Why Rick Perry Won't Unite the Republican Party

More

Conventional wisdom holds that the Texas governor can satisfy all of the right's constituencies. Actually, he gives most of them reasons to be upset.

perry crony cap.jpg

Before Gov. Rick Perry entered the race for the Republican nomination, the conventional wisdom held that unlike other candidates, he would be acceptable to every constituency on the right. Early polls confirm that GOP voters are tentatively supportive as they get to know him, his issues, and his record. But the scrutiny that comes with a presidential run often persuades voters to reconsider their initial assessments. And it is important that they do so with Perry. Information that has emerged or garnered new attention in the few days since he entered the race suggests that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, almost every constituency on the right can find something about his record to be upset about. Is Perry's early appeal all hat and no cattle?

SOCIAL CONSERVATIVES

They're upset that in 2007, Perry mandated that all sixth-grade girls in Texas receive the vaccine for HPV, a virus that leads to cervical cancer and is most commonly transmitted via sex. The Texas legislature ultimately overruled Perry, and he has since apologized for what he says was a mistake he made because of his hatred for cancer. (Really.) Michele Malkin is among the right-leaning pundits who aren't ready to forgive. "The PerryCare executive fiat was not simply a one-off mistake explained away by lack of 'research,'" she writes. "It exposed a fundamental lapse in both political and policy judgments, an appalling lack of ethics and a disturbing willingness to smear principled defenders of limited government who object to the Nanny State."

Perry also started backing constitutional amendments on same-sex marriage and abortion only after he started chasing the presidency, which should make social conservatives wonder how committed he actually is to advancing them -- it takes a lot to amend America's founding document. 

CHAMPIONS OF FEDERALISM

Until Gov. Perry started running for president, he portrayed himself as a principled believer in the need for local decision-making, argued that the power to vote with one's feet on values issues was a cornerstone of a free republic, and avowed that he had a powerful aversion to getting the federal government involved in anything new. He wrote at length about all these issues in his book, Fed Up.

But his behavior when he started to pursue higher office so starkly contradicts the positions and values he previously asserted that there is no reason for anyone to trust his states' rights bona fides, as I argued at great length in a piece on his sudden insistence that we should amend the Constitution so that the federal government can impose on the states a national marriage policy.

FREE MARKET CONSERVATIVES

Tim Carney is a conservative journalist who covers the cozy relationship between big government and big business, and how the corporatist policies that result come at the expense of consumers, small businesses, and upstart entrepreneurs. He dedicated a recent column to the Texas Enterprise Fund, a pool of taxpayer money that Perry used to subsidize select businesses.

As it turned out, beneficiaries of the largesss would often return the favor by lavishing Perry with political donations. "His policies -- from backroom drug company giveaways to green energy subsidies -- eerily mirror the unseemly big business-big government collusion that has characterized President Obama's presidency," Carney writes. "After four years of bailouts, drug-lobby-crafted health care 'reform,' corporate handouts in the name of 'stimulus' and 'green jobs,' and cash-for-clunkers boondoggles, does Perry really think what we need is more corporatism?"

ESTABLISHMENT CONSERVATIVES

When Gov. Perry ran for reelection in Texas, the Bush family and those loyal to them supported his opponent, Kay Bailey Hutchinson. "While in the White House, Bush 2 and his aides regularly scoffed at Perry for reasons that were never fully clear, making fun of his syntax and intellectual prowess without any sense of irony," former Bush administration speech writer Matt Latimer writes in The Daily Beast.

He goes on to report that Karl Rove is going after Perry:

After Rove called Perry "unpresidential," former Bush press secretary Tony "Ralph Malph" Fratto joined in--calling Perry, you guessed it, "unpresidential." This was followed in quick succession by similar sentiments from a former Rove aide, Pete "Potsie" Wehner. Meanwhile, two "unnamed" Bush aides (wonder who they could be?) issued the following warning to The New York Times: "If you're really trying to be the nominee and want to go the distance, you just don't want the former president of the United States and his people working against you."

Ironically, other establishment conservatives critical of Perry worry that he can't win a general election largely because he reminds voters of George W. Bush.

