He is a fifth generation Texan, the son of hardscrabble west Texas tenant farmers – Democrats but conservatives through and through. He grew up in a farm town too small to be on the state map. Life was so hard that he was six years old before his house had indoor plumbing. His mother sewed his clothes, including the underwear he wore to college.
He is an Eagle Scout. After Paint Creek High School, he attended Texas A&M, graduated, and was commissioned into the Air Force where he became a C-130 pilot.
Now 61 years old, he has won nine elections to four different offices in Texas state government. In the first three elections he ran as a Democrat then switched to the Republican Party. He is currently the 47th governor of Texas – a position he has held for 11 years, the longest tenure of any governor in the nation.
He has never lost an election.
Rick Perry was the Lieutenant Governor to whom Governor George Bush handed over the office after winning the 2000 Presidential election. Since then, Perry won gubernatorial elections in 2002, 2004, and 2010, the last time by 55% against a field consisting of a Democrat, a Libertarian, a Green Party, and an Independent.
Since he became its Governor, Texas – a right to work state that taxes neither personal income nor capital gains – has added more jobs than the other 49 states combined. In the last two years, low taxes and little regulation led his state to create 47% of all jobs created in the entire nation. Five of the top ten cities with the highest job growth in the nation are in Texas. People follow jobs, so in the last four years for which data are available, Texas led every state in net interstate migration growth.
Perry signed ground-breaking “loser pays” tort reform and medical litigation rules that caused malpractice insurance rates to fall. Some 20,000 doctors have since moved to Texas.
Texas boasts 58 of the Fortune 500 companies – more than any other state. Since May 2011 Texas resumed its pre-recession employment levels. Only two other states and the District of Columbia have done that.
Texas ships 16% of the nation’s export value. California trails at 11%. Of the 70 companies that have fled California so far in 2011, 14 relocated in Texas.
In this year’s Texas legislative season, Perry got most of what he wanted. With no new taxes, a fiscally lean state budget was passed leaving $6 billion in a rainy day fund even as other states around the country struggled to balance budgets and avoid more deficit borrowing. A voter ID bill passed that was designed to prevent ballot box fraud and illegal voting. A bill passed that makes plaintiffs pay court costs and attorney fees if their suits are deemed frivolous.
Perry scored points even in his legislative failures. He failed to get sanctuary cities banned – Texas towns in which police cannot question detainees about their immigration status. The blame fell on the legislature. Perry also failed to get a so-called “anti-groping” bill passed that would put Transportation Security Administration agents in prison if they touch the genitals, anus, or breasts of passengers in a pat down. Federal officials threatened to halt all flights out of Texas airports and the bill died in special session. That endeared Texans even more to TSA employees living in Texas.
Perry jogs daily in the morning. He has no bodyguard with him, but his daughter’s dog runs by his side and he carries a laser-guided automatic pistol in his belt. Last year while jogging in an undeveloped area, a coyote paralleled his jogging route, eyeing his dog. He drew his pistol and killed the animal with one shot, leaving it where it fell. “He became mulch," Perry said. Animal rights groups protested, but Perry shrugged it off. “Don’t come after my dog,” he warned them.
Recently, Obama asked Perry to delay the July 7 execution of Humberto Leal in order to comply with the International Court of Justice in The Hague and the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. Perry refused. Therefore Obama asked the US Supreme Court to delay the execution because it would damage US foreign relations. The Court refused 5-4 and Perry ordered the execution to go forward as scheduled. Over the howls of diplomats, politicians, and the UN, Leal was administered a lethal injection at 6:20 p.m. Before he died, he admitted his guilt and asked for forgiveness.
The case has special implications for Perry, who is considering a run for the presidency in 2012. Even his critics resent federal interference in a Texas execution, which is related to a state, not a federal, crime – an alcohol and drug-fueled rape and murder 17 years ago by an illegal whose family brought him into the country 35 years ago as a child. The interference hinges not on the man’s guilt, which Leal’s advocates acknowledged, but on a technicality – failure to inform Leal that he could have gotten legal representation from the Mexican consulate in lieu of the court-appointed attorneys who represented him. Independent Texans saw Obama’s interference as another intrusion of federal power into the affairs of a state, which could cost Obama support in other states.
