during Rick Perry’s governorship. In the vote-with-your-feet primary, he’s the runaway favorite, a fact that will be of no small consequence if he should decide that the place to fight Washington isn’t Austin, but Washington.
— Kevin D. Williamson is a deputy managing editor of National Review and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism, just published by Regnery. You can buy an autographed copy through National Review Online here.This article originally appeared in the April 4, 2011, issue of National Review.