Is There Life After Rick Perry?

And what happens when we get there?

February 2012By Comments

Rick Perry began 2011 on a high note. Having won his third full term as governor the previous November, he took the oath of office on the south steps of the Capitol with the wind both in his hair and at his back. In the same election, the Legislature had tipped heavily in his favor, as a new freshman class, dominated by tea party conservatives, swelled the Republican ranks in the House and Senate. Standing before many of those lawmakers, as well as numerous other members of state government, nearly all of whom he controlled in one way or another, Perry delivered an epic speech: “You might say historians will look back on this as the ‘Texas century,’ ” the governor said. “Americans once looked to the East Coast for opportunity and inspiration, then to the West Coast. Today they are looking to the Gulf Coast—they are looking to Texas. . . . This is our time, this is our place in history. We must seize the moment.”

Which is exactly what he did. In August, after a legislative session in which he got nearly everything he wanted, Perry announced his candidacy for president. This was his second high note of the year. Before a group of conservative bloggers gathered for the annual RedState conference, in South Carolina, Perry declared, “I believe in America. I believe in her purpose and her promise. I believe her best days have not yet been lived. I believe her greatest deeds are reserved for the generations to come.”

At that moment, all things seemed possible for Texas’s longest-serving governor. He had every necessary attribute to become president: rugged handsomeness, a compelling record of job creation, an undefeated electoral record, a prodigious fund-raising ability, and a legendary talent for the kind of retail politics that early-primary states are said to require. He seemed, at first glance, to be everything GOP primary voters said they were looking for, and Perry instantly skyrocketed to the top of the polls.

But as summer turned to fall, he hit a rough patch. His support for in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants (and, to a lesser degree, his history of crony capitalism) outraged the tea party base and left him vulnerable to a self-inflicted death blow: poor debate performances. Alongside the other candidates, Perry seemed unanimated, sluggish, even confused. The number of stumbles mounted, culminating finally with the infamous “oops” moment at the Michigan debate that devastated his candidacy. He slipped from front-runner status and declined precipitously in the polls.

In Texas, where only a year and a half earlier Perry had won a smashing primary victory over Kay Bailey Hutchison (using some of the same anti-establishment arguments he was now trying, ineptly, to direct at Mitt Romney), stories of dysfunction began to ricochet around the Capitol. A source close to the campaign told me that Perry’s staff didn’t realize how important the debates were going to be until it was too late. Complaints about unresponsiveness were commonplace. A consultant who backed Perry told me that he tried to put a major donor (i.e., someone willing to pledge as much as $1 million) in touch with the campaign, but the donor never got a call back.

“Emails and phone calls frequently went unreturned,” a reporter who covered the campaign told me. “Schedules were difficult to come by more than two to three days in advance, and minor tasks like getting on the press list could take a lot of time and energy.” (She added that things improved after a couple months.) Anita Perry finally intervened, leading to a shake-up in which Joe Allbaugh, an experienced operative who was instrumental in George W. Bush’s campaign of 2000, was brought in to right the ship. But, as was later reported by Politico (and denied by Perry), this only led to a split within the campaign between the old and new teams.

As the first primary contest approached, in Iowa, Perry seemed to regain his footing, but he was now playing a game of catch-up. He finished a disappointing fifth, having spent some $4 million on television ads that, a key campaign operative acknowledged to me, “didn’t move anybody.” Most observers figured he was done. But following an emotional speech in which the governor appeared to be laying the groundwork for a concession, he surprised everyone (including members of his campaign) by tweeting the following morning, during a jog, that he was soldiering on to South Carolina. It was yet another chaotic moment in a campaign that had been defined by them.

The next weekend, Perry took the stage for another debate. He needed a dazzling performance. Instead, he barely registered, largely ignored by both the moderators and the other candidates. Three days later, he finished with less than one percent of the vote in New Hampshire.

Can he still win the nomination? Probably not. Can he make a more respectable showing? Even that now appears to be a long shot (at press time, he was polling a distant fifth in South Carolina). But regardless of what happens, his campaign will mark a turning point in Texas politics. Over the past eleven years that he has been in office, Perry has become the most powerful governor in the history of the state. But not without cost: a volcano has been building up underneath him during that time, a molten brew of unresolved issues and unsatisfied grievances seething beneath a placid surface of economic growth. These include budget cuts of unprecedented severity, a multitude of school finance lawsuits, ill-conceived initiatives like the Trans-Texas Corridor, an emphasis on ideological purity over compromise, and a tendency to punish dissent. There is now a wellspring of animosity, even among Republican lawmakers, one of whom described Perry to me as “a cancer on the state.”

