With the first major 2012 Republican presidential candidates’ debate over with, and the Iowa State GOP Straw Poll less than two months away, the window for additional candidates to emerge and strengthen a shallow field is rapidly narrowing. But there’s still one proto-candidate, due to announce a decision by the end of the month, who’s piquing the interest of many a Republican: the ever-colorful, if somewhat erratic, governor of Texas, Rick Perry.
On paper, Perry’s got a lot of plus-marks for a Republican Party that currently values three qualities that are difficult to combine: extensive executive experience, an economic success story to tell, and anti-Washington Tea Party cred. He’s also gives good (if not terribly substantive) speeches, loves to campaign, and has access to deep pockets via his Texas background and his Republican Governors’ Association rolodex. And as an ally of the hard-core Christian Right, he would become immediately viable in Iowa, as well as having a step up in South Carolina.
Moreover, Perry’s peculiar credentials make him a problematic rival for virtually everyone already in the field. Texas’ strong economy (whether or not he had much to do with it) gives him economic and fiscal talking points easily rivaling Romney’s. He’s as popular in both Tea Party and Christian Right circles as Bachmann or Cain. And he would immediately double the number of electable-true-conservative-alternatives-to-Romney in the race, which isn’t good news for the other one, Tim Pawlenty.
So what’s not to like? In short, every one of the enigmatic governor’s supposed strengths turns out to be yoked to a big, potentially damaging weakness.
To begin, Texas’ economy may have done well during most of his ten-year-plus tenure as governor, but it’s done so at the price of very low levels of public services, high rates of poverty, and a long line of sweetheart corporate deals, not all of them successful, between Perry and some of his friends and allies, which could prove to be an opposition researcher’s playground. (His pet plan for a privately operated mega-highway through the state, the Trans-Texas Corridor, which has never reached fruition, is a good example). Moreover, his budgetary record has also depended on some questionable accounting measures (e.g., temporarily delayed payments to schools) and a willingness to rely on the federal government he purports to loath (stimulus dollars played a big role in propping up the most recent Texas budget).
Second, while Perry has become a Tea Party favorite, he has done so in part by making inflammatory statements that may trouble even a healthy number of Republican primary voters, the most famous of which was his suggestion that secession might be on the table for Texas. In addition, he’s also made threats to withdraw the state from the Medicaid program—with only the vaguest suggestion of how or whether poor families would receive medical treatment—and even sought the power to opt Texas out of Social Security, a rather egregious stomping on the third rail of politics.
And finally, Perry is close to the Christian Right, but the fact of the matter is that he hasn’t chosen the most seemly of allies in that camp. As a follow-on to his famous “Pray for Rain” rally in April, he’s now planning an evangelical hoedown in August, called “The Response,” that features a sort of who’s who of radical theocrats, including John Hagee, the Christian Zionist leader whose support John McCain felt constrained to repudiate in 2008 after Hagee called Adolf Hitler an agent of God’s plans to return the Jews to their biblical homeland. The expressed purpose of the upcoming event is to seek divine intervention to fix America, apparently via the propitiation of an angry God by the abandonment of such abominations as legalized abortion, same-sex relationships, and church-state separation. If the Texas governor is by then running for president, it won't be much of a mystery who might be called upon by the assembled divines to restore righteousness in Washington: Perry himself, once again in the right place at the right time.
On top of it all, persistent doubts about Perry’s competence (and in some quarters, honesty) have made him less than a political powerhouse in his home state of Texas, even as the state’s powerful Republican trend in the last decade, along with an energy-industry-boom, have given him enormous advantages. In 2006, for instance, he only won 39 percent of the general election vote in a peculiar, four-way gubernatorial race (with one independent candidate, the comedic musician and novelist Kinky Friedman, probably taking most of his double-digit-percentage vote from Perry’s Democratic opponent). In 2010, meanwhile, he won by solid margins against his primary challenger, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, and his general election opponent, Houston Mayor Bill White—but this was right at the peak of the Tea Party uprising, which Perry very successfully exploited, and the fact remains that he was vulnerable enough to draw these legitimate challenges in the first place. His relationship with Texas Republicans, moreover, has always been somewhat shaky, as evidenced by the revolt of GOP legislators against a business tax plan Perry pushed through a few years ago, and his rumored frosty relations with his great benefactors, the Bush family. And even his friends in the social conservative wing of the Texas GOP were appalled by his 2007 proposal to require that every sixth-grade girl in Texas be vaccinated for the HPV virus.
All in all, you have to wonder why Texans, including hard-core conservatives, seem less impressed than people in other states with the prospect of a Perry presidential run. Some appear to be stunned at the very idea, treating him as a sort of Chauncey Gardiner figure who has stumbled, through remarkable luck, into the national spotlight. But Perry’s ultimate stroke of luck could be in appearing on the scene at a time when the Republican Party considers the power of its ideology, not the brains or accomplishments of its leaders, its trump card in 2012.
Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic.