And so ends, for all practical purposes, the long Perry governorship. In an article I posted on Saturday, previewing the State of the State address, I asked, “Is it his last?” The tenor of his speech yesterday affirms that it is. Perry spoke mainly about the state he loves: “It is my pleasure to report that the state of our state is stronger than ever,” he said. “We led the nation out of recession and into recovery.”
“Big and small, dreams become reality in Texas,” he went on. “Texans have succeeded to the tune of more than half a million private-sector jobs added over the last two years alone, a total of nearly 1.4 million created in the private sector over the last 10 years. Now, there are those who insist our job creation stat doesn’t mean much, because they say we are only creating entry-level, low-paying jobs.”
“We should put in place a stronger constitutional limit on spending growth, ensuring it never grows more than the combined rate of inflation and population,” he continued. This was a rare applause line in his speech. He called for tax relief and said that the state will not expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. (“Texas will not drive millions more into an unsustainable system that will drive this state into bankruptcy,” he said.) That he called the law by its formal name rather than “Obamacare” was a signal that he was not inclined to forge into partisan politics this day, and he did not do so.
“We need to address our state’s infrastructure needs in water and transportation,” Perry said, adding that the Rainy Day Fund would soon reach $12 billion. He said he would earmark $3.7 billion from the fund for a one-time investment in infrastructure, but $3.7 billion won’t stretch very far when Tx-Dot alone is asking for $4 billion for maintenance and congestion relief.
What is interesting about this speech is that Perry himself, in earlier years, spoke often about the need for infrastructure improvements in power, water, and transportation. He has been governor since December 2000, and he could have put that money to good use for much of that period. Why didn’t that happen? The answer, I believe, is that two political battles changed Perry and made him less inclined to take chances. One was over HPV vaccinations of young girls; the other was over the Trans-Texas Corridor. He lost both. What Perry learned from those fights is that his constituency was more conservative than he was. Facing a looming primary battle with Kay Bailey Hutchison, he turned sharply to the right and embraced the Tea Party (and, famously, hinted at secession). That gave him a new lease on his political life and won him his third term as governor.
I think it’s worth pointing out what he didn’t say in his speech. He didn’t mention abortion, after saying recently that he hoped to end the procedure in Texas. He didn’t propose emergency legislation. He didn’t blast Washington and the federal government. But one thing came out of nowhere: “During his second inaugural address, President Obama called on us all to work together and do our part to secure a brighter future for America. Mr. President, Texas stands ready to do our part!” Huh? Where did that come from? Rick Perry harkening to the words of Barack Obama? Did the message of the election and the troubles of his party outside of Texas come through to him? Has he realized that the world of politics has changed? That came as a complete surprise.
By any political standard, Perry has been a highly successful governor. He had a vision for Texas that had at its center a policy of building a strong economy by attracting jobs to Texas with state funds. He now has the good fortune of serving during a magical oil boom that is transforming not only Texas but America and the future of energy. As a chief executive, he has changed the nature of the office that he held. The framers of the Texas Constitution intended to establish a government with a strong legislative branch and a weak and fragmented executive, but Perry has used his longevity in office to establish a cabinet form of government, one in which he appointed the heads of all the executive agencies and ran them from the governor’s office. He controlled the regents of every college and university system. His style of governing is not unlike a game of monopoly, in which his opposition had no safe place on which to land. He controlled the entire board of state government. Perry understood power as few Texas chief executives ever have and knew how to use it. That was his genius.
Of course, the story does not yet have an ending. Perry’s term as governor extends through January 2015. What we do know is that Perry overreached when he ran for president. It didn’t appear to be a mistake at first, but it soon became obvious that he had started too late and his staff (until Joe Allbaugh came along) was not up to the job, and he was battling fatigue from painful back surgery. By the time he returned to Texas, Perry had lost his aura of invincibility, and the Legislature had lost its fear of him. The fact is, Perry has always enjoyed the campaigning part of the job more than the governing part. Whether he will try again to run for president (or governor) is known only to Perry. What else is there for him to do? But in the end, he has made the fatal mistake of staying too long.