When organizers were planning the third annual RedState Gathering, held earlier this month in Charleston, South Carolina, the event looked to be like the second annual RedState Gathering, which was much like the first. Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, would be a featured speaker, as he had been at the others, including last year in Austin, Texas. Perry was the reason the second annual gathering had been held in Austin. Perry wooed the redstaters. He brought the organizers out to Texas, took them to dinner, gave them a tour, took them clay shooting outside of town. RedState is probably the most important and influential collection of conservative bloggers on the Internet. It is closely tied with the amorphous political movement called the Tea Party. And so Rick Perry wanted to be closely tied to RedState.
About a month ago, a phone call came from Perry’s office, warning the redstaters that this year’s event would be a little different. Perry’s staff would need to begin handling security for his speech; the media arrangements too. The gathering last year had attracted maybe a dozen reporters, who arrived from Washington and New York and subjected the bloggers to the customary zoological analysis. Security had never been a concern.
More than 120 reporters attended this year’s gathering, roughly one for every four redstaters, and unfriendly Texas Rangers, both plainclothes and uniformed, prowled the Francis Marion Hotel in downtown Charleston. Rick Perry had bestowed on RedState a great honor: They would be the audience and the backdrop for the speech in which he announced his candidacy for president of the United States. Judging by their reaction, the redstaters were flattered and pleased. And who wouldn’t be?
Perry gave a good speech—a little long, but all speeches are too long. With modifications for time and place, the text now serves as the basis of the stump speech he gives as he travels to Iowa and New Hampshire. It is his advertisement for himself—a kind of portrait of who Rick Perry wants you to think he is—and it repays close attention, one paragraph to the next.
When the cheers had died down that sweltering afternoon in the Gold Ballroom of the Francis Marion, the first thing Rick Perry said was: Howdy.
He’s from Texas. He used to wear cowboy boots stitched with the bad-ass Texas slogan “Come and Take It” until back surgery this summer forced him into orthopedic shoes. He took out a coyote with one shot from a .380 pistol last year while jogging. He grew up out in a bleak part of the state called the Big Country, in a place named “Paint Creek”—a place not a town; the only town within 20 miles with a post office was called Haskell, which itself is a couple of hundred miles west of Dallas. His parents worked a tenant farm growing cotton, utterly dependent on the weather like all farmers only more so. “Every day they got up,” he told the Texas Monthly last year, “it was dry.” Often at midday the sky would grow dark. “Huge clouds of dust would roll in from the west.” He only saw his mother cry once, he told the Monthly, when his parents, who seldom bought anything, dug deep to buy a new couch. “There were places in our house that you could see outside through the cracks by the windows, and this dust storm came in and there was a layer of dust all over that new couch. And it just, you know, kind of—it was a hard life for them.”
His mother, a seamstress, made his clothes for him, including his underwear, until he went off to Texas A&M University. He bathed in a tub on the back porch. The family outhouse was decommissioned when Perry was seven or eight, after his father put in indoor plumbing.
“It’s sure good to be back in the Palmetto State, in South Carolina,” he told the redstaters, “where they love the greatest fighting force on the face of the earth, the United States military.”
At Texas A&M he earned a grade point average a bit over 2.0 (Ds and Cs in chem and trig and Shakespeare, an A in world military systems, and a B in phys. ed.) and majored in animal science. Then he joined the Air Force and served four years flying C-130s out of bases around the world—Europe, the Middle East, South America. He likes to talk about the military and often gets choked up when he does. His next line in the speech set up an inexpensive applause line.
“I want to take a moment and ask you to just take a silence, think about those young Navy SEALs and the other special operators who gave it all in the service of their country,” referring to the downing a few days before of a Chinook helicopter in Afghanistan. We should be grateful, he went on, for “those kind of selfless, sacrificial men and women.”
Take a silence? Special operators? Sacrificial men and women? In the Perry campaign there will be malapropisms, which is just one among many similarities often drawn between Perry and George W. Bush. But like Bush he usually winds up saying what he means.
After the silence had been taken there came an abrupt shift in tone, finger stabbing the air to drive home the applause line: “And we will never, ever forget them.”
He pushed the words out in a defiant manner, sounding almost accusatory: It’s about time somebody stood up to all those nancy boys running around our country saying we should just go ahead and forget these sacrificial men and women. He leaned back and let the applause roll on.
