Like other Texans, I can get in the mood for a Texan to be in charge. After all, if God hadn’t intended for Texas to be the center of the universe, he wouldn’t have put us there. But with the (arguable) exception of Dwight Eisenhower, presidents with Texas roots haven’t exactly been nominated for sainthood after it’s all said and done.
The most recent example of the species,George W. Bush, even prompted my friend Molly Ivins to declare, “The next time I tell you someone from Texas should not be President of the United States, please pay attention.”
It’s time to pay attention. Here comes Rick Perry.
If Perry hadn’t thought about running for president before, he’d be a fool not to think about it now, as the stable of Republican alternatives is full of lame horses. But the case against him doesn’t lie in comparing him to the rest of the Republican field; it’s in examining the flip side of his own coin.
Most Perry fans can be categorized in one of two camps. The first are ultra-conservatives of some ilk — either traditional evangelical, Christian-right voters or voters loosely associated with Tea Party values. They love their anti-Obama red meat, and they don’t like Washington. They’re attracted to Perry because nobody’s better than him at kicking Washington in the collective butt, and nobody does anti-Obama red meat better than gun-totin’, coyote-shootin’, states’ rights-toutin’ Rick Perry.
But where’s the net gain? If those voters aren’t united next November, we’re having this friendly little conversation for nothing anyway, because Obama will be re-elected in a landslide no matter who runs against him. “Not Obama” will be their candidate of choice, whether the alternative is Perry or somebody else.
The second pro-Perry camp consists of those voting their economic interests, and at first blush Perry might seem attractive. Texas, as the story goes, has led the nation in job creation, and as the story continues, it’s because Texas government is limited, pro-business and fosters economic development. While it’s true that Texas has, indeed, created new jobs, it’s equally true that they’re relatively low-wage and that the state’s recent unemployment rates are also higher than they’ve been since the early 1990s.
The problem for Perry, in the blinding light of the national stage, is that he may ultimately be seen as the swaggering rooster who believes the sun came up because of all that crowing. Texas was a conservative, small government, pro-business state long before he was in charge, and Texas will remain so long after he’s gone. Americans may conclude that Texas jobs would have materialized whether Perry was governor or not, and it might just be to Texas business’ credit, not Perry’s, that they did.
While Perry’s supporters will explain what he’s done for Texans, detractors will cite what Perry hasn’t done. Those celebrating him as the architect of our low-tax state would be forced to acknowledge that this is nothing new, and that Texas is also an extreme low-services state, with serious consequences for Texas families.
Education? We’re 50th in the nation in kids with a high school diploma by age 25, and 43rd in high school graduation rates. We’re 42nd in the nation in high school graduates going to college, and of those, only half earn a degree within six years.
Health care? We’re first in the nation in folks without health insurance and 49th in our low-income population covered by Medicaid.
Relative wealth? We’re fourth in the nation on the percentage of our residents living below the poverty line.
The environment? We’re first in the nation in cancer-causing carcinogens released into the air, first on toxic chemicals released into the water and first in the amount of hazardous waste generated.
I could go on, but the Legislative Study Group already has, and Perry and other Republicans in charge in Texas are currently wrapping up legislative work in which their policy priorities will assure that those measures worsen.
Bush already took Americans down a near-identical “Texas success story” yellow brick road. Would voters like Perry’s America any better, after Bush left on such unpopular terms?
Electoral performance might lead others to believe that Perry would be the best standard-bearer to oppose Obama. Unlike Bush, Perry’s never lost an election, and he recently won a primary election in which he turned a 20-plus-percentage-point deficit into a 20-point win. But does what sells here sell everywhere? Since Texas has voted for the prevailing candidate in only two of the last five presidential elections, that is a dicey position at best.
But back to Molly Ivins. Three months before she died, writing on Perry’s performance at a political debate, she reported that he had really good hair, and that the Democrat in the race had everything else. She concluded that “Perry won on the politics of it by not actually saying anything totally idiotic.”
That, my friends, is usually how a Republican wins an election in Texas — by not being the Democrat. It’s a mighty thin resume for a fat presidential race.
[this column originally appeared in the Texas Tribune]