This morning in coping with a slow news day I read with interest and with some amusement a long, long, re-assessment of Rick Perry at The Atlantic by veteran reporter Michelle Cottle. She clearly buys, and helps propagate, the idea that we’re seeing a “new” Rick Perry who’s learned the right lessons from the debacle of his 2012 campaign, and is planning a sensible, economics-focused presidential campaign, leaving the fire-breathing to his Texas colleague Ted Cruz. But a major portion of the article reflects Cottle’s complete and admitted surrender to Perry’s “charm.” I don’t know if it’s in compensation for her newfound fondness for ol’ Rick, or just a matter of journalistic honesty, but she ends what was turning into a puff-piece with a brutal assessment of his actual chances in 2016.
Perry’s charm offensive is beginning to look like a very deliberate strategic effort. In June, the New York Times‘ ever-cynical Mark Liebovich took in the “new” Perry during a trip to L.A., and concluded this relaxed and self-deprecating dude had probably given up on politics and was positioning himself to make some real money. Less than two months later, after a heaven-sent “border crisis” put him back into the headlines and healed the major ideological wound he caused himself with conservative activists in 2012, Perry’s taking all the obvious steps towards another presidential run.
If I had to guess, Perry strategy involves becoming the fallback choice for conservatives if the 2016 nomination fight becomes a demolition derby like the last two GOP contests. That means first of all erasing the impression of being a raging yahoo that his last campaign created. Hence the Charm Offensive, and also a few sly efforts to sound a bit less, well, dumb (Cottle reports that “winsome” is a “favorite word of his,” probably not a usage he picked up as Yell Leader at A&M).
As for Cottle’s assertion that Perry’s sworn off social-issues extremism (she makes him sound like sort of a southern-fried Mitch Daniels), you have to remember that even in today’s GOP, his deep and systemic connections with the Christian Right stand out. If Perry becomes viable, we may all need to recall Sarah Posner’s assessment of him early in his last campaign:
He’s got impecable Christian right credentials. He’s the Republican governor where the state GOP first included a provision in its platform declaring America a Christian nation. (David Barton, after all, was the vice-chair of the party at the time). Back in the days when Rod Parsley was the megachurch man about town, and proclaiming himself not a Democrat or a Republican but a “Christocrat,” Perry included him in a controversial 2005 Sunday bill-signing ceremony. The governor, with Parsley, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, and Don Wildmon of the American Family Association on hand, signed a parental notification bill and a gay marriage ban into law at the Fort Worth Calvary Christian Academy. Parsley graced the ceremonies with the statement that gay sex is “a veritable breeding ground of disease.”
Perry has appeared at a conference hosted by Bill Gothard’s controversial Institute in Basic Life Principles. (They share a generous funder, James Leininger, a key funder of the Texas culture wars.) In 2006, Perry, then campaigning for governor, prayed at John Hagee’s church, and then agreed with Hagee that non-Christians are doomed to hell.
Perry appeared to be the beneficiary of the Texas Restoration Project, organized by religious right activists intent on getting pastors more involved in the electoral process. Or, as organizer David Lane told me, “What we’re doing is the mobilization of pastors and pews to restore America to her Judeo-Christian heritage. That’s our goal.”
To put it another way, anyone with a close personal relationship with people like David Barton, John Hagee and David Lane doesn’t have to talk about “social issues” to make it clear he’s one of the Righteous Remnant. If and when the time comes, they’ll be happy to support him as a “fallback” if people like Cruz and Huck don’t run or flame out early.
As for Perry’s famous message of presenting Texas as an economic template for the country, I think it’s a mistake to view this as easy, non-controversial mainline GOP rap that the rest of us can live with. What Perry exemplifies is the ancient southern approach to economic development based on systematic abasement of public policy in order to make life as profitable and easy as possible for “job-creators,” at any cost. If it sort of “works” (if you don’t care about poverty and low wage rates and inadequate health care and deliberately starved public resources) in Texas thanks in no small part to the state’s fossil fuel wealth and low housing costs (though as Philip Longman demonstrated in the April/May issue of WaMo, even that level of success is debatable), it sure hasn’t ever “worked” in similarly inclined but less blessed places like Mississippi and Alabama, where the local aristocracy has been preaching the same gospel for many decades.
Now it’s true that some hard-core conservatives think it’s unseemly for a governor to take credit for the wonders of the free market (famously given a push in Texas via Perry’s penchant for corporate subsidies). Cottle quotes Ted Cruz giving vent to that objection:
When asked in May about his governor’s job-creation message, Cruz responded, “Nothing makes me crazier than politicians who run around talking about the jobs they created. Politicians are very good at killing jobs, but they don’t create jobs.”
To put it another way, Perry doesn’t deserve credit for what corporations do when he’s given them everything they want, because that’s their entitlement.
All in all, though, if someone mildly left-of-center like Michelle Cottle buys the “New Rick Perry” image and accepts his Moonlight and Magnolias economic pitch as seductive and even vaguely hip, then perhaps he is a suitable candidate to sell conservative ideology to a presidential electorate that hasn’t shown much acceptance of it in the recent past. You do have to wonder what sort of dog-whistles he’ll have to deploy to assure his old allies in the neo-secessionist and theocratic and screw-the-looters camps that underneath the snazzy new glasses and mild rhetoric, he’s still their guy.