Next he gave a taste of what life was like in Paint Creek. “When I wasn’t farming or attending Paint Creek Rural School, I was generally over at Troop 48 working on my Eagle Scout award.”
The Scouts are a recurring theme in Perry’s career. He even wrote a book about the Boy Scouts, published three years ago, called On My Honor: Why the American Values of the Boy Scouts Are Worth Fighting For. The book was a rebuttal to efforts by the ACLU and gay rights activists to force the Scouts to admit members they had traditionally disallowed—girls, for instance, or openly homosexual men, or boys who refuse to agree to the Scout Oath’s vow “to do my duty to God.”
On My Honor contains a few surprises. Its premise is that “the so-called War on the Scouts is a microcosm of a larger phenomenon, a ‘culture war’ that has been tearing at the seams of our society for forty years.” But the tone is surprisingly mild, far more broad-minded than most other books from either side of the culture war. The armistice he proposes simply asks the activists to let the Boy Scouts be the Boy Scouts, pursuing the values they choose. What the activists choose to do with other activists after that is their business.
“Though I am no expert on the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate, I can sympathize with those who believe sexual preference is genetic,” he wrote. “I respect their right to engage in the individual behavior of their choosing, but they must respect the right of millions in society to refuse to normalize their behavior.” The book’s peroration is a hymn to tolerance and an implicit rebuke to traditionalists who refuse to live and let live.
“We must draw a line in the sand: People have the right to decide for themselves what they will believe in the core of their being, and how they will live,” he wrote. “For those who want to throw stones at homosexuals in the name of calling out sin, may they be just as loud about adultery among heterosexuals and pornography among their own churchgoing friends.”
This is a patented Perry statement, logically similar, as we’ll see, to his use of federalism as a means of avoiding sharp-edged and often unpleasant arguments.
Another surprise in On My Honor are the unexpected cameo appearances by Mitt Romney. His name arises in one of a long train of abuses in the culture war. As president of the 2002 Olympics, Romney had put out a desperate call for volunteers. Perry quotes Romney’s plea at length, yet questions its sincerity. For when Utah’s Boy Scouts responded to volunteer en masse, they were told they weren’t welcome to participate in the Olympics. Shocked, Scout leaders phoned and wrote Romney, also an Eagle Scout.
“We can’t get him to return our calls,” a Scout leader complained, according to Perry’s account.
“Several years have gone by,” Perry writes, “and neither Mitt Romney nor anyone else who served as an official of the 2002 Winter Olympics has given a clear and logical explanation” why the Scouts were excluded. In summary, Perry writes that we do “know that Romney . . . has parted ways with the Scouts on its policies over the involvement of gay individuals in Scout activities. He once said during a debate with Senator Ted Kennedy in 1994, ‘I feel that all people should be allowed to participate in the Boy Scouts regardless of their sexual orientation.’ ”
Perry helpfully adds the precise newspaper citation for anyone who might want to track down Romney’s quote and keep it close, just in case it comes in handy some day.
Even at age 61, Perry looks like an Eagle Scout. (So does Mitt Romney, for that matter, at age 64.) With a row of seven American flags behind him at the Francis Marion Hotel, he filled the stage. He favors snugly tailored suits and bespoke shirts trimmed with high collars and single cuffs pinned by gleaming gold links. The overall effect is slightly racy, kind of dude-like, maybe a little overdone—Big Country Arriviste. Campaign videos that show him at ease, in chaps and cowboy hat and (pre-surgery) boots, make the same too-much-of-a-good-thing impression. His movie-star looks don’t help. Whether out on the stump or home on the range, he always has the appearance of a man who’s been groomed rather fussily by Edith Head.
On the stump he likes to move around, microphone in hand, with the shuffle and stomp he must have picked up from Baptist preachers back in 1960s Haskell. In Charleston, making the biggest announcement of his professional life, with a bank of cameras before him casting every word live before the audiences of cable news, he stayed put behind the mic. His hands were often in motion, the Tomahawk slicing the air beside him or the Roach Motel Slamdown making an emphatic point, bringing the flat of his hand down hard on the podium, the way he might catch an insect scurrying across the kitchen counter.