Needless to say, Perry is a hard-edged conservative and a ferocious defender of 10th Amendments rights (“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.”) – an explicit restriction of the federal government to only those powers granted in the Constitution. Perry accuses the federal government, especially the Obama administration, of illegal overreach.
Perry said “no thanks” to the feds whose stimulus offered taxpayer dollars for education and unemployment assistance. The strings on “free money” from Washington, he said, would restrict Texas in managing its own affairs. Perry even depleted all state funds to fight recent wildfires before asking Washington for disaster relief. His request has been ignored, which comes across as an unvarnished federal power play, further pitting Perry and Texans against the federal government.
It’s little surprise, then, that 31% of Texans prefer Perry, who hasn’t announced for the presidency, versus 15% who prefer Romney and 11% who like Bachmann. This is consistent with a Fox poll which put Romney at 18% with national Republicans, Perry at 13%, and Bachmann at 11%. A Marist poll had Romney leading with 19% but Perry and Giuliani, neither of whom has announced, are tied for second at 13%. Perry is the favorite among Tea Party voters, beating Palin, also unannounced, and Bachmann. For a guy who is not officially running, Perry has more than an insignificant following compared with the announced candidates.
But none of the candidates – announced and unannounced – has caught fire. It’s still early in the 2012 election cycle, and polling results this far out border on meaninglessness. Yet I would have expected Romney to have a greater lead, given his money and name recognition, unless he is being perceived by voters as a nomination retread, now haunted by the Massachusetts experiment that Obama claims inspired his unpopular remaking of the national healthcare system. His business and economic expertise towers over Obama’s, but I suspect it would be easier for him to be elected than nominated. Palin has a fan base rather than a constituency ready to hand another rookie the keys to the White House. Bachmann, recently insulted by Chris Matthews in an interview asking if she was a “flake” because of her bizarre statements, might keep in mind that James Garfield was the only House member to be elected President – and that was over 130 years ago. Ryan may have recalled that fact when he declined to run.
But Perry is not without his negatives. French cuffs and cowboy boots adorned with the words “Freedom” and “Liberty” bespeak a self-assuredness that wears well in Texas and even in the south and southwest, but will it work in Philadelphia, New Hampshire, and Ohio?
Perry is ruggedly handsome – a modern Marlboro kind of man – whom the late Texan and liberal columnist, Molly Ivins, called "Governor Goodhair.” His high octane rhetoric is unmistakably conservative. Speaking to the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans last month, he pumped the air with both fists as he strode to the podium. “Whew!’ he cried repeatedly. “Yeah!” He was like an excited race horse being shoved into a starting gate.
I stand before you today a disciplined conservative Texan -- a committed Republican and a proud American -- united with you in the desire to restore our nation and revive the American dream…
Our party cannot be all things to all people. It can't be. And our loudest opponents on the left are never gonna’ like us so let's quit trying to curry favor with 'em! … Let's speak with pride about our morals and our values and redouble our effort to elect more conservative Republicans. Let's stop this American downward spiral! …
This administration in Washington that's in power now clearly believes that government is not only the answer to every need, but it's the most qualified to make essential decisions for every American in every area. That mix of arrogance and audacity that guides the Obama administration is an affront to every freedom-loving American and a threat to every private sector job in this country.
He left the podium and stage as he had mounted it: pumping his fists, shouting “Yeah!” and “Whew!” as if he were returning to his corner after Round 1 of a prize fight.
It’s hard to imagine the cautiously moderate Romney, the bland somnambulistic Pawlenty, or even the outspoken and misspoken Bachmann delivering that performance. Yet, what a contrast Perry is to the pontifical, condescending Obama speaking style, his head robotically swiveling from side to side, nose unconsciously elevated. I suspect even the leading GOP candidates wish they had Perry’s “negatives.”
