“It’s been an improbable journey,” Governor Rick Perry said on Monday afternoon at a Caterpillar dealership in San Antonio. No kidding. When Perry became governor, in 2000, no one expected much from him. He had always been seen as a lightweight, a back-bencher in the Texas House who had managed to get himself elected agriculture commissioner–after switching parties–and later lieutenant-governor, but only with an assist from George W. Bush and Karl Rove.
He sure showed them, or us. The occasion for Perry’s speech today was that he wanted to make it official: he’s not running for re-election in 2014. In declining to do so, Perry is hardly skulking off with his tail between his legs. Even before his last re-election, in 2010, he was the longest-serving governor in Texas history, having ascended to that job at the end of 2000 after his predecessor, George W. Bush, left to prepare for the presidency. And Perry will have plenty to brag about from his fourteen years at the helm. He previewed some of the talking points in his announcement, but here’s the bird’s eye view: In 2000, according to the Census, the state had about 21 million people (PDF); as of 2012, we were more than 26 million. Driving this change has been the “Texas Miracle” of broad-based economic growth and diversification: Median household income, during that time, has risen from about $40,000 to about $51,000. Texas’s unemployment rate has been lower than the national average every month for more than six years. Whether or not Perry should take credit for the success that Texas experienced during his tenure, he no doubt will.
While his critics will carp that Perry is stepping down rather than risk losing—a January poll from Public Policy Polling found that a majority of Texans want a new governor, and even Republicans said they would prefer “someone else” to the incumbent—he has faced similarly unpropitious poll numbers in the past, and breezed past all challengers, in the general election and the Republican primary. Had he decided to run in 2014, Perry would, similarly, have surely been considered the favorite, despite the fact that he might have faced a well-funded primary challenge from Attorney General Greg Abbott—and a more-credible-than-usual general election challenge from state senator Wendy Davis, a Democrat from Fort Worth thanks largely to, oddly, Governor Perry himself.
The announcement, that is, caps a busy couple of weeks for Perry. He had started the summer as he spent much of the spring—traveling the country and wooing businesses to come to Texas. As an economic-development strategy, this is hardly the best use of his time or the state’s resources. According to one analysis, Perry only poached about 28,000 jobs between 2003 and 2009. As a way of calling attention to Texas’s strengths, however, Perry’s instincts were sound. The governor is at his best when talking about the economy, and at his funniest when making mischief for the many skeptics of the Texas Miracle. He should have stuck to it.
Instead, Perry came back to Texas. Abortion, he announced, would be among the topics eligible for consideration during the first special session. A number of Republicans, including Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, welcomed the announcement. Many of them had been publicly hoping for weeks that Perry would add abortion to the call, as a number of abortion-related bills filed during the regular session had fizzled out in the Texas Senate, which was, per longstanding tradition, using its two-thirds rule.
It was hard to greet the governor’s announcement without cynicism. Perry had not considered abortion an emergency item during the regular session, and he didn’t even add it to the call until halfway through the first special session. This was all of a piece with Perry’s approach to being governor; while he is pro-life, and socially conservative, he has historically paid more attention to the economy than the culture wars. As strange as it may seem, Perry has, at times, out of disinterest or distraction, served as a moderating influence on America’s biggest red state.
The last month, however, has not been one of those times. The bill has triggered a ferocious backlash, or, at least, what counts for a backlash in Texas, which is not a state known for excessive civic engagement. The protests against it are the most fervent the Capitol has hosted during his administration. And rather than try to soothe the state’s jangled nerves, Perry aggravated them with comments at the National Right to Life Convention that drew a rebuke from Joe Straus, the Republican Speaker of the House.
Those comments, of course, were about Davis, whose dramatic June 25 filibuster of the abortion bill at hand vaulted her to national recognition—and the fundraising capacity, one would imagine, that goes with that. Equally significant is that she now has a natural campaign platform, which is something that has eluded many statewide Democratic candidates in a state where the majority of voters tend to favor limited government.
If Davis runs, she would have to take pains to clarify that her campaign is not about late-term abortions, which a majority of Texans oppose (as do a majority of women; according to the CDC, less than one percent of abortions in Texas take place after the twentieth week). However, if Davis can make the case that her campaign is about women’s health and the rights of women more generally—about two weeks before the filibuster, Perry had vetoed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, authored by Davis and Houston Representative Senfronia Thompson—she is bound to find more support than the Democratic gubernatorial candidates who have preceded her. Recent polling found her trailing Perry or Abbott in a head-to-head matchup; still, the idea that she could win is not outside the realm of possibility. Perhaps the best evidence of that is that Abbott, who should now be considered the frontrunner for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, hasn’t said a word against her or even about her.
As for Perry, it would be a reasonably good bet that he is stepping down in 2014 so he can run for something else in 2016. His first shot at the Republican presidential nomination ended in disaster, with the capstone being the moment, during a live debate, when he forgot one of the three departments of the federal government he proposed to do away with. That moment was so risible that it has led people to forget the fact that his poll numbers had already started to slide—not because of his forgetfulness, but because of his relative moderation on issues such as immigration and reproductive health. Maybe that’s why he added abortion to the call.
If so, it’s a shame. The poignant thing about Perry is that people have never really taken him seriously—and as the highlights of his speech today made clear, that reflects some myopia on the part of the press and the public; if any other big state had posted the kind of numbers that Texas has over the past decade or so, its governor would get a lot more respect, at home and abroad. But a month like the last one shows why Perry bears some responsibility for his cartoonish reputation. Most governors, Democratic or Republican, would jinx their own mothers for the chance to have presided over a state during a period of such staggering economic success. Perry, the only governor in the country who has done so, may be mortgaging his legacy in the hopes of making friends with the elderly Republicans of Iowa.