Let’s start with the bad news for any left-leaning readers of this magazine: no, you haven’t seen the last of Rick Perry. Though the governor did announce on July 8 at a Caterpillar dealership in San Antonio that he wouldn’t seek reelection in 2014, he pledged to serve out the rest of his term. He also happened to mention that over the next eighteen months, he will spend time reflecting on his future. Writers like myself will spend that time reflecting on his past—and grappling with what the Perry legacy really is.
Despite the fact that Perry has been in public office continuously for nearly thirty years and is the state’s longest-serving governor, he has always been a bit puzzling. He was considered unremarkable—a nobody, really—when he was elected to the Texas House, in 1984, as a Democrat. Six years later, when he unseated incumbent Democrat Jim Hightower as agriculture commissioner after switching parties, he became the first Republican ever to win that office in Texas. But even then people saw Perry as a fluke. When he was elected lieutenant governor, in 1998, he seemed to be George W. Bush Junior. And when Perry became governor, in 2000—after W. left Austin to become president—it wasn’t too hard to dismiss him as an empty head of hair.
Even if Texans wanted to dispute that impression, they would be hard-pressed to do so. Despite his years in office, Perry remains an oddly underdeveloped character. Anyone trying to make sense of him will struggle to find the reference points. He didn’t come up through the state’s Republican establishment. His political alliances are apparently mutable. He doesn’t talk much about his family history, beyond the passing reference to the dirt farm in Paint Creek, and has rarely made political arguments from personal experience. Nor does he talk about his life at present all that often. Most Texans wouldn’t recognize his wife, Anita, if they saw her in the grocery store. At times, Perry doesn’t even seem connected to physical reality. He is, at 63, older than he looks. There’s a persistent belief that his hair is unusually good, when in reality it’s nondescript, especially for a politician. The truth is, he likes to jog. He likes to shoot. He loves to be on the campaign trail. And that’s about it.
It’s somewhat admirable, in our era of personality politics, to find a sitting governor of a major state who doesn’t seem destined for Oprah’s couch. On the other hand, it has made it hard to know what Perry cares about on a gut level; he is widely seen as more of a booster than a statesman. His interest in and engagement with policy has never been great, and his enthusiasm for limited government means that, by his own logic, the best place for him is on the sidelines, cheering the accomplishments of the private sector and trying to keep people out of its way.
Perry has always been focused on job creation and economic development, on keeping the taxes low and the budget lean. During his tenure, Texas has surpassed the nation on a staggering range of economic metrics. Since 2000 we have created more new jobs than any other state, and we continue to have one of the lowest tax burdens per capita in the country. Democrats dismiss this largely as luck. During his brief campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, liberal columnists were withering, if largely incorrect, in their takedowns. “What you need to know is that the Texas miracle is a myth,” wrote Paul Krugman, the most visible of the critics, in the New York Times. “And more broadly that Texan experience offers no useful lessons on how to restore national full employment.”
This line of critique fails to make sense. Here are the facts. During Perry’s time as governor, Texas has experienced staggering economic and population growth, which have reinforced each other. In 2000 there were about 21 million people living in Texas; today there are more than 26 million. The state’s total employment number has grown too. In 2000 there were fewer than 10 million jobs in Texas; today there are nearly 12 million. As of 2000, according to the Census Bureau, state GDP was approximately $730 billion; by 2009, it exceeded $1 trillion.
To take a more detailed look, every industry has grown, including the more lucrative ones. Oil and gas has boomed, but so has the high-tech sector. Texas has more minimum-wage workers than it used to, but also more doctors and engineers; between 2001 and 2011, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, 45 percent of Texas’s new jobs were in the highest two wage quartiles. The median household income is a touch below the national figure, but so is the cost of living. The unemployment rate has been below the national average every month for more than six years. In May the median home price in Houston hit $184,900—a record high for that city, but nonetheless an indication that the middle class can still afford to live in Texas. Meanwhile, the state has been relatively sanguine in the face of changes that could easily have triggered tantrums of xenophobia, revolts over spiraling property taxes, or mass episodes of road rage. The question of whether Texas could have done more—to mitigate poverty or invest in our future—is a serious one. But one reason we have occasion to ask it is because the state has done so well in so many respects that the old standard (beat Mississippi!) no longer applies.
It’s been an amazing run, yet it’s not clear how much Perry had to do with it. Texas has enjoyed some tailwinds over the past decade; oil and gas, for example, has done well, although it doesn’t have the disproportionate impact on the state economy that it did before the bust. But the governor has, over the years, offered a few pointers: don’t tax too much, don’t spend too much, keep the regulation predictable, and don’t forget to make a big deal about tort reform. The general principle is that of limited government—which is, after all, built into the state constitution—and Perry has in many respects stuck to that plan. He has signed two major tort reforms, as well as the 2006 “swap” that restructured the business franchise tax and lowered property taxes. That last deal created a recurring hole in the budget that amounts to about $5 billion every year (or, as Republicans call it, a tax cut).
More interesting are the ways in which Perry has broken with the limited government playbook. When the Texas model itself isn’t enough to close the deal, he hasn’t hesitated to step in with tax incentives or “awards” from the Texas Enterprise Fund and the Texas Emerging Technology Fund, both of which he signed into existence and both of which he administers. Some of those efforts haven’t panned out; according to a 2010 analysis from Texans for Public Justice, a watchdog group, the TEF doled out $363 million in subsidies to recipients who initially pledged to create or maintain almost 47,800 jobs; as of 2008, only about 31,300 such jobs could be located. Other awards, however, have wildly exceeded expectations. The plan to use TETF dollars to help create a “biotech corridor” around College Station sounded pretty dubious until 2012, when Texas A&M won a massive federal contract to become one of three new biodefense centers in the country.
Perry has also supported greater investment in infrastructure—more spending on roads and water—which sounds like a no-brainer but is a deviation from the scorched-earth rhetoric the state and national GOP all too often advocate. And he has similarly resisted red-meat rhetoric when it comes to immigration. During his first session as governor he signed a bill allowing certain undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at public colleges and universities. In the 2011 campaign, his opponents for the Republican nomination took him to the woodshed over that one, but back in 2001, the measure passed the Lege with nearly unanimous support, because it makes sense from a workforce perspective: if young people are ready to go to college, you should probably let them.
The direct effects of all of Perry’s efforts are, of course, hard to measure. Still, there’s one state that is clobbering the others on the job numbers, and it happens to be the one state where the governor has been bird-dogging jobs for the past thirteen years. The only reason people might think that’s a coincidence is that the governor in question is—there’s no getting around it—Rick Perry.
That being the case, it remains to be seen whether Perry’s stepping down will qualify as a shake-up or only a reshuffling. Because he’s been governor for so long, he’s created some stability in the state’s political leadership. No Democrat has held statewide executive office during his years at the helm, and Republican officeholders have seen very little turnover. After 2014, the state will have a new governor, a new attorney general, a new comptroller, a new agriculture commissioner, a new land commissioner, and very likely a new lieutenant governor. Whether any of them will share Perry’s vision is hard to say, because it’s hard to say what his vision has been.
And although Perry isn’t running in 2014, he has a new slogan, which suggests that he might be running in 2016. That slogan is “Texas Works.” It’s an oddly modest comment, but it happens to be true, and it wouldn’t be a bad message to bring to a country that, after a punishing recession, still isn’t working well enough. Texas has prospered during his years as governor. That much is nearly unquestionable. Can Perry convince critics that he played a big role in that, when even Texans are skeptical? That, at least for now, is unanswerable.