Perry’s speech was a tea partier’s delight. The almost cocky swagger. The Texas accent. But I wonder how it would sell to political independents – those more pragmatic than ideological?
Sweeping these concerns aside, Perry’s biggest challenge may be overcoming the fact that he is “another” Texas governor seeking the White House. After four years of Obama, Bush fatigue may have attenuated. But by how much? For those in the center – the ones who will decide the next election – the choice will be between four more years of someone they know (which they didn’t four years ago) versus someone who reminds them of someone they know (Bush) and wish they didn’t.
Beyond the Texas Governor’s mansion, the accent, and the swagger, however, the similarity ends. Their differences have been no small source of friction between the Bush and Perry camps.
A 2007 YouTube, for example, showed Perry at a fundraiser saying, “George Bush was never a fiscal conservative – never was,” going on to say, “I mean, ’95, ’97, ’99, George Bush (while he was Texas Governor) was spending money.” The video came to the attention of Bush aides and they were not happy with Perry’s criticisms of their man.
Then after initially embracing Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” law, Perry turned against it, calling it “a monstrous intrusion into our (i.e. the Texas education system) affairs” in an interview. His 10th Amendment fire-breathing can’t be contained.
When Perry ran for his third gubernatorial election, the Bush family and political team retaliated by backing Perry’s Republican opponent, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, providing her campaign with fundraising and organizational support. Perry won the primary and went on to win in the general election by a sizable margin, no doubt giving him cause to gloat and giving the Bush camp cause to mope.
The relationship between Perry and Bush continues to be frosty. But it would be foolish for Perry to provoke the Bush family into working against him if he chooses to run for President. And it would also be petty of the Bush family to deny that politics requires a candidate to show that he is his own man, not a clone of his former boss. Gore ran against Clinton in 2000, and if Perry runs, he will have to show his independence of Bush if he is to have any hope of shedding the “Oh no, not another Texas Governor” image.
Bush ran as a “compassionate conservative,” probably a euphemism for the liberalism of his rich family, which is what caused Reagan to balance his conservative ticket with running mate George H. W. Bush. Perry will have to show that he intends to reverse the reckless spending of the Bush-Obama years.
Bush ran as a “uniter, not a divider.” Perry will have to show that he intends to be an unmistakable contrast to everything Obama stands for and will undo the Obama program, even as Clinton undid the Reagan legacy and Obama undid the Bush programs, complaining all the while that Bush was responsible for everything that was wrong with America.
Perry has not yet said he is in the race. Time is running out for him to do so. But should Obama be concerned if Perry runs? Absolutely. Obama cannot run on his record – an unpopular healthcare law, a failed stimulus, unprecedented spending and debt, a jobless “recovery” and the threat of a double-dip recession, not to mention a foreign policy he can’t explain and his undeclared war on Libya. Obama’s record is a disaster. Perry by contrast produced in Texas an oasis of prosperity in a sea of misery during the Obama years.
Not being able to defend his own economic record, or attack Perry's, Obama might try to paint Perry as a representative of the far right. That wouldn't be easy. Perry served three terms in the Texas House as a Democrat, and supported Al Gore's 1988 presidential bid. That was when there were still some conservative Democrats. Perry switched to the Republican Party in 1989 when the Democrat Party began moving left.
Obama might attack Perry’s ideological extremism. But Perry could remind voters that Reagan was initially painted as a conservative extremist, until Reagan’s folksy “Now there you go again” confidence showed Americans that the extremist was in the White House. Reagan’s proof was the economic chaos Carter had wrought (“Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”) and the foreign policy catastrophes his policies produced in Iran, whose hostage crisis was nearing 400 days.
Unlike Perry, Obama is all hat and no cattle. There is no Obama thrust that Perry can’t parry if he keeps his good humor and enthusiasm and reminds Americans that, yes, his flaws are large – until you compare them with Obama’s.