THE ANTI-ILLEGAL-IMMIGRATION RIGHT

Mark Krikorian, the resident anti-illegal-immigration writer at National Review, reports that Numbers USA, an anti-immigration advocacy group, "has added Texas Gov. Rick Perry to its grid of presidential candidates, giving him an initial grade of D minus. He can bring this grade up significantly, because there are a number of areas about which he's never taken a position, but his stated positions are mediocre -- he's opposed to sanctuary cities, which is good, and talks a good game in support of border security, but is apparently opposed to E-Verify and has supported (before the recession) increased importation of foreign workers." Perry also supported a Texas version of the DREAM Act, which allowed some illegal immigrants to pay in state tuition at Texas state universities.

THE LIBERTARIANS

Radley Balko, the right-leaning libertarian who has covered civil liberties abuses in the criminal-justice system for Reason magazine, The Cato Institute, and The Huffington Post, is the most persuasive among folks who just can't get past the fact that Texas likely executed an innocent man on Perry's watch. Perry's defenders note that the Lone Star State gives less commutation power to its governor than other states. But that's an insufficient response to Balko, who notes that "government has no more awesome, complete, or solemn power than the power to execute its own citizens" and that "if you're going to claim to loathe big government, this is one area where you ought to be more skeptical of government than any other."

He goes on as follows:

The problem here isn't necessarily that Perry presided over the execution of a man who was likely innocent. If Perry had shown some concern about what happened in the Willingham case, maybe set up an investigation into what went wrong, perhaps even attempted to suspend executions in Texas until he could be sure checks were in place to prevent the execution of an innocent, the way George Ryan did in Illinois--if he'd done any of that, he'd at least have shown some appropriate skepticism. He'd have shown that he's at least cognizant of the fact that government employees in law enforcement and criminal justice are just as fallible and subject to the trappings of power, bureaucracy, and public choice theory as government employees in, say, tax collection or the regulation of business. Instead, Perry couldn't even acknowledge the possibility of doubt about Willingham's guilt.

Even worse, Balko says, Perry ignored all the larger problems with the Texas criminal-justice system:

The state of Texas used completely bogus forensic evidence to convict a man in a capital case... If that was allowed to happen here, it has happened in other cases, and in other contexts. Worse, when the state's forensics committee attempted to investigate Willingham's execution, Perry replaced the committee members pushing for an investigation with new members more sympathetic to prosecutors.

Perry was confronted with the possibility that the government over which he presided may have abused it's most awesome and sacred power. And instead of skepticism of government, he showed deference. Instead of demanding transparency, he actively obfuscated. Instead of exposing and demanding accountability for a possibly historical government error, Perry used his own power to keep himself and his constituents ignorant, lest they begin to question whether government should have such power... it's downright pathological to be so confident in your favorite government program's infallibility that you actively undermine an investigation into said government program's possible flaws.

Lucky for Perry that most Republicans share his apathy about police abuses, wrongful convictions, and reforming the criminal justice system.

THE REST OF THE RIGHT

Perry can satisfy Second Amendment advocates. He'd likely consider the same sorts of judges as George W. Bush, which is to say, anti-abortion Federalist Society types like John Roberts and Samuel Alito (and perhaps political cronies like Alberto Gonzalez and Harriet Miers). And on foreign policy, Perry has an opportunity to define where he stands, having said very little on the subject, and nothing out of which he couldn't wriggle, save his decision to do business with Venezuela's state-run oil company, despite tension between Hugo Chavez and the U.S. government.

Conventional wisdom holds that Perry will be a hawk whose views are acceptable to neocons and the inside-the-Beltway defense establishment. He is surely the dream candidate of defense contractors. On the other hand, he has shown the capacity to reverse himself on a subject even after claiming to be deeply convicted about it. If Ron Paul does better than expected, and throwing some red meat to anti-war voters seems like it would help Perry to beat Mitt Romney, does anyone doubt he'd do it? Finally, corporations that intend on making political contributions can count on Perry -- if his record in Texas tells us anything, it tells us that.

On substance, it makes no sense that Perry would be a tea-party champion, if the movement's small-government, anti-corporate handout, federalist rhetoric is to be taken seriously. But as Will Wilkinson illustrates wonderfully, Perry is a talented retail politician, and the cultural cues he exudes are pitched perfectly to the tea-party demographic. Look for Perry to leverage being attacked by the media to gain tea-party support, even as Ron Paul and Gary Johnson, GOP candidates with small-government credentials far better than Perry's, are mostly ignored. Admittedly, Paul and Johnson may be unelectable. They also show that the tea party will trade consistency and principle for electability.


Image credit: Reuters
Jump to comments
Presented by

Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

'Stop Telling Women to Smile'

An artist's campaign to end sexual harassment on the streets of NYC.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in Politics

Just In