So what happens next? If Perry drops out of the race and comes home, his term will not expire until January 2015. Most likely, he will take up where he left off. But he will doubtlessly find himself in a changed world. The myth of invincibility surrounding him has been shattered, emboldening members of both parties to lay aside the fear he inspired in all who dared cross him. Will he be able to return to business as usual? How much has his power really been diminished? Can he run again in 2014? Will he want to? After a decade of stability and one-man rule, the only thing certain about the future is that it is uncertain. We are now entering a transitional phase, a period between the Perry era and whatever comes next. This period is defined by a multitude of questions, and below I have attempted to answer some of the most critical ones.

Question #1:

If Perry drops out of the presidential race, will he serve out the rest of his term as governor? Is there a chance he could resign and start a new career? Could he end up on someone’s short list for vice president?

The last option is the most intriguing. If Dan Quayle could do it, Rick Perry can too. As governor of a big, wealthy, blood-red state, Perry would certainly merit consideration as a candidate for anyone’s vice-presidential short list, even if this would require him to debate again. What makes this even more plausible is that Perry did front-runner Mitt Romney a huge favor by not quitting after Iowa and staying in the race, thereby splitting the conservative opposition to Romney in South Carolina. What makes it less plausible is that Romney is said to despise Perry and vice versa. But so what? John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson despised each other too. This isn’t an ice cream social, it’s politics. Romney needs a tea party conservative like Perry on the ticket to keep Republican voters fired up, and Perry is central casting’s idea of a vice president: an attack dog who photographs well and has a history of being able to raise large amounts of money.

Should this scenario come to pass, and a Romney-Perry ticket prove victorious, it would create an interesting situation in Texas. Perry would have to resign the office of governor, just as Bush did in 2000. At that point, January 2013, just as the next legislative session begins, lieutenant governor David Dewhurst would become governor. Except that Dewhurst is currently running to succeed Kay Bailey Hutchison in the U.S. Senate, a race in which he is the heavy favorite. Dewhurst, however, could choose not to take the oath of office as a senator in order to remain lieutenant governor, positioned to succeed Perry. Dewhurst has always coveted the job, and he would be a different kind of governor than Perry: more substantive and less partisan and ideological. The main obstacle for a successful Dewhurst tenure would be his quirky personality, which his fellow politicians can find maddening. But Lord knows we’ve had quirky governors before.

All of this is highly speculative, of course. The most likely outcome is that Perry returns to Austin. The unknown factor is how much enthusiasm he will have for his old job. Might he be tempted to resign, as Sarah Palin did following her turn on the national stage? Perry has a job with nice perks and an income that has expanded to more than $240,000—thanks to his decision to “retire” as governor and take state pension benefits worth about $90,000 a year—but no long-term financial security. He has done a lot of favors for a lot of people over the years, and there are plenty of ways for those favors to be reciprocated, with positions on corporate boards and speeches given for honoraria. There is a lot of talk under the dome that he would like to join the Fox News pundit corps, as Mike Huckabee and Palin did. Unfortunately, his performance in the presidential race may have scotched that possibility. And his gratuitous criticisms of Bush over the years, one presumes, have not found favor with Perry’s former consultant Karl Rove, who has the ear of the network’s top brass.

Another reason for him not to resign: he’s 61, in excellent health, and hates to lose. As poorly as he performed this year, if Obama is reelected, Perry is arguably among the leaders of the GOP pack going into 2016, as Romney was going into 2012. Perry’s not a quitter, and he could still have another White House run up his sleeve.

Question #2:

If he does return to Texas to finish out his term, will he still have the clout he used to have? Or will lawmakers be more willing to defy him? What will the 2013 legislative session be like?

In the months between Perry’s declaring his candidacy and finishing fifth in Iowa, a shift occurred in the mood at the Capitol. The first indication that the times were a-changin’ came from House Speaker Joe Straus, who gave an interview to the El Paso Times, in late October, in which he made the case that the Legislature would need to fix the state’s structural budget deficit during the 2013 session. “I think at some point,” he told the reporter, “you can’t cut your way to prosperity.” This was exactly the sort of viewpoint that drew fire in 2011, when Perry insisted on rigid adherence to his budget-slashing priorities. That the Speaker was willing to climb out on this limb suggested that the governor’s ability to rule through intimidation had already begun to ebb. This was confirmed by several conversations I had in late 2011. As one highly placed legislative staffer told me, “We’re already operating in a post-Perry world. The fear is gone.”