George W. Bush’s distinctive hand gesture, you may recall, was to press his fingertips together and then sweep his hands outward, as if hoping to gather more listeners more closely to him. Perry’s hands move in the opposite direction, starting out far apart as though he’s about to catch a medicine ball, then bringing them close together as if he’s caught the ball and is squeezing it to dust. When he reads a speech without his teleprompter, as in Charleston, he is more fluent and natural than when President Obama reads a speech with his. Perry speaks slowly and accompanies his words with a repertoire ranging from humble shakes of the head, amazed at the blessings he’s received in this life, in this great, great nation, so far beyond anything he deserves, to steely-eyed belligerence and a squinting determination to vanquish anyone who would bring that nation low: “And those who threaten our interests, harm our citizens—we will not simply be scoldin’ ya, we will defeat you.”
This line appeared in the (very brief) section of -Perry’s speech dealing with foreign affairs. His preeminent complaint against President Obama here was the administration’s handling of Israel, which in Paint Creek is pronounced Izrul, when it is pronounced at all. This part of the speech was particularly deft. The Tea Partiers represented at the RedState Gathering are famously supportive of Israel, for theological if not geostrategic reasons, and they are, just as famously, furious about illegal (and often legal) immigration across our southern border.
Perry combined these concerns for a twofer: Obama, he said, “seeks to dictate new borders for the Middle East and the oldest democracy there, Israel [big applause], while he is an abject failure in his constitutional duty to protect our borders in the United States [even bigger applause].”
Except it’s not really a twofer. In the Texas of Perry’s youth, immigration of any kind was never an issue, economic or political. The border between Texas and Mexico was intentionally porous. People came and went. The easy commingling shaped Texas culture, a hodgepodge of which Perry is extremely proud. He seems unable to summon the gorge against immigration and immigrants that rises naturally in Tea Partiers. In 2001 he signed a version of the DREAM Act that so riled Tea Partiers when the Democrats in Washington embraced it in recent years. The bill allowed children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at Texas colleges.
“We must say to every Texas child learning in a Texas classroom,” he said at the time, “ ‘We don’t care where you come from, but where you are going, and we are going to do everything we can to help you get there.’ And that vision must include the children of undocumented workers.”
At the Tea Party they prefer the term “illegal aliens.” Perry manages to avoid the subject of illegal immigration by changing the subject to “border security”—by which he means a crackdown on the well-developed, lucrative, and murderous trafficking in drugs and weapons by sophisticated criminal cartels across the Texas-Mexican border. He uses the Roach Motel Slamdown when he utters the phrase “secure our borders.” And when he does, his admirers to his right hear a man promising to halt the swarming hordes of aliens; what he’s promising in fact is to deploy the National Guard to bust pushers and pimps.
It’s the kind of clever elision you begin to expect of Perry. One theme of the announcement speech would be familiar to readers of his latest book, Fed Up! Our Fight to Save America from Washington. “Washington is not our caretaker,” he said in Charleston. “America isn’t broken. Washington, D.C., is broken! . . . I promise you this: I’ll work every day to make Washington, D.C., as inconsequential in your life as I can.”
Fed Up! is a call to federalism—an idea usually trivialized by jumpy liberals as “states’ rights,” to make it sound scarier. The book is outfitted with the apocalyptic alarms that sell political books nowadays: By the third page the reader has learned (1) “America is recklessly accelerating toward economic disaster”; (2) “America is in trouble—and heading for a cliff”; and (3) “Something is terribly wrong.”
Tell us about it. Perry’s view of federalism is not unique but it is convenient. It serves first of all as a ready bludgeon to beat Washington with. More importantly it disencumbers national politicians—or state politicians hoping to become national politicians—of the necessity to take a stand on principle on such quivering public controversies as gay marriage, environmental regulation, sodomy laws, the shape of the health care system: These aren’t matters that call for a national discussion; states must decide for themselves. Perry sees a properly federalized America as a kind of buffet table of states offering an exciting variety of cultural options from which a citizen can choose—something for every lifestyle and taste.
“Crucial to understanding federalism in modern-day America is the concept of mobility, or ‘the ability to vote with your feet,’ ” he writes. “If you don’t support the death penalty and citizens packing a pistol, don’t come to Texas. If you don’t like medicinal marijuana and gay marriage, don’t move to California.”
Even here he manages to throw an elbow Romneyward. “I would no more consider living in Massachusetts than I suspect a great number of folks from Massachusetts would like to live in Texas,” he writes. “We just don’t agree on a number of things. They passed state-run health care, they have sanctioned gay marriage . . . ” Nothing good ever came from Massachusetts.
