Politics & Policy

What’s Got into Rick Perry?

(Chip Somodevilla/Getty)
Governor Jobs-Jobs-Jobs takes up civil rights.

The case against Rick Perry is political: In a field that includes George W. Bush’s kid brother, Rick Perry still manages to be the man who will remind voters of what they remember least fondly about the last Republican president, the metaphorical DNA of Texas politics superseding the literal DNA in Jeb Bush’s mitochondria.

The case for Rick Perry? Everything else.

When oil prices collapsed last year, the familiar vultures gleefully awaited the unraveling of the Texas miracle, the remarkable economic performance that empowered Perry to boast (often) that nearly a third of the entire country’s net new jobs were in Texas during his years as governor.

The vultures went hungry.

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Last year Texas had the second-fastest-growing economy among the states, more than twice as fast as New York and nearly twice as fast as California. Growth will be a little slower this year, but not dramatically slower. Weak oil and a strong dollar are a brake on the state’s export-heavy economy, but there’s more than oil and gas in Texas: manufacturing, technology, and construction are picking up a great deal of the slack. Texas’s unemployment rate stands a full point below the national average; unemployment is 48 percent higher in California and 33 percent higher in New York than in Texas, a fact rendered all the more remarkable by the state’s rapid, immigrant-heavy population growth.

The vultures have been disappointed before: In 2011, a drop in state tax receipts meant that the Texas treasury was tens of billions of dollars short of what state agencies wanted to spend. Perry got the usual advice: You must raise taxes, you must raid the rainy-day fund, and you must understand that cutting spending would ruinously de-stimulate the state’s economy. Perry instead demanded and secured $31 billion in spending cuts. The usual critics produced the usual squeals, but Texas’s economy thrived.

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That is the first line on Rick Perry’s presidential résumé, though the former governor is refreshingly forthright about the fact that there is more to Texas’s success than his own leadership. 

There is also more to Perry than the BLS stats for Texas.

As Captain Perry, he flew C-130s for the 772nd Tactical Airlift Squadron and did rotations in the United Kingdom and Germany. He participated in humanitarian missions in Mali, Mauritania, Chad, and Guatemala. He spent significant time in Turkey, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia. His aw-shucks, Paint Creek shtick — which he is, thankfully, losing, having taken off the boots and put on the glasses — often obscures the fact that Rick Perry is, in reality, a cosmopolitan.

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Politicians write terrible books with keyword titles intended to communicate virtue: Unintimidated, A Time for Truth, Hard Choices. Rick Perry wrote Fed Up!, a thoughtful meditation on the Tenth Amendment masquerading as a campaign book. He also wrote a book about the political persecution of the Boy Scouts, the simmering tone of which suggests very strongly that he is not inclined to be bullied by the enforcers of progressive homogeneity. The books — and his record — illustrate a seriously considered view of governing, one based on an interpretation of enumerated federal powers that, if put into practice, would constitute an authentically radical shift in American governance. His hiring of National Review contributor Avik Roy — arguably the keenest health-care policy brain on the Republican side — is an indicator that Perry is serious about conservative ideas. The only adviser that Perry might have chosen to guide him on health care with a more impressive record on the issue, Bobby Jindal, is running against him in the primary.

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There’s nothing new to any of that. But there was something new for Rick Perry yesterday, with his remarkable speech, by turns contrite and combative, on the subject of the Republican party’s approach to race. Acknowledging that Republicans have lost the trust of black voters, he insists that policies be judged on their results. He notes that black poverty has increased during the Obama administration, and points to the contrast between conditions in Texas and those prevailing in places such as Detroit and Baltimore, Democratic fiefdoms where progressive policies have been implemented to their fullest extent.

His speech is worth quoting at some length.

For too long, we Republicans have been content to lose the black vote because we found we didn’t need it to win. But when we gave up trying to win the support of African Americans, we lost our moral legitimacy as the party of Lincoln, as the party of equal opportunity for all. It’s time for us once again to reclaim our heritage as the only party in our country founded on the principle of freedom for African Americans.

. . . There has been and there will continue to be an important and a legitimate role for the federal government in enforcing civil rights. Too often, we Republicans — me included — have emphasized our message on the 10th Amendment but not our message on the 14th, an amendment, it bears reminding, that was one of the great contributions of the Republican Party to American life, second only to the abolition of slavery.

He began his speech with an uncomfortably frank description of the lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco in 1916. After having been accused of raping and murdering his white employer’s wife, Washington was seized, beaten, stabbed, castrated, partly dismembered, and then roasted to death over a bonfire. What was left of him was hanged. “Even today, we Texans struggle to talk about what happened to Jesse Washington. We don’t want to believe that our great state could ever have been the scene of such unimaginable horror.” A Republican party that rediscovers its civil-rights legacy and that learns to talk about poverty probably will continue to struggle with black voters, who migrated to the Democratic party beginning in the 1930s as a response to the New Deal rather than in the 1960s as a response to the Democrats’ abrupt about-face on segregation. Perry is not going to be carried into the White House, or even across the line in Ohio or Florida, by the black vote.

#related#But there are reasons other than the obvious, narrowly self-interested ones for the party of Lincoln to remember itself. The economics are important, but a president — and a political movement — should stand for something more than a relatively low top marginal tax rate. Economic prosperity is a necessary condition, but not a sufficient one, for social advancement. Rick Perry does not have to prove his chops when it comes to creating policies that encourage growth, investment, and employment. He has, with all due respect to Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, etc., the best record of any American governor on that issue.

Whether he can convince the electorate that his merit does not stop at the bottom line is — it’s that niggling political question, again.

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