WHEN I LOOK BACK AT THE RECENT HISTORY of Texas politics, I can hardly believe the strange turns it has taken. The first time I noticed Rick Perry was in 1987, when the price of oil was in the teens and the state budget was very tight. He was a second-term conservative Democrat back then—one of a group of like-minded lawmakers, known as the Pit Bulls, who reveled in cutting the budgets of state agencies. (Well, at least that part hasn’t changed.) Geniality, not substance, was his strong suit. (Nor has that part.) But one night, a couple of years later, I was surprised to get a phone call from Perry. He was switching parties, he said, to run for agriculture commissioner on the Republican ticket against Democratic incumbent Jim Hightower. His career in the House had stalled, and his political acumen told him that if he had any future, it was in the Republican party.
I did not recognize the importance of the moment: This was the launching point of a political career that will, in all likelihood, lead to the longest governorship in Texas history. In 1990 Texas was very much a Democratic state, with only one statewide Republican officeholder, Governor Bill Clements—and he was already a lame duck, as he had said his second term would be his last. Who could foresee that Hightower would run such a poor race? That Perry, despite holding an obscure office, would have the inside track to be his party’s nominee for lieutenant governor eight years later? That John Sharp, his formidable Democratic opponent in that race, would be unable to send him packing? That Perry would ascend to the governorship in 2000, when Bush became president, without having to run for the job? No Texas politician has led such a charmed life.
Now, almost twenty years after the Pit Bulls had their brief day in the sun, one more race—destined to be the weirdest one of all time, at least at the top of the ballot—stands between Perry and a record-smashing ten years in the Governor’s Mansion. Why him? There are many reasons for longevity in politics, but none of the usual ones apply in this case. Personal popularity? His has never approached the level enjoyed by his predecessor, or even that of Ann Richards. His job approval rating has generally languished below 50 percent; in a much-discussed May 2006 SurveyUSA poll, he stood at 40 percent favorable and 54 percent unfavorable, a finding that would make him unelectable in a true two-party state. Legislative record? The new school finance plan he pushed through the Legislature in the recently concluded special session is the closest thing you could find to a significant achievement, and it has drawn criticism from one end of the political spectrum to the other, especially for its revision of the way the state taxes business. How about great teamwork with the rest of the Republican leadership—Speaker Tom Craddick, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, and Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn? As everyone knows, none of them get along. Respect from lawmakers? Two years ago, House members voted down a Perry school finance plan 126—0.
So what accounts for his unprecedented success? To repeat: No Texas politician has led such a charmed life. Twice, in 2002 and again in 2006, U.S. senator Kay Bailey Hutchison was on the verge of challenging him in the Republican primary (“Texas needs a grown-up for governor,” she had told friends, when mulling the 2002 race), only to back down from races she would have been favored to win. The Democratic party finds itself reduced to irrelevancy. In Republican-dominated Texas, the only election that matters is the GOP primary—with around 650,000 voters—and the only primary voters who matter are the majority on the far right. So long as Perry remains in good standing with the most ideological primary voters and with the party’s major fund-raisers, he can govern a state of 22 million. Never have so few done so little for so many.
Uh-oh. This is the kind of offhand remark about Perry that several months ago led his chief of staff, Deirdre Delisi, to ask for an audience with Texas Monthly ’s political writers and its editor, Evan Smith. The meeting took place at a crowded Mexican restaurant in downtown Austin; it went on for more than an hour, and it was no fun. Delisi began by complaining, “I think Texas Monthly has made up its mind about Rick Perry,” and proceeded to list assorted grievances. Evan’s response was something like, “We’re journalists; it’s our job to report; we have to keep an open mind about everything.” I nodded. “Nothing would please me more,” I said, “than for Rick Perry to be a great governor of Texas.” I meant it—not for Perry’s sake but for Texas’s.
Yet I knew that the space separating us across the table was symbolic of something more: the unbridgeable divide that puts politicians and their close associates at a distance from the media. We would never agree on what it meant to be a great governor. Perry’s boosters insist that he has proved himself to be a leader with his toll road plan and his deregulation of college tuition. They point to tort reform passed on his watch—the strongest such measure in the country, and the model for others—and now they are touting his tax cuts. Even I would acknowledge that he did Texas proud by opening the Astrodome to Katrina evacuees and sending Department of Public Safety troopers to the border to meet the threat of violence from Mexican drug cartels. But I would also say that being a great governor means principled governance on behalf of everybody, not just slavish obeisance to your biggest campaign contributors. I would say that it means putting policy ahead of ideology, that it means addressing problems by doing what has to be done but not going overboard, that it means giving everybody a place at the table. In short, I