Perry’s idea of federalism, boiled down, becomes a kind of crude majoritarianism. What if you favor both medicinal marijuana and the death penalty? What if you’re a guy who takes comfort living in a state where citizens pack hand guns but you still want to marry your boyfriend? You’re out of luck. You’ll have to live in a state where the majority—gun-packing homophobes or potheads with a distaste for capital punishment—perpetuates itself by disgorging people like you. “If you don’t like how they live there, don’t move there” is a principle with a corollary: “If you don’t like how we live here, leave.” You and your partner might have to secede.
Perry’s emphasis on federalism is commonly taken to be a species of anti-government libertarianism. It’s not. Perry isn’t anti-government; he is anti-federal government. (Whether he’ll remain anti-federal government when he’s running it can’t be known.) He is after all a man who has spent his entire professional life working for the government as a state legislator and executive. You might even call him a big-government conservative whose reach is constrained only by the Texas border. A better tag would be “Conservative Democrat circa 1960”: a politician always happy to accommodate the interests of businessmen and never shy about deploying the resources of his government in causes he likes. Perry’s greatest failure as governor, to cite one example, was his plan to build a vast trans-Texas transportation network of new roads and rail lines. The plan would have allowed the state to wave around its power of eminent domain like a two-by-four, an exercise unprecedented in state history. Perry couldn’t overcome opposition from landowners and conservatives who objected to what Tea Partiers might call a “land grab.”
In 2007—to cite another example—Perry issued an executive order requiring every 6th-grade girl in the state to be immunized with Gardasil, a vaccine against the human papillomavirus, or HPV, the leading cause of cervical cancer. Texas conservatives called it governmental overreach and usurpation of family authority; good-government critics noticed that Perry’s executive order was a windfall for Merck, the maker of Gardisil, whose Austin lobbyist was a close ally of the governor. The Texas legislature overrode Perry and the order was dropped.
What was most revealing about the episode was Perry’s response to his defeat. In New Hampshire earlier this month he was asked about the controversy. “I saluted [the legislature],” he said, “and I said, ‘Roger that. I hear you loud and clear.’ ”
That’s not quite what happened. After the legislature overruled him, Perry called a press conference and surrounded himself in front of the cameras with cancer survivors, women in wheelchairs, and victims of rape. Arguments about parental rights fell before the cold fact of how much money the state would save with the vaccinations: treatment for cancer, he pointed out, could cost $250,000, much of it borne by taxpayers, while a vaccine cost $350—the same doctrine of “social costs” later used by President Obama and many others to justify mandatory health insurance and state-run health care.
Then Perry accused his opponents of moral depravity. He showed a video of a bedridden woman wreathed in medical tubes, lamenting the heartlessness of the legislators.
“In the next year, more than a thousand women will likely be diagnosed with this insidious yet mostly preventable disease,” said Perry, according to the Houston Chronicle. “I challenge legislators to look these women in the eyes and tell them, ‘We could have prevented this disease for your daughters and granddaughters, but we just didn’t have the gumption to address all the misguided and misleading political rhetoric.’ ”
The lives of young Texas women, he said, had been “sacrificed on the altar of political expediency.”
It was left to Dennis Bonnen, a state legislator, to make the argument for restraining the government’s power, even when noble goals are in view. He pointed out that the vaccine would still be available for free from the state for parents who wanted to procure it for their daughters.
“Just because you don’t want to offer up 165,000 11-year-old girls to be Merck’s study group,” Bonnen complained, “doesn’t mean you don’t care about women’s health, doesn’t mean you don’t care about young girls.”
None of this concerned Perry in Charleston, of course. His speech made clear that his campaign would turn on the humming Texas economy, also known, among Perry fans, as the Texas Miracle.
Texas, he said, is “the strongest economy in the nation. Since June of 2009, Texas is responsible for more than 40 percent of all the new jobs created in America.” The jobs materialized, he said, because the state government stuck to four principles: Keep state spending down, taxes low, regulation mild and predictable, and litigation to a minimum by overhauling the legal system.
If anything, Perry was understating his case. Even before the recession, from 2000 to 2007, jobs were being created in Texas at double the pace of the national average. After the recession hit in late 2007, Texas employment kept even while the number of jobs across the country fell by more than five percent.
