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08.13.11

Rick Perry's Ruthless Drive to Win

Rick Perry has called Social Security unconstitutional and presided over the execution of a man who was probably innocent. But as Paul Begala argues, that’s just the beginning.

I first met Rick Perry in 1985. He was a Democratic freshman state rep, straight off the ranch in Haskell, Texas. He wore his jeans so tight, and, umm, adjusted himself so often that my fellow young legislative aides and I used to call him Crotch. Even among state representatives, even among Texas Aggies (graduates of this cute remedial school we have in Texas), Perry stood out for his modest intellectual gifts. Hell, he got a C in animal breeding. I have goats who got an A in that subject. But lack of brains has never been a hindrance in politics.

Mitt Romney should be shaking in his Guccis.

Rick Perry threw his hair in the ring on Saturday. His entrance into the GOP presidential field can be a game changer. Perry can raise money as well as Mitt. He can rally the base as well as Michele Bachmann, and he will say or do anything—annnnnnnyyyyyyything—to win. And in today’s Republican Party, if you want to be the nominee you have to be willing to do some really crazy s--t.

You'd have thought that Mitt Romney was the guy who would do whatever it takes. Like the defendant in a Stalinist show trial, Mitt has renounced everything about his prior life: his positions on gay rights, abortion rights, TARP, gun control, campaign finance, immigration, etc. Abandoning nearly everything you have stood for certainly evinces a desire to win (if not a steely spine).

Rick Perry is not, in the main, a flip-flopper. But he takes “whatever it takes” to a whole ’nother level.

Does Michele Bachmann make conservative crowds swoon by saying the Lord told her to study tax law? Meh. Perry gathers 30,000 people to a controversial Christian prayer rally. In Houston. In August. One veteran Texas politico told me, “The guy is Elmer Gantry. He could take over a conservative megachurch tomorrow and outpreach the pastor.”

Does Tim Pawlenty rant about Social Security? Hah. Perry told The Daily Beast's Andrew Romano that Social Security is “a Ponzi scheme,” and that both it and Medicare are unconstitutional. Never mind that the Supreme Court recently ruled that Social Security is perfectly constitutional. OK, not that recently. In 1937, actually. A court with seven Republicans and just two Democrats ruled (in Helvering v. Davis) that Social Security does not violate the 10th Amendment or any other part of the Constitution.

When you’re more open to secession than Jefferson Davis was a century and a half ago, well, you’ve gone pretty far.

Does Ron Paul talk about states’ rights? Come on. Perry has already flirted with secession. Secession? Even Jefferson Davis opposed secession when he was a senator from Mississippi. When you’re more open to secession than Jefferson Davis was a century and a half ago, well, you've gone pretty far.

Does Herman Cain boast of creating jobs as a CEO? Puuhleeze. Perry will claim that Texas leads the nation in jobs created. As a joke currently circulating in the Lone Star State puts it, “Sure, Perry has created thousands of jobs. I'm working three of them.” Texas does in fact lead the nation in minimum-wage jobs and in both the number of people who are uninsured and the percentage of the population that's uninsured. Under the supposedly antigovernment Perry, government jobs grew at twice the rate of private-sector jobs.

Perry has flaws, huge flaws. Not the least of which is that he presided over the execution of one of his constituents, Cameron Todd Willingham, who was probably innocent. But I’m not sure that's a liability in today's Tea Party–obsessed GOP. There’s a legend in Lone Star politics that one of Perry’s Republican rivals in Texas tested the Willingham issue in a focus group. One Republican man, the story goes, squinted and said, “Well, I like that. Takes a lot of balls to execute an innocent man.” At that moment, folks say, Perry’s rival knew opposing him was fruitless.

Back in 1985 the Texas Legislature was crawling with ambitious young politicians—as was every legislature in America. Why would one man—albeit a handsome man with great hair and serious political skills—rise above the thousands of others? Not because of brains and not because of bipartisan appeal. Because he has the most important quality of all: the willingness to do whatever it takes.

That's truer than ever in relation to today's Tea Party–dominated Republican Party. You’ve gotta be willing to do anything, say anything, accept anything, propose anything, endorse anything, pledge anything. There is nothing too bats--t for these people.

Watch your back, Mitt.