You’re probably thinking, “I’ve seen this movie before: West Texas boy makes middling grades in college, gets elected governor and — to the consternation of gobsmacked Democrats, who misunderestimate his folksy appeal — runs for the Republican nomination for president.”
But if that’s all you know about Rick Perry, you’re probably one of those pundit-savants who’s asking whether the country is ready for another White House occupant from the Lone Star State. The fact is, the most recent entrant into the GOP race is nothing like the caricatures being promoted on the left and the right. Here are some myths that need debunking, and quick.
1. He’s a Bush clone.
Biographical similarities aside, Perry is not the second coming of George W. Bush, either stylistically or substantively. Bush governed Texas with a light touch and had a good relationship with the Democratic majorities in both chambers of the Texas legislature. Perry is more hard-knuckled in his dealings not only with Democrats (now a minority in the House and the Senate) but with insufficiently conservative Republicans — what we in Texas pejoratively call “moderates.”
Bush preached compassionate conservatism. Perry’s brand of conservatism is austere bordering on severe, and he has publicly criticized Bush as no fiscal conservative. Bush had a warm relationship with the media. Perry doesn’t court reporters or, especially, newspaper editorial boards; in fact, he refused to meet with any editorial boards during the 2010 governor’s race. Bush debated all of his general-election opponents. In 2010, Perry refused to debate Democratic nominee Bill White — the first time in 20 years that the major-party gubernatorial candidates did not square off during the campaign.
Beyond that, Bushworld is no fan of Perry. Speculation as to why ranges from professional rivalry to personal dislike, but regardless, during the 2010 GOP primary for governor, the top-tier Bushies — including Karl Rove, Karen Hughes and Jim Baker — all backed Perry’s opponent, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, and they’ve shown no enthusiasm for Perry’s presidential bid. In fact, the loudest critics of the governor’s controversial remark about Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke were from Bush administration officials.
2. He’s a hillbilly dimwit.
That’s bias against Texas, pure and simple. Just because he wears cowboy boots and drops his G’s doesn’t mean he’s a dummy.
Perry may be a small-town boy who went to an ag school (Texas A&M University), but he’s an extremely cagey and strategic politician who has been among the state’s most successful governors at getting what he wants. (Put another way: Even if he’s not book smart by University of Chicago standards, he’s plenty street smart — and street smart is still smart.) The better lens through which to regard Perry is inside vs. outside, establishment vs. anti-establishment, elitist vs. jus’ folks. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that jus’ folks is jus’ dumb.
3. He’s an ideological purist.
It’s true that Perry was 10th Amendment before 10th Amendment was cool, a believer in the notion that states are the laboratories of democracy — and that nothing good comes top-down from government. He even wrote a book about it. But at least three times in his career, Perry has thrown over those core principles. In 2007, he pushed for the mandatory inoculation of young girls with the human papillomavirus vaccine as a way to prevent cervical cancer. Conservatives went crazy. Only in the first hours of his presidential campaign did he walk back from that decision. In the run-up to the campaign, Perry called for constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage and abortion, in direct opposition to his long-held insistence that the feds should stay out of states’ business.
There’s also the fact that, once upon a time, Perry served in elective office as a Democrat, albeit a conservative one. He even was the Texas chairman of Al Gore’s 1988 Democratic presidential primary bid. And in the 2008 GOP primary, he endorsed Rudy Giuliani, a candidate whose positions on gun control, abortion and gay rights are, by the standards of today’s Republican party, downright liberal.
4. He opposes federal stimulus money.
Perry made headlines during the 2009 legislative session when he turned down $555 million in federal stimulus funding to extend unemployment insurance , citing the strings attached, and he has made a talking point out of the “failed stimulus.” But Texas took more than $17 billion in stimulus money in 2009 to balance the budgets from that biennium and the previous one. Perry defends the decision by saying Texas is a donor state — and, true enough, it sends more money to Washington than it gets back in benefits and services — but the fact is, he kept the state solvent by taking what he now rails against.
5. He has presided over an unqualified economic miracle.
When Perry says Texas has less than 10 percent of the nation’s population but has created more than 40 percent of its jobs in the past two years, or that more jobs have been created in Texas in the past decade — that is, on his watch — than in all 49 other states combined, he’s not exaggerating. In an election that’s likely to be about jobs and the economy first and foremost, he has quite a record to run on. But there’s more to the story than those top-line statistics.
The unemployment rate in Texas, for instance, was 8.4 percent as of Friday — less than the federal unemployment rate but worse than that of 25 other states, and it could move up a tick or two after Sept. 1, when budget cuts passed during the most recent legislative session will reduce the public employee rolls. Texas has more minimum-wage jobs than every state other than Mississippi, a superlative you brag about if you don’t care about what kind of jobs you create and are only trying to run up the numbers. And growth in public sector (i.e., government) jobs in Texas has been 19 percent over the past 10 years, vs. just 9 percent growth in private-sector jobs.
That doesn’t diminish the feat that Perry can say he accomplished: The state he has led weathered the terrible recession better than just about any other. But, as in some of the better movies we’ve seen, the plot thickens.
Evan Smith is the editor in chief and the chief executive of the Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan digital news organization based in Austin.