Today is the first day of the rest of Rick Perry’s life–at least in Texas. The moment he made his intentions clear yesterday in San Antonio–“Today I am announcing that I will not seek re-election as the governor of Texas”–he became a lame duck. His fundraising will take a nosedive. He can’t shake down the lobby any more. Even if he wanted to run again, he would have faced a better-funded candidate in Greg Abbott, and arguably a more popular one, at least in Republican circles.
Perry’s declining stature among Republican voters in his home state was clearly identified by Public Policy Polling in a recent survey. In a hypothetical Republican presidential primary, Ted Cruz led all likely candidates with 27 percent. He was followed by Jeb Bush with 15 percent, Rand Paul with 11 percent, Chris Christie with 11 percent, Paul Ryan with nine percent, Rick Perry with seven percent, Rick Santorum with four percent, and Bobby Jindal with three percent. The poll asked Republican voters if Perry should run for president. The response: 69 percent no, 18 percent yes. Perry is no longer the darling of the far right. Cruz has swept up that constituency. Perry would have no chance to win his home-state primary.
Yesterday’s ceremony in San Antonio was more of a cheerleading session than an indication of Perry’s “exciting news about his future plans,” as it was advertised. There was no news, exciting or otherwise, nor was there any mention of his future plans. Mostly, Perry engaged in braggadocio about the Texas economy, which is standard fare for him. He has been blessed to serve as governor during a period of enormous growth in jobs and state revenue, though how much of it Perry can legitimately claim credit for is hard to say. One thing is certain: he didn’t put the oil there.
My first inkling that Perry had lost interest in being governor came when he spoke on the first day of the Eighty-third legislative session. It was a lifeless speech with no substantive content. On the same day, Speaker Straus gave his address, and it offered more leadership than Perry’s. As it happened, that was a harbinger of things to come; Straus drove the agenda of the session more than Perry did.
Where does Perry go from here? This is the first time since 2002 that he has not been running for something. He could run for president, an option he has left open, but he has no ideological niche, now that Cruz has gotten to his right. He does speak of the “Texas economic model,” which is low taxes, low state spending, light regulation of business, and limitations on lawsuits, but that just makes him one among many pro-business governors. The only unique part of the Texas model is tort reform. In any event, bragging about Texas is not likely to endear himself to the rest of the country.
If Perry does decide to run for president, I can foresee obvious difficulties ahead. For starters, the media will never stop replaying his “Oops!” moment. It will follow him wherever he goes, and whatever he attempts to do. His critics will point out that for all of Perry’s job recruitment efforts, many of those jobs pay low wages. The critics will also latch on to the high number of uninsured Texans (although changes in the health care market could alleviate that issue). Finally, if opposition researchers start looking closely at the disaster that has become CPRIT, it will be a huge blot on his record. Millions of dollars earmarked for cancer research cannot be accounted for. He will also have to answer for his efforts to drive UT-Austin president Bill Powers out of office, a destructive crusade that will mark him as an anti-intellectual bully.
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Looking back on the long Perry governorship, I think that the turning point was the battle over the Trans-Texas Corridor in the middle of the first decade of the new century. The person Perry sent forth to defend the corridor was the late Ric Williamson, chairman of TxDot, who met with thousands of Texans in an attempt to sell Perry’s vision: a 1,200-foot scar through rural Texas that would carry rail lines, pipelines,and transmission lines through the heart of the state on toll roads. Rural folks hated the idea and Williamson ultimately had to renounce the entire plan. Perry had met the enemy and it was himself and his TxDot chairman.
The corridor issue was followed by another one: Perry proposed that state health officials mandate that all sixth-grade girls should be vaccinated for cervical cancer. Once again there was an uproar throughout the state and another Perry idea caused a huge public blowback. The revelation that the lobbyist for Merck, the maker of the vaccine, was Michael Toomey, a close political ally of Perry’s, only served to undermine the governor’s reputation. (The episode would later be used against Perry in a presidential debate setting, when a rival, Michele Bachmann, called Perry a “crony capitalist.”) The lesson that Perry took from those episodes was Texans didn’t want any grand ideas; they were perfectly happy with ordinary ideas that didn’t upset people’s lives and property.
From that point forward, Perry became much more cautious. There were no grand ideas; in fact, there were hardly any ideas at all. Perry sought safety in ideology. He would never thereafter propose a big-spending program like the Corridor (which was not a bad idea, just an upopular one). The Corridor was shelved. The only way to fund it was with toll roads, and the public hated toll roads. One possible alternative was to increase the gasoline tax, but … once burned, twice shy. Perry would never propose a tax increase of any sort even though the gas tax hadn’t been raised since the early nineties. Perry still wanted more roads; he is a strong believer in infrastructure of all kinds (roads, water projects, power generation, and the like), but if it meant raising taxes, Perry was against it. And so, as the years went by, Perry eschewed anything that smacked of a tax increase. The state needed new roads, everybody agreed on that, but Perry wasn’t going to build them if it meant a tax increase. Instead, he chose to issue bonds and build highways with debt – a debt the state is still paying off. (There is no real difference between building highways with bonds and going into debt, and building highways with tax dollars, except that it is a lot cheaper to pay off roads by paying with cash rather than by issuing more debt.)
And so the years went by without Texas building new roads, and the state remained locked in the grip of Perry’s anti-tax ideology. And that’s where it stayed until the 2013 legislative session, when various lawmakers began to make proposals for water and roads infrastructure. Even then, there was considerable resistance from conservatives to spending money from the Rainy Day Fund, both in 2011 and 2013. I suppose it is possible now to look forward to a new day in Texas, one in which pragmatism trumps ideology and one man’s ideas no longer govern an entire state. That is the real takeaway from Perry’s announcement.