This, in the long run, could be the most significant consequence of Perry’s decision to seek the presidency. It has created an opportunity to redress a constitutional imbalance between the executive and legislative branches that has been growing throughout Perry’s time in office. The governorship of Texas was created to be a weak office, a reaction to the much-loathed Reconstruction-era regime of Republican governor E. J. Davis, who imposed on the public such indignities as a state police force. The real power is supposed to reside with the legislative branch, which explains why some of Texas’s most successful and highly regarded officials have been lieutenant governors—Bob Bullock and Bill Hobby, for example—rather than governors. The framers of the state constitution wanted the Legislature, the branch of government that is closest to the people, to have the lion’s share of the power. They designed a fragmented executive branch, in which power is shared by five elected officials—the governor, the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, the land commissioner, and the comptroller. (At one time there was also a treasurer.) It was intended to keep anyone from getting too big for his britches.

The Perry era, however, has been defined by consolidation of power within the governor’s office. This is a function of his unprecedented longevity. With a few exceptions, state government in Texas is run by boards and commissions of executive agencies, seats on which are appointed by the governor (in recent years, a few key agencies—the Texas Education Agency, the Health and Human Services Commission—have been headed by individual commissioners chosen by the governor). Most appointees serve six-year terms, and before Perry, no Texas governor had served more than seven and a half consecutive years (and most served fewer). This meant that most governors inherited and had to work with appointees picked by their predecessors, ensuring some diversity of viewpoints.

Not anymore. Every slot at every state agency is now filled by a Perry appointee, and many have been expected to support the governor and his policies or resign (as was the fate of a Texas Tech regent who introduced Hutchison at a campaign event when she was running against Perry). In effect, Perry created a strong executive office with what amounted to a Cabinet form of government in a state whose constitution was intended to create a weak executive branch.

This iron-fisted control has made life difficult for legislators whose policies did not find favor with Perry. One staffer described state government to me as a giant game of Monopoly, where lawmakers not sympathetic to a policy supported by Perry had no place where they could land safely.

But it hasn’t just been Perry’s control of the agencies that makes him so powerful. He’s also an extremely canny politician who’s been able to use his bully pulpit to contain the debate in the Capitol. Consider the argument over the Rainy Day Fund in the Eighty-second Legislature. Perry opposed using the fund, despite a looming budget shortfall of up to $27 billion. Circumventing the legislative process, he went before the Republican caucus early in the session to ask its 101 members to join him in opposing spending from the fund. This amounted to an end run around Speaker Straus and House Appropriations chair Jim Pitts, and it worked perfectly. Later, when the Senate seemed to be leaning toward drawing from the fund, Perry put the screws to Dewhurst, and the lieutenant governor reversed himself.

In the past, Perry has been ruthlessly effective during moments like these. When he finds himself in battles with lawmakers who want to do something he doesn’t like, he can count on vocal support from outside groups that pressure his opponents and rile the base. One such case arose in the 2009 session, when business interests in the Metroplex were pressing for a local-option vote in Dallas and Tarrant counties for a 10-cent increase in the state gasoline tax. In essence, people were voting whether to tax themselves in order to fund improvements to their roads. You would have thought the world was coming to an end, the way the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank with close ties to Perry, and another pro-Perry echo chamber, a website called Empower Texans, fought the proposal. These groups were so effective that Perry didn’t have to lift a finger. Again, the governor got his way. Under Perry, the state constitution has been turned upside down: the executive has the power and the Legislature is left with the crumbs.

The big question is whether that will change if Perry limps home a humiliated figure. After all, who’s afraid of a punch line? Politicians have a nose for weakness, and they know when someone’s mandate to lead has been compromised. Many already feel this way and are willing to speak up. In conducting interviews for this story, I was surprised by what Republican lawmakers were willing to say on the record (though not always for attribution). There is a sense among legislators that under the current leadership, critical issues have been left unaddressed for too long. “I have a real concern for our Republican party in Texas,” Senator Kevin Eltife, a Republican from Tyler, told me. “We are not solving the problems in the state. The education finance reform passed in 2006 was a disaster. It’s not working. It has not delivered the property tax cuts that were promised or properly funded public education. At [the Department of Transportation], all we have done is continue to issue bonds and go deeper into debt. This is not solving our infrastructure problems. Our party is not providing leadership. We’re running on fumes.”

