A strange scene ensued after the lone governor’s debate in early October. Members of the media had not been allowed to watch the debate in person. We found ourselves contained in an impromptu pressroom in the foyer of a building in the Belo Corporation compound in downtown Dallas. The setup included an ample number of folding chairs and five TV sets of varying sizes scattered around the space. The presence of a podium suggested that the debaters would answer questions following the closing statements. Chris Bell was the first to arrive, followed by Kinky Friedman (who acknowledged a spotty performance by saying, “I still intend to vote for myself”); next to appear, based on the arrival of several of his staffers, would be Rick Perry, and then finally Carole Keeton Strayhorn. But Perry never showed up. Instead, a spokesman went to the podium to read a statement claiming victory, while a state senator stood by to answer questions. My brethren did not respond well to being stood up. “Where’s Rick Perry?” various reporters shouted. “Where’s the governor?” The spokesman, grinning all the while, relishing every moment, ignored the questions and kept reading. Reporters continued to shout. Mutual hostility saturated the air.
As it turned out, the candidates were not obligated to answer questions. Their decision to appear was optional, so Perry was within his rights to vacate the premises. Still, it seemed like an odd decision. When he first became a major figure in Texas politics, during his successful 1998 race for lieutenant governor against John Sharp, Perry was visibly unsure of himself. Eight years later, however, he is a seasoned politician. Earlier in the week, I had watched an hour-long taping of the television show Texas Monthly Talks, during which he was interviewed by our editor, Evan Smith. I was impressed by Perry’s fluency on matters of policy. Maybe he’s still unsure of himself or worried about committing a gaffe, but I don’t think that was the reason he bolted after the debate. He didn’t answer our questions because he didn’t have to, he didn’t want to, and by golly, he wasn’t going to. The act of stiffing us gave him pleasure. You could read it in his spokesman’s smirk.
Later in the evening, I remembered that during the TV taping, he had referred to the coming debate as a “circus.” It was his one bobble during the interview, a peek inside his mind that revealed a profound distaste for the democratic process. I’ll spare you the lecture about how important the media are to that process, except to boil it down to this: Almost everything in politics these days—TV commercials, speeches before friendly audiences, photo-ops, sound bites—is staged. Debates and press conferences are rare spontaneous moments in which candidates can be held accountable. Some politicians revel in public scrutiny—Bill Clinton comes to mind—and some will do almost anything to avoid it. Perry falls in the latter category. Despite having been in office almost six years, he has not been a particularly visible governor; his low approval ratings and modest plurality in the polls (although apparently good enough to win a five-way race) are the price he’s paying for not allowing the public to get to know him.
What makes Rick Perry tick? I found myself wishing I had been a fly on the wall while the discussion about whether he should talk to the media was taking place. What would he have said? If only I could get inside his head . . .
I’m not going to talk to them. They’re all a bunch of whiners. “Shame on you. You wouldn’t answer our questions. Don’t you know we’re the media? Don’t you realize how important we are?” They think this process is about them. None of them have ever been for me. None of them have ever given me any credit. They think I’m just a pretty boy. They make jokes about my hair. Well, they can make all the jokes they want. I don’t need them. I’m going to be governor of Texas longer than anyone in history.
He’s right about one thing. None of them—none of us—have ever given him much credit. Perry has governed much more boldly than George W. Bush did, and he has changed the state much more than Bush did.
George couldn’t get the Legislature to cut property taxes, but I did. He signed off on a weak tort reform bill. I put the trial lawyers out of business with the toughest reforms any state has ever passed. He passed an education reform bill that didn’t do anything. I passed real reforms—things conservatives have wanted to do for years, like merit pay for teachers. It’s going to break the power of the teachers’ unions. But everybody still loves George because he worked with the Democrats. That’s what you have to do to get respect in this town. You know what they say: Austin is the blueberry in the tomato soup.
I’ll grant Perry this: Although he’s regarded in many quarters as someone who’s more interested in politics than policy, the record says otherwise. His policy initiatives—the property tax cut, the new business tax, the Trans-Texas Corridor, tuition deregulation, education reforms of controversial merit—are more far-reaching than any since the days of John Connally.
