Why you don’t ‘mess with Texas’

August 23rd, 2011

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This piece was originally published by Politico.

Gov. Rick Perry of Texas makes the Republican establishment very nervous.

The George W. Bush people are virtually apoplectic over the prospect of Perry’s winning the nomination. Karl Rove warned on Fox News, “Gov. Perry is going to have to fight the impression that he’s a cowboy from Texas.” Rove wrote in his column, “The Republican Party will find it more difficult to gain the support [of disaffected Obama voters] if its nominee adopts a tone that’s harshly negative.”

Here’s a handy rule of thumb: If Rove believes a candidate is too right-wing to get elected, then the candidate may be too right-wing to get elected.

Perry is an authentic Texan — more authentic than either President George W. Bush or George H.W. Bush. The Bushes were both born in New England, the epicenter of the Eastern establishment, and went to Yale. They were more like faux Texan than the real deal. Perry was born in Paint Creek, Texas, where his family roots are five generations deep. He went to Texas A&M.

The Bushes advertised themselves as “kinder and gentler” and ”compassionate” conservatives. Not words Perry would use. When a reporter recently asked Perry whether he was the strong, silent type, the governor replied, “strong.”

But he can be pretty silent, too. When Perry ran for a third term last year, he refused to meet with any newspaper editorial boards or to debate his Democratic opponent.

There’s a quality of “meanness” that has deep roots in Texas politics. You can find it in Texas politicians of both parties, an Austin lobbyist once explained to me. “They don’t just want to beat you,” he said. “They want to knock you down, and then stomp on you.”

As an example, the lobbyist cited Democrat Jim Mattox, known in his day as the “junkyard dog” of Texas politics. When Mattox was Texas attorney general, he routinely traveled to the state prison to attend executions. Similarly, former Democratic Gov. Mark White ran a reelection campaign ad where he strolled through a portrait gallery of Texans. All had been executed while he was in office.

“There is more tolerance for social inequality in Texas than in any other state,” one leading Texas political consultant explained to me. “What we do here for the mentally retarded and the mentally ill is a disgrace. What we do in the way of health care for the poor and the uninsured is a disgrace. What we do here in the way of our prison system is a disgrace.”

That’s Perry’s Texas. In 2001, the late journalist Molly Ivins wrote about Perry, “We Texans would like to salute the only governor we’ve got, Rick ‘Goodhair’ Perry, the Ken Doll, for vetoing the bill to outlaw executing the mentally retarded. We are Texas Proud.”

Texas does have a good record of job creation. Perry is running for president on it. But a lot of questions are now being raised about how good those jobs are and how much credit Perry deserves for them.

Meanwhile, the percentage of Texans without health insurance is the highest in the country — 27 percent. Texas is a low tax state — but also a meager safety-net state. It has the fourth highest poverty rate in the country, and shockingly low levels of spending on education and social welfare.

If Perry emerges as the Republican standard-bearer, a central theme of the Democratic campaign against him is likely to be: Does the rest of the country really want to be like Texas?

The hard-edged style of campaigning that works for Perry in Texas — he has served longer than any other Texas governor and has never lost an election — may not go over too well in the rest of the country. Perry has described the monetary policies of Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke “treasonous’’ him. (“We would treat him pretty ugly down in Texas.”). He has impugned President Barack Obama’s patriotism. (Asked if he thinks Obama loves America, Perry responded, “You need to ask him.”)

Perry seems unmindful of the separation of church and state. He sponsored “a day of prayer and fasting for our nation” last month, which had strong overtones of evangelical Christianity. He has raised the prospect of Texas leaving the union again. (“Please secede,” a New Hampshire voter shouted at Perry)

Perry carries a gun when he goes jogging and once shot a coyote, which, he said, was threatening his dog. He has said that Social Security might be handled better at the state level. (“Such ideas ought to be on the table.”)

Asked whether he accepts evolution, Perry responded, “It’s a theory that’s out there.”

Could Perry defeat Obama? If things get bad enough, and voters are desperate enough for real change, there is no telling what they might do. D.H. Lawrence once wrote, “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer.”

Meanwhile, with a field of eight candidates now running for the nomination, establishment Republicans are still looking for their candidate. The latest object of desire: House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).

“Paul Ryan would be a formidable candidate,” a leading Republican said recently. “He would force the race to be about sustained, job-creating economic growth and the real policies that can achieve it.” The Republican who said that? Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Perry is already running second in polls of Republicans nationwide, just a few points behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

But voters outside Texas don’t know much about Perry. Texas voters do. And they don’t seem thrilled. In a poll taken in late June by Public Policy Polling, Perry’s job rating in Texas was 52 percent negative; 59 percent of Texans did not want him to run for president.

Since Perry likes to cite scripture, here’s a quote that might apply: “Jesus said unto them, ‘A prophet hath no honor in his own country.’” (Matthew 13;57).