The solution for some of these problems could involve new spending of one kind or another, which has always been anathema under a Perry administration. Will his stumbles create an opening for change? Another Republican senator, John Carona, of Dallas, seemed to think this was a possibility. “If Perry is unsuccessful, the world will be different,” he told me. “There is a tremendous amount of work to be done, and we need serious legislators who offer realistic solutions. There is no strategic plan, no agreement on priorities. We just go from one crisis to another.”

The bill on many of those crises will almost certainly come due in the next legislative session, when lawmakers will tackle critical problems in transportation, health care, education, energy, the environment—and the list goes on. Right off the bat, they’ll have to decide whether to drain the Rainy Day Fund to pay for education and Medicaid, both of which will run out of funding early in 2013. Last session, Perry drew a line in the sand over the fund. Will he be forced to relent? And this is not the only place where his ideological rigidity will be tested. In November, a day before Perry’s debate meltdown in Michigan, Senator Tommy Williams, a Republican from The Woodlands, stepped forward to address the state’s increasingly overburdened highway system. As chairman of the Senate Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security, Williams called for hiking vehicle registration fees by as much as $50 per vehicle, in an effort to raise $16 billion for new highway construction. These kinds of proposals have not been taken seriously by Republicans for the better part of a decade, and they cannot pass without the governor’s blessing.

Yet even if Perry decides to maintain the inflexible posture he assumed during the Eighty-second Legislature, he may find himself in an increasingly isolated position. There is a growing acknowledgement, epitomized by Straus’s comment to the El Paso Times, that Texas, rather than being an unqualified success story, is rife with serious problems that need attention.

Many of these problems were highlighted by the bright glare that comes with a presidential campaign. Tom Banning, the CEO of the Texas Academy of Family Physicians, told me that, for this reason, Perry’s campaign was the best thing that could have happened for Texas. “He put the spotlight on what we don’t do well,” Banning said. “Before he became a candidate, there was just the occasional story about how bad the health care budget is. Then the national press started writing stories, and they juiced up the state press. What started out as a bunch of pixels became a mosaic, and what the mosaic showed was that Texas is not prepared to compete in the future.

“Perry cost Texas ten years of falling behind,” he continued. “It will take twenty for us to dig out.”

What makes the 2013 legislative session particularly challenging is that the Republican party in the Legislature is split between tea party extremists, who are opposed to almost any new spending, and mainstream conservatives, who want to tackle the state’s problems, restore state services, and raise new revenue—something that has not occurred in Texas since the early nineties. But Perry can take heart that the Texas Senate, which played a moderating force in recent years, is in the process of morphing into a much more conservative body. This is due to a combination of retirements by mainstream Republicans and the candidacies of several far-right House members who are seeking Senate seats. If these members are elected, the body will tilt further to the right than has been the case in the past several years. One beneficiary of this change could be Houston state senator Dan Patrick, a Perry ally who is said to be contemplating a run for lieutenant governor.

Expect some symbolic acts too. In 2013 someone in the Legislature is almost certain to propose a bill setting term limits for future governors. This is unlikely to apply to Perry but would affect the governorships of his successors. The often-heard attitude toward term limits in Texas was once stated succinctly by former Speaker Tom Craddick: “We already have term limits. They’re called elections.” But the prospect of many more years of Perry may be enough to change that sentiment.

Question #3:

So if he gets through the Eighty-third Legislature, will Perry run for another term as governor? And if he doesn’t, who will succeed him in the governorship?

Perry tasted electoral defeat for the first time in the Iowa caucuses. A loss in Texas in 2014 would be devastating to his pride. He hasn’t been this vulnerable since 2006. His campaign that year was imperiled by his support for the despised Trans-Texas Corridor and his failed attempt to fast-track approval of up to eighteen new coal-burning power plants. (The Republican brand was also at a low ebb, due to the sinking approval ratings of President Bush and his handling of the Iraq war as well as the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal and the investigation of GOP congressman Mark Foley, who was accused of sending sexually suggestive messages to former congressional pages.) Perry survived only because he had three opponents—Carole Keeton Strayhorn, Kinky Friedman, and Chris Bell—who split the opposition and enabled him to win with a plurality of just 39 percent of the vote.

Many people thought that “Governor 39 Percent,” as he was derisively known afterward, would never run again. (I was one of them.) But four years after that tepid win he put together his most brilliant and decisive victory ever, whipping conservatives into an anti-Washington frenzy that carried him through both the primary and general elections. As 2014 looms in the distance, I keep hearing the same kinds of observations I heard back in 2006: Perry can never run again; he’s been too damaged; the voters dislike him. But you know what they say: “Fool me once . . .” Two years is forever in politics, and Perry will want to do whatever he can to prevent an embarrassing national campaign from being the last thing he is remembered for (plus, it would also help set up a 2016 run).

