Texas governor Rick Perry’s high-profile battle with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) couldn’t have come at a better time. The fight may not be over in time for the 2012 presidential elections, and he very well may lose, but no matter what happens, he can count it as a political victory. Given that Perry is angling for a shot at the White House in 2012 — and given the fiscal problems his state faces — that’s just what he’s hoping for.
This nasty row stems from the EPA’s recent effort under the Clean Air Act to deny Texas its authority to issue air permits for power generation and industrial plants. It’s perfect for Perry, who has emerged as a favorite of Tea Party and anti-tax activists. Indeed, it fits Perry’s political agenda like a pearl-gray Stetson. For proof of that, consider Perry’s new book. On November 15, just a few days after becoming the first Texas governor to win a third full term, Perry published Fed Up! Our Fight to Save America From Washington. In the book, Perry declares: “It is not America that is broken; it is Washington that is broken.”
Although Perry and his spokesmen continue to claim he’s not interested in running for the White House, Perry is following his predecessor’s playbook. Recall that in November 1999, then–Texas governor George W. Bush published his book, A Charge To Keep, to give readers “a sense of my values, my philosophy.”
Of course, Perry doesn’t have the kind of national name recognition that Bush had. But he’s clearly trying to raise his profile. Political operatives in Austin tell me that Perry’s campaign team has been quietly polling voters outside of the Lone Star State to gauge his chances on the national stage. With the November 2012 election 22 months away, Perry is hoping to gain some early traction.
To be clear, a Perry White House bid would be a long shot. In mid-November 2008, amid George W. Bush’s dismal approval ratings and Barack Obama’s historic campaign to take the White House, I wrote a column predicting that it would be many years before another Texas politician would be viable as a national candidate. I still think that’s true. But Perry has several things working in his favor. Foremost among them: He can win Texas. Recall that when Obama won in 2008, he was only the third person since Calvin Coolidge to win the White House without prevailing in Texas. The others were Bill Clinton (who, thanks largely to Ross Perot, did it twice) and Richard Nixon (who did it once, in 1968). Second, Perry can see the obvious: a large but weak list of potential Republican candidates, none of whom has emerged as a real favorite.
In addition, Perry has a proven ability to raise money. En route to his thumping of Democrat gubernatorial candidate (and former Houston mayor) Bill White in November, Perry raised more than $30 million. And his fundraising prowess is a key reason why he was recently elected as head of the Republican Governors Association.
Texas is the only state that has refused the EPA’s requirement to establish a greenhouse-gas permitting program for big industrial plants. But by fighting Washington, Perry follows a long Texas tradition. In the 1940s and ’50s, Texas waged a bitter fight against federal regulators over royalty rights to offshore minerals. This “Tidelands” battle emerged as a major issue in the 1952 presidential race between Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson. The Texas Democratic party — the only party in the state at that time — was so incensed at Stevenson’s opposition to Texas’s position on the matter that it passed a resolution urging Democrats to vote against him. Eisenhower, who was sympathetic to Texas on the controversy, beat Stevenson in Texas and went to the White House, and Texas eventually got ownership of its offshore rights.
Perry’s pushback against the EPA, which is now being litigated in federal court, is clearly aimed at trying to help Texas’s massive hydrocarbon sector. And for good reason: Texas companies produce, refine, and distribute more oil, natural gas, refined products, and chemicals than any other state. That production and refining means that Texas is the biggest carbon-dioxide emitter in the U.S., producing about 10 percent of all CO2 in the country.
Texas Republicans say they will fight the EPA all the way to the Supreme Court, meaning the legal battle could last another year or more. But Perry’s national political hopes may depend on his ability to succeed over the next five months or so. And right now, success looks unlikely.
The Texas legislature is now grappling with a budget deficit of $26.8 billion over the next two years. And given Perry’s aversion to government spending, Glenn Smith, an Austin-based political consultant, says that Perry is “not going to sign a tax bill.” Some 8,000 state employees are likely to be fired and cuts in services are likely.
In other words, politicians in Texas, like everywhere else, still have to raise enough money to pay the bills. So while Perry can blame the EPA for what he calls “federal overreach by unelected bureaucrats,” he’s still going to have to resolve a budget crisis in a state where unemployment is nearly 8 percent and state law effectively prohibits the imposition of an income tax.
But if Perry can navigate these tumultuous fiscal waters, his fight against the EPA will give him credibility with the Tea Party for a presidential run. And Barack Obama may have a reason to worry.
— Robert Bryce is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. His latest book is Power Hungry: The Myths of “Green” Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future.