05.27.11

Rick Perry Just Might Run

Conservatives longing for a 2012 savior are increasingly fixating on Texas’s governor. Peter Boyer talks to Perry about his suitors, his state’s economic success—and his timetable for deciding.

Conservatives longing for a 2012 savior are increasingly fixating on Texas’ governor. Peter Boyer talks to Perry about his suitors, his state’s economic success—and his timetable for deciding.

One of the photographs that Texas Gov. Rick Perry keeps on his BlackBerry is a portrait of Aurora P. (“Rory”) Perry, the family’s black Labrador Retriever, who last year acquired a key role in local Perry legend. The governor and the dog were out for an early morning jog when a coyote suddenly appeared, growling at Rory. Perry, who carries a Ruger .380 handgun in his belt when he jogs, pulled the weapon and shot the coyote dead. When some Austin locals protested that Perry’s reaction was excessive, and dangerous, he shrugged it off. “Don’t attack my dog,” he said, “or you might get shot.”

It is the sort of dustup that, say, Mitt Romney would never be involved in—although Romney might well prefer a coyote controversy to another conversation about Romneycare. A lot of conservatives would apparently prefer it, too. Neither Romney, the presumed frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, nor the other contenders, has excited enthusiasm in the Republican base, which seems to want a candidate with less baggage than Newt Gingrich, less squish than Romney, and more magnetism than Tim Pawlenty. The right’s hot new prospect of the moment is the arch-conservative governor of Texas, the man with the square jaw, thick mane, and snakeskin cowboy boots.

Perry has long flatly declared himself out of the presidential race. Last year, he told Newsweek’s Andrew Romano, and the Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith that he had no interest in a White House run—an assertion that he repeated in a Fox News interview with Greta Van Susteren this week. Yet, rumors to the contrary—plainly fed by a measure of wishful thinking on the right—persist. And, meeting with Newsweek in his office in the Capitol, Perry said that the question of a presidential run might be revisited next week—when the legislative session ends.

This year’s legislature, under Perry’s cajoling, delivered on some of the right’s most cherished ambitions—a law requiring doctors to run a fetal sonogram before performing an abortion, a measure requiring voters to present a photo I.D. at the polling booth, and a version of loser-pays tort reform. But the action that really has conservatives looking to Texas with longing was a budget deal that covered a revenue shortfall through spending cuts, without raising taxes or touching the state’s $9.4 billion rainy day fund.

The Dallas Morning News editorialized against the “mean Texas budget,” noting that the spending cuts came at the expense of education, veterans, and care for the state’s neediest. Perry is unmoved. “Same thing was told in 2003,” he says, referring to the last time the state, at his urging, had to cover a shortfall by cutting spending. “It’s working pretty well in Texas. Texas has made the hard decisions. Twice while I’ve been the governor, we’ve had budget shortfalls, once in ‘03 and this time. We’ve made the decision: reduce your spending, don’t raise taxes. And the recovery that occurs after that is pretty substantial.”

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Indeed, the Lone Star State’s economic success over the last decade has been notable. Since 2001 (roughly the tenure of Perry, the longest-serving Texas governor) the state has gained more than 730,000 jobs. In contrast, California, Texas’s antithesis in political culture, and a favorite Perry rhetorical foil, lost more than 600,000 jobs in the same period (and is on course to lose more jobs this year than last).

That gap is why some of Perry’s most ardent support emanates from California. Dan Logue, a Republican in Sacramento’s state Assembly, says he began worrying when the chief executive officer of Carl’s Jr., an iconic California burger chain, told him that he was opening 300 restaurants in Texas this year, none in California, and was considering moving his headquarters to the Lone Star State. Logue asked him why. “He said, 'It takes them two years to get permits in California,' ” Logue recalls. “'It takes 45 days in the state of Texas.'”

In April, Logue led a delegation of California political leaders, including Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the Democratic former mayor of San Francisco, to Texas on a learning tour. They met with Perry, and with ex-pat California businessmen, and heard the obvious—Texas is a right-to-work state with no income tax, a light regulatory regime, relatively low corporate tax rates, and a steady supply of cheap labor. Newsom, whose political identity is liberal, was struck by the state’s insistently business-friendly attitude. He says now, “You can’t be for jobs, and anti-business”—which happens to be a stock phrase of Rick Perry’s.

Logue was even more deeply impressed. He came away from his Texas visit convinced that Rick Perry should be the next president. “I think that Rick Perry is potentially the next Ronald Reagan for the Republican Party,” he says. “His message of jobs—he created 164,000 jobs in the last three years, the rest of the states lost jobs. He gets it, and the people of America want a jobs economy. I think that’s going to resonate nationwide, and I think that puts him at the front of the table. And I also think that the Democrats probably fear him more than any other candidate.” Back in California, Logue launched a Draft Perry drive, with a Web page extolling Perry’s conservative virtues and urging a letter-writing campaign to convince the Texan to run.

