I used to teach a course at the Lyndon B. Johnson school of Public Affairs, for first-year students, called “Policy Development.” The metaphor for the course was a cauldron of soup, into which all the issues of the day were dumped. Sometimes these issues floated to the top; sometimes they sank to the bottom, but together they formed the principal concerns of government. Academics, bureaucrats, and elected officials studied these issues looking for indicators–numbers that suggested that this issue or that one was undergoing change. The unstated premise was that the bureaucracy was the real government–that they knew what was going on, more than the elected officials did, because they knew the numbers. Once the numbers were known–that, say, illegal immigration was increasing, or the number of homeless people–government would address the problem, or, at the very least, make the public aware of it. Together, these issues created a policy agenda on which, presumably, politicians would take action. I bring this up to make the point that Rick Perry is just plain different from other politicians. He never lived in the world of policy agendas as it was described in “Policy Development.” In that world, politicians identify problems and seek solutions. I can’t recall Perry once urging legislators to improve education and health care, the state’s two main services. In the middle of a crippling drought, his policy response was to ask Texans to pray for rain, rather than to support funding for the state’s water plan. He has never been the kind of politician who tackles problems, unless an issue gets under his skin, such as the rising cost and lackluster graduation rates of higher education have done recently. Texas government is full of indicators that are blinking red–danger! danger!–from dropout rates to families without health insurance, and year after year they go unaddressed. That’s not the way it was supposed to happen, according to Policy Development 101. The point is, Rick Perry is not like other politicians. He doesn’t think about politics in terms of problems and solutions. He thinks about politics in terms of ideology and power. Perry is saying things in this campaign that no presidential candidate has said in decades, not the least of which is an unrelenting attack on social security. Far from avoiding the third rail of American politics, he is jumping onto it. He wants to do away with Medicaid. He wants to repeal the income tax. He opposes the direct election of U.S. senators and wants to return their election to state legislatures. When was the last time you heard a politician advocate taking away the right of the people to vote? This seems to me like an enormous–and unnecessary–gamble. Perry already has the best talking point of any candidate, which is his record of job creation in Texas, certified by the Dallas Fed. I would say that he is running a risk of becoming a caricature of himself, except that it’s not much of a risk when he has a double-digit lead over his rivals.
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