Not surprisingly, a welter of complicated news stories have appeared to point out that “the Texas miracle is more complicated than Perry admits.” And it is—politicians do tend to simplify. The anti-Perry case takes several forms. One is that the job growth came from rising energy prices that led to a boom in Texas’s gas and oil industry. And the energy business in Texas has boomed since 2000: The number of jobs there grew more than 60 percent. But the boom didn’t track prices in gas or oil. And jobs grew in other sectors as well: 10 percent in financial services, more than 40 percent in health care, more than 20 percent in education. (And nearly 20 percent in government!)
Other arguments cluster around the large migration of people, documented and un-, who have moved to Texas in the last decade. Texas population has increased 21 percent in the last 10 years. On its own, of course, this number is simply a confirmation of Texas’s boom. People are moving there because that’s where the jobs are. (Why else? The summer weather? The foliage? The cultural amenities?) The steady stream of new arrivals has kept the unemployment rate paradoxically high, at 8.2 percent, though it is lower than the national rate.
And too many of the new jobs pay minimum wage, say Perry’s detractors—typical, they say, of a right-to-work state like Texas. But those are the jobs that a large influx of new, often unskilled residents would qualify for. It should be a truism that any job is better than no job.
Perhaps the most creative criticism of Texas’s job growth came from a state representative, Joaquin Castro. He told CNN recently that the “jobs thing” was “sleight-of-hand.”
“More than half of those new jobs have been filled by non-Texans,” Castro said. “You have a population in Texas that is generally lower educated, poor, isn’t covered by health insurance . . . all of these things . . . so you can recruit these companies to come here from out of state but your own people, often times, aren’t qualified to fill these jobs.” Texas is such a sewer, in other words, that people can’t keep away.
Castro does have a point, though not the one he thinks he’s making. Beyond the robust job creation—a product of low taxes and regulation and the entrepreneurial opportunities they provide—Texas looks much less appealing on paper. For the next several months, any Democrat will be happy to give you the statistics: It leads the country in percentage of population without health insurance (24 percent) and the number of residents over 25 without a high school degree. Texas generates more hazardous waste than any other state and ranks first in the amount of toxic chemicals released into the water. It ranks eighth nationally in percentage of homes below the poverty line (17 percent), thirty-fourth in median household income, ninth in income inequality, and sixteenth in the rate of violent crime.
The Texas Miracle that Perry embraces and Democrats say they loathe would make a presidential contest between the governor and President Obama more interesting than these things usually are. Voters could at last confront the tradeoff they’ve been trying to avoid since the Great Society, maybe since the New Deal. On the one hand, we might have job-generating economic growth with all its necessary disruptions and uncertainties and stark inequalities of income and living standards; on the other, free health insurance, generous labor guarantees, greater income equality, a pristinely regulated natural environment, high unemployment, and declining national wealth.
A majority of American voters may reject the first for the second, as voters have in Europe for half a century. At least in Perry vs. Obama, the choice would be clear. We can be France or we can be Texas.
‘God bless you,” Perry said, concluding his speech in Charleston, “and God bless America.”
Oh, yes—we almost forgot: God. One week before officially declaring his candidacy, Rick Perry organized a national prayer meeting in a football arena in Houston, under the title “The Response: A call to prayer for a nation in crisis.” More than 30,000 showed up, swaying with eyes closed and arms raised to the music of faux country bands grinding out pop hymns that might have been written by Barry Manilow. Perry kicked off the proceedings with a prayer. You can watch the video on the web, as every evangelical primary voter will likely do between now and the Republican convention. The prayer was anodyne—mostly biblical verses stitched together from Joel, Isaiah, and Ephesians, and wrapped in a plea for blessings on the country and even on the president.
With The Response, Perry went farther than any candidate in recent memory to solicit the affections of Christian voters—just as, appearing at the RedState Gathering to make the most important speech of his career, he made clear his allegiance to the Tea Party. With their loyalty safely pocketed he has maximum leeway now to migrate, slowly, toward voters less ideologically or religiously inclined.
In any case, the specific content of Perry’s prayer at The Response wasn’t the crucial point, politically. The mere fact of it, and of him, must seem to America’s liberals as an explicit and deliberate provocation—their worst nightmare come horribly to life. He’s a governor of Texas. He has a funny accent. He got lousy grades in school. He not only owns guns, he shoots them. He’ll soon be wearing cowboy boots again. He shows no sign of having read Reinhold Niebuhr. And he might win.
Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.