Governor Gaffe Comes Back to Texas, Wounded But No Wiser
Wait a minute. Forgive me, but I must misuse and abuse a bit of Dylan Thomas here to suggest we should not let Rick Perry go quite so gentle into that good night. I'm reading a lot of crap about how he bombed in his presidential campaign because he was "ill-prepared" and committed gaffes.
It's way worse than that. Rick Perry is a gaffe. He has prepared all his life to be a gaffe. And that's why he's our governor.
In 2009, when Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison was preparing to challenge Perry in the 2010 GOP primary for governor, she was 25 points ahead of him in the polls. And that was no big surprise. In this reddest of red states, Perry had consistently run at the bottom of Republican tickets.
Every statewide post he'd ever held was handed to him by the party and lobby interests, beginning with ag commissioner in 1990 when Karl Rove recruited him for the toxin industry to run against Jim Hightower, who was preaching organics.
He was the Marlboro Man in TV ads. That got him elected. Barely. Until 2010. That year he kicked Hutchison's ass -- beat her by 20 points.
So how did he go from 25 points down to 20 points up on her? That's the question political analysts in Texas should be asking themselves. Why did we suddenly love him so much more? And why do we think now our love has faded?
Last October when I wrote about Perry's so-called Texas economic miracle (not a miracle, and he didn't do it), I interviewed Jason Stanford, a Democratic political consultant who happens also to be a great admirer of Perry as a campaigner. Stanford explained Perry's surge against Hutchison as no accident. It was in fact a brilliant tactical move in Stanford's view that left the high-end Republican establishment in Perry's adios-mofo dust.
Perry pulled it off, Stanford said, when his campaign consultant, Dave Carney of New Hampshire, persuaded him that the Tea Party was about to take over Texas. The Bush/Rove country-club Republicans like Hutchison didn't see it coming at all. They still thought the Tea Party was the stage version of King of the Hill. But the Tea Party in Texas was a freight train. If Perry could jump it, he could ride it right through that damned blue-blooded nose-in-the-air crowd that had never quite respected him anyway.
"He's down by a couple dozen points against this really popular lady," Stanford remembers. "He figures his only chance really is to say she's Washington, and then suddenly the pitchfork crowd comes up and says, 'We hate Washington.'"
Stanford says Perry's quick response was, "'Oh cool, here's my army. I shall lead them.'"
Perry starts talking about how Texas maybe should secede from the union. Hutchison is a pragmatic politician who can say a lot of stuff to win, but she's not going to say something like that. Life's too short.
Too bad for her. Bang! Within weeks of spouting the crazy Tea Party secession stuff, Perry pulls up even with her. In the weeks ahead, he doubles down on wacky, spouting all of the looniest borderline seditious Tea Party stuff about Washington being an oppressive foreign power run by strange non-American-seeming people.
Zoom! He pulls 20 points ahead of her! Hutchison announces she is rescinding her promise to quit the Senate in order to run for governor -- in effect a concession speech even before the vote.
When Perry beats Hutchison in the primary, it's the first time he has ever won an election that wasn't handed to him by the party elite. In fact he kicks the party elites' tush, thanks to the tricorn-hat people who think the president must have come here from another planet because he's black and smart at the same time.
Apparently Carney keeps pouring the same Kool-Aid and persuades him he can pull off the same stunt on the national stage. We see what happened.
But, look, our problem here in Texas is that we basically put him on the national stage in the first place by loving his craziest stuff. It was not the gaffes but the underlying message -- the one we loved -- that took him down when he tried to go national with it. Even conservative Republicans shrank from the radical Tea Party message that America is a wicked country fallen into the talons of some kind of French people or Africans or somebody else weird, that we need to rip up the Constitution, wage war on Mexico and Turkey and kick gay soldiers out of the military.
Those were not gaffes. Those were the core message that got him elected governor of Texas by a fat margin and made him think he could be president.
Now the analysts are writing about how he's going to come back here wounded by his national debacle. We'd better hope that's the case.
But in order for Perry to be wounded here by his experience on the national stage, Texas would have to have escaped the thrall of the Tea Party loons. Why would we think that? There's just as good a chance we'll suspend our own constitution, slap a spiked helmet on him and declare him Emperor Rick.
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