People used to accuse me of being a do-nothing governor. Well, I’ve done a lot, and now they complain about that. They don’t like the Trans-Texas Corridor because a foreign corporation is building a toll road. How do all those t.u. folks expect to get from Austin to Dallas for the OU game when Interstate 35 is a parking lot? They complain about my tax cut too, but how many of my opponents could have passed it? I got a tax increase through a Republican legislature with the courts threatening to close the schools! Hey, Carole, you think you could have done that? So what if I exaggerated the size of the tax cut? I just borrowed a little from next year, when it’s going to be huge—a one-third reduction.
While I have my disagreements with Perry, they’re less about substance than scope. Tort reform was necessary, but the version he favored went too far, to the point that people with legitimate claims can’t get a lawyer to represent them; the limits on the amount of the damages make lawsuits noneconomical. The Trans-Texas Corridor is a good idea, but the toll road concept goes too far when it’s used locally on routes that were originally planned to be free. Some sort of school finance overhaul was essential, but the Perry plan went too far by dedicating all the revenue from the new business tax to property tax cuts, instead of allocating some to education. The common theme in these complaints is that the governor and the Republicans overreached, usually out of ideological zeal and a desire to toady to big contributors.
Remember when I said the media were a bunch of whiners? Burka is the worst. He’s still pining for the days when Bullock and Laney and Bush ran the state. He doesn’t get it. I didn’t switch parties in 1989 to get beat by some rock star cheerleader like Kay Bailey Hutchison. Phil Gramm warned me to always protect my right flank. I always have and I always will. Burka is right about one thing: The Republican party is basically 180 big donors. Get them on your side and you control the party. Nobody can touch me, not even Kay. Back in 2002, when she first talked about running against me, I wrapped up the big donors early, and she folded. She could have defeated me that year, and she could have defeated me this year, but you have to run before you can win. She wanted to be anointed.
The people who think I’m a lightweight don’t get it either. You don’t have to be an intellectual to succeed in politics. In fact, it’s better if you’re not. But you have to be tough and disciplined. One of the reasons I love Texas A&M is that it gave me an opportunity not just to get an education but also to develop toughness and discipline. I’m tough enough to do things other politicians won’t touch, and I’m disciplined enough to stick to my game plan even when confronted by withering criticism. George would never have done congressional redistricting. It was too controversial. He wanted people to love him. I don’t care if people love me.
Perry has turned into quite an interesting politician. He even has an outside chance—very outside—to make the jump to the national arena as a potential running mate for the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, particularly if that nominee is or seems to be moderate. His campaign staff has been preparing for the possibility. There are potential pitfalls, the first being his reelection on November 7, which is likely, if not 100 percent certain. Another is “Texas fatigue” after eight years of George W. Bush. Yet another is the belief, backed by anecdotal evidence, that Bush and Perry are not all that close; if the White House has any hand in shaping the ticket in ’08, it could work to Perry’s disadvantage.
On the plus side, Perry can claim to be the Republican governor with the strongest conservative record. That is at once his strength and his weakness; he’s a niche candidate, an ideologue who can rally the base. If that’s what the Republicans are looking for, he’s their guy: Dan Quayle in an outfitter’s jacket. He has never been highly regarded as a leader by the public at large, but inside the Capitol and to activist Republicans across the state—senator-elect Dan Patrick being a notable exception—he has been a highly successful and largely unchallenged leader of his party. Still, if you’re from Texas, it’s hard to imagine. Rick Perry? On the national ticket? After winning reelection with the lowest percentage of any Texas governor ever?
I’ve heard that before. And you know what? I don’t care. Whether you win by one vote or a million, the oath of office is still the same. Legislators will still vote for my agenda because they’re scared to death I’ll veto their bills if they don’t. The lobby will still donate to my fundraisers because they’re scared to death I’ll get them fired. I’ve done it before. The media will still whine, and I’ll still give them plenty to whine about. If I worried about what people thought of me, I’d have gotten out of politics a long time ago.