The Perry boomlet was fueled in mid-May, when the governor addressed a group of GOP chairmen from around the country, at a meeting in Dallas. He took to the microphone and freelanced a soliloquy of red-meat conservatism, which so wowed the crowd, and sparked a Perry for President buzz in the banquet hall. The next day, Rush Limbaugh read an account of the reaction on his radio broadcast, and proceeded to deliver a 20-minute pro-Perry monologue. “Texas Governor Rick Perry is lurking out there, and he has the potential to light this up,” Limbaugh told his listeners. “If Rick Perry decides to get in this, folks, then you can wipe away all the conventional wisdom that's out there heretofore and to date, 'cause it's a brand-new day, and it starts all over again.”

One tenet of the conventional wisdom is that latecomers are penalized in the cutthroat competition for money and top campaign talent (indeed, two of Perry’s closest political advisers have already signed on with Gingrich). But money would not likely be a hindrance for Perry, whose state is an ATM for the political right.

A larger question for a potential Perry candidacy is how well his unyielding brand of conservatism might play outside of Texas. Michael Mahaffey, former chairman of Iowa’s Republican Party, thinks that a job-creating pitch might play well in Iowa. “He could say, Look, you want to look at a place that has been an experiment in how to do things, look at Texas,” Mahaffey says. “That would be appealing to people.” Mahaffey also notes that the failure of any of the established candidates to emerge from the pack might favor a latecomer.

Perry, not surprisingly, agrees. “This is a very different time in America,” he says. “Different ways to run campaigns. There are those out there who will say that there’s plenty of time to decide who’s going to carry our banner. And I think that’s probably correct. So, the idea that, what are we, 18 months from election, that we’re going to settle on who the nominee’s going to be might be rather premature.”

But Mahaffey, the Iowan, does note that some people outside of Texas are put off by Lone Star swagger, and others have suggested that the nation is still nursing a Texas hangover from the George W. Bush years (Perry can launch into a dead-on W. impersonation, with not much exertion). As one top operative from a declared GOP candidate notes, “Perry is a perfect fit for Texas—that’s why he’d have trouble nationally.”

“There are those out there who will say that there’s plenty of time to decide who’s going to carry our banner. And I think that’s probably correct.”

Some in Texas, of course, question whether Perry is a perfect fit even here. A poll released last week by the University of Texas/Texas Tribune showed that a plurality of Texans thought the state was on the wrong track, and only four percent listed Perry as their choice for president. Perry stiffens when asked about those numbers. “You can make anything you want outta polls,” he says. “How’d I feel today when I got up? I don’t govern by polls. They’re interesting to look at, they’re little snapshots in time. Here’s my instinct about people’s how we doin? It’s really driven by the national economy more than it is by the state’s economy, and what we’ve done here in the state. As hard as we work, and as positive a climate as we’ve made in Texas relative to the other states, peoples’ concerns are really larger than the state. It’s four dollar gasoline. It’s this monstrous debt we’ve created at the federal level that we’re going to have to pay off, that our kids are going to have to pay off. It’s the seeming disconnect in our foreign policy—I mean, we don’t have a rudder in the water, we’re floating around aimlessly. And I think that washes over into any poll numbers that you ask about any issue.”

If Perry did join the race, he’d be the second Republican candidate, along with fellow Texan Ron Paul, to assume an anti-war posture. He wants the Obama administration to put more boots on the ground on the U.S.-Mexican border, and to re-think the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that were initiated by George W. Bush. “This war has gone on way too long,” he told Newsweek, as he sat beneath a portrait of Staff Sergeant Christopher Zimmerman, who was killed in Afghanistan, and whose mother used to work in the governor’s office. “We’ve really gotta figure a way to extricate ourselves out of it. The War on Terror is not going to go away for a long time. But how we fight it, and how we defend America—I’m not sure we’re on the right track.”

When asked how he means to respond to the Draft Perry suitors, he said that he has been holding off until this week’s conclusion of the legislature’s session. He did offer, by way of analogy, the political case to be made for choosing a seasoned governor for the national ticket.

“My son is getting his pilot’s license. I’m really happy for him. I don’t want him flying my airliner. Some day, I may want him to. I happen to be a rather highly trained aviator. The federal government spent a lotta money training me to be a very, very talented and capable aviator. I’ve got over 7,000 hours of flight time. There are my classmates who are still sitting in the left seats of triple 7’s and 737s. That’s who I want flying me when I go from Point A to Point B. I suggest to you that’s a good analogy for any profession, whether it’s the doctor operating on you or the person you want running your country.”

Peter J. Boyer joined Newsweek/Daily Beast after spending 18 years as a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he wrote on a wide range of subjects, including politics, the military, religion, and sports. Before joining The New Yorker, Boyer was a reporter for the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, and a television critic for National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition.” As a correspondent on the documentary series, Frontline, he won a George Foster Peabody Award, an Emmy, and consecutive Writers Guild Awards for his reporting. Boyer’s New Yorker articles have been included in the anthologies The Best American Political Writing, Best American Science Writing, Best American Spiritual Writing and Best American Crime Writing. He is at work on a book about American evangelism.