If he declines to run, the presumed heir apparent is Attorney General Greg Abbott, a tough politician who is almost ideologically indistinguishable from Perry. Abbott, who has been confined to a wheelchair since a freak accident in 1984, has grit and determination and is largely free of the kind of controversy that seems to surround Perry. For now, he is the only Republican who appears to have seriously laid groundwork for a 2014 run. He has about $10 million socked away and is diligent about wooing the GOP base. He isn’t invincible, of course. His reputation took a hit in the redistricting fight, when his strategy of bypassing the Justice Department backfired. (The issue is still in the courts and may still wind up in Abbott’s favor.) And, well, his job is suing people, which is not the best way to build a constituency. Still, with Perry gone, he would be a strong favorite to win the primary and probably the general too. (His main challenge might come in the form of a less ideological, “good government” Republican, like former Dallas mayor Tom Leppert, who’s currently running, quixotically, for the U.S. Senate.) The question is whether Abbott would run against Perry, if the governor decides to seek another term.

The two men are allies (it is Abbott who must file all those lawsuits on Perry’s behalf against the EPA, the health care overhaul, and so on), but this wouldn’t stand in Abbott’s way if he thought he could win. Like Perry, he is an ambitious man, and he must know that running for governor as a Republican will not get any easier over time, that the days when the GOP primary effectively suffices for the general election will not last forever.

My guess is that, even after all this, Perry would probably win a GOP primary in 2014. It’s true that the governor doesn’t get a lot of respect. But he is a known quantity to voters. They know what they are going to get: conservative fiscal policy and no new taxes. Meanwhile, Perry will have a couple of years to repair his relationships with his donors. Abbott is not well-known enough to overcome the built-in advantages of incumbency. The only way he could beat Perry in this theoretical matchup is by successfully making the argument that the governor, due to his growing unfavorables with independents, would be vulnerable in a general election. But Republicans haven’t lost a general election since 1994, and the Democrats have no bench whatsoever. If—and that’s a big if—the Democrats can find a decent candidate to run in 2014, GOP primary voters could be nervous about having Perry as their standard-bearer. San Antonio mayor Julián Castro is probably his party’s best bet, but 2014 may simply be one cycle too early for the Democrats to win a statewide office.

Question #4:

So if 2014 turns out to be Perry’s last year in office, what will that mean for the other statewide offices? Who will move up? And will his departure create an opportunity for Democrats to gain power?

Perry’s long governorship has been the cork that keeps the ambitions of down-ballot officeholders bottled up. If this stopper is removed in 2014, we will likely see a furious round of musical chairs, as the statewides see their time to move up come round at last. Comptroller Susan Combs, land commissioner Jerry Patterson, and agriculture commissioner Todd Staples all appear to be interested in running for lieutenant governor in 2014, and they will likely have to reckon with the redoubtable Senator Patrick. Staples could veer off to run for comptroller. Combs is in the odd position of having the most money but also having the most to overcome. A major data breach in the comptroller’s office called her competency into question. And at a time when the state’s financial condition remains difficult, her support for spending $250 million over ten years to bring Formula 1 racing to Texas may appear wasteful. In a GOP primary, she could also face scrutiny for her position on abortion. For many years she was “pro-choice but not pro-abortion,” as she put it. Last summer she changed her position unequivocally, telling the Texas Tribune that her prior stance was wrong. Sure sounds like she’s getting ready to run for something.

As these officeholders move up and out, it will create new opportunities for yet more politicians, and over time, this will undoubtedly lead to changes in the state’s leadership. Texas politics, and its government, has stagnated during the Perry years, when the most important factor in electoral politics has been strict ideological conservatism. For the next dozen years, the most important factor in Texas politics will be demographics. The 2011 redistricting was the fire bell in the night. All that population growth you’ve heard about from politicians like Perry? Latinos accounted for two thirds of it, and they are inexorably headed to majority status in Texas. The Anglo population is experiencing little to no growth, and the political consequence is that sooner or later, Latinos will dominate state politics. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Democrats will dominate state politics. Latinos are patriotic, family-oriented, pro-business, and socially conservative (i.e., nascent Republicans, if only the GOP would stop digging its own grave by passing laws such as voter ID). The next decade—the 2020’s—will be defined by fierce competition between R’s and D’s over which party can win the loyalty of Latinos.

And by that time, strange as it seems, Rick Perry will be a distant memory.

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