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The Rude Welcome That Awaits Rick Perry Back in Texas

Rick Perry’s departure from the Republican presidential primary was, by any standard, the result of a walloping. Simply put, he was terrible at running for president. In fact, I probably owe the readers of TNR a mea culpa. Back in September, I wrote that Rick Perry probably wouldn’t be a catastrophic debater. Sorry, guys.

Perhaps I didn’t consider just how much the local view of Perry—I’ve been following Perry from Austin for years—would fail to translate to the wider, and in some ways stranger, landscape of national politics. (In my defense, it’s been an unpredictable primary season.) In any case, the next question is whether the governor’s failed bid on the national stage will have repercussions for him back in Texas.

According to Public Policy Polling, his approval rating in the state now stands at 42 percent. Surprisingly, that is lower than Barack Obama’s, at 44 percent. The same survey found that in a head-to-head matchup within the state, Perry would edge Obama by just one point. Most of the drop off in support can be attributed to disaffected Republicans. Although he is still popular with much of the state GOP, Perry’s erratic presidential campaign turned off some. 

But this is nothing new for Perry. He has learned to live with disdain coming from some portion of the electorate. In 2006, he was famously re-elected as governor with only 39 percent of the vote in a split field (including one other Republican). To some extent, he has previously dealt with this problem by simply ignoring it, and agreeing to take his lumps. Indeed, when he’s tangled with the Texas legislature, he’s often had to make “a strategic retreat,” as he described the end of his presidential campaign. It was the legislature that overturned his executive order about the HPV vaccine, and the legislature that helped kill his controversial 2002 idea to build a “Trans-Texas Corridor” via public-private toll roads.

But politicians in Austin, sensing the blood in the water, know they are now dealing with an especially weakened Perry, and they may be eager to take advantage. Having been re-elected in 2010, Perry is insulated from immediate electoral consequences. His longer-term plans have yet to be determined, however. Given that he’s already the longest-serving governor in Texas history, he wouldn’t lose much face if he decides to step down when his term runs out in 2014. On the other hand, his spokesman, Ray Sullivan, has said that Perry might stand for re-election, or even take another shot at the presidential nomination two years later. That may be wishful thinking, but such bravado is in Perry’s nature.

Texas Democrats, of course, may feel validated by the way some of their greatest complaints about Perry—his swagger, his unpreparedness—were confirmed by a national audience. Their cheer, however, should be mitigated by the fact that, for years, they have failed to mount a strong challenge against Perry, intimidated by his fundraising prowess and his facility with retail politics. (One of his former rivals famously told a reporter that running against Perry was “like running against God.”)

Regrets aside, there’s a hope among some politicos in Texas that the national attention that Perry’s campaign has focused on the state, and its problems, could lead to bipartisan action in the months ahead. Over coffee in east Austin this autumn, Mark Strama, a Democratic state representative from Austin, observed that after George W. Bush was elected president, the legislature passed (and Perry signed) several centrist reforms—a tuition bill for undocumented immigrants, a provision that provides funds for poor defendants, a hate-crimes measure. This was partly, Strama reckoned, a result of all the scrutiny Texas had endured while Bush was campaigning. It is possible that during the next legislative session, in 2013, Texas Republicans and Democrats will have to confront some of the issues they have neglected, like schools, water, and infrastructure.

But a lot has changed in Texas since 2001: The legislature back then was much more centrist than its current incarnation. Right now, Republicans enjoy a supermajority in the House of Representatives, and they control the Senate by a whopping margin, too. And though Perry has earned a reputation nationally as a right-wing, red-meat ideologue, he is nowhere near the fringe in the Texas Republican Party. Ironically, it’s most likely that he’ll be pressured from the right rather than from the left.

One area to watch will be immigration. As Perry’s former rivals were quick to point out, the governor has actually been relatively temperate on that issue. Moderate immigration policies are one thing that Texas Democrats and moderate Republicans have long agreed on—but not all of the Republicans in Texas are moderate, of course. Some of them might be keen to file bills pushing for strict immigration enforcement measures.

If that turns out to be the case, then the current schadenfreude over Perry’s stumbles will have a poignant dimension. Plenty of Democrats and independents were appalled when Perry burst onto the national scene, and rushed to undo his candidacy. That left little time to consider his record in Texas, and whether there might be anything worthwhile about this state that could be tried in other states or extrapolated to the nation as a whole. In this case, at least, the public vetting turned out to be mostly unnecessary. Perry ably defeated himself.

Erica Grieder is the southwest correspondent for The Economist, based in Austin, Texas.