Rick Perry is back in Texas. And his health, politically speaking, is about as unpredictable as that of the other Lone Star cowboys who line up at the annual State Fair to down big batches of fried butter, fried beer, or fried bacon.
For the last few months Perry tempted fate, and now he’s wondering what the lingering damage is.
He has three years left on his gubernatorial term and a lot of questions. Will he run for governor again? Will he run for the presidency in 2016? Will he be able to assemble the usual political muscle that allowed him to steamroll opponents at the statehouse?
Here is what to watch: For starters, there is the less-than-inspired political base in Texas. More than a few true believers are quietly saying Perry simply didn’t embarrass himself on the presidential campaign trail; he embarrassed Texas. In a state insistent on employing self-congratulation as an economic driver, that is no small thing—and it remains to be seen if Perry’s grip on his big-business allies will be as strong as it had been.
Underscoring all that was the abrasive way he faded out of his campaign—by railing against Mitt Romney and “vulture capitalists” in the financial-services sector. In the corridors of white-collar, high-dollar power in Dallas and Houston, that kind of talk no doubt also unsettled some of the tried-and-true Perry supporters—and he’ll have to do some glad-handing and probably a bit of political patronage to heal any lingering suspicions.
Meanwhile, on Perry’s watch there have been increasingly draconian cuts in state funding for teachers and schools, and the true consequences of those millions of dollars being taken away from local districts remain to be seen. There is a chance that already edgy Republican voters in both urban and suburban school districts will pin their frustrations on Perry.
He returns to a Texas that has been in the death grip of both drought and wildfires—billion-dollar calamities that have threatened to bring the state to its knees and that last year put Perry in the politically painful position of having to beg for federal disaster assistance, without seeming to beg for Big Government Aid.
Climatologists say that for the rest of Perry’s term, Texas will be running low on water and facing the possibility of fires unlike anything in state history. And political insiders are adding that Perry will now have to do something that he has been utterly avoiding: create a long-term, visionary plan without seeming to abandon the Tea Party-cum-Limbaugh, anti-global-warming faithful.
Of course, Perry also jumped into the GOP race by touting his record creating jobs in Texas. And he will need to be mindful of how that widespread drought can continue to undermine the economic, agricultural underbelly of the state.
Then there is the fact that when Perry first emerged as a GOP frontrunner, opponents tried to paint him as soft for supporting in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants. It’s doubtful those specific attacks will be malignant over the long haul, but for now some might see the accusations as part of a lingering inconsistency—and they may be a bit less inclined to tote water for him on social-conservative causes.
Perry has been governor for so long—since the end of 2000—that it’s impossible to describe him as completely politically vulnerable over the long term. Texans have a long history of forgiving national public gaffes by their political figures—and George W. Bush is living proof that they even embrace some sort of aggressive, Lone Star anti-intellectualism.
In the end, Perry’s stumbles along the national trail probably won’t linger for very long—especially when he gets back to doing what he is good at: the grip-and-grin of retail politics, and the golfing and hunting with the power brokers and rainmakers. What’s really unclear is what the lingering impact will be on Perry’s psyche; after all, he’s not used to losing political races. For now, he’s back inside his almost $2 million McMansion in a very gated suburban community on the country-club outskirts of Austin—out where Karl Rove, Karen Hughes, and others have lived.
He moved into the place in 2007 after happily abandoning the creaky 19th-century governor’s residence downtown—so the old place could be updated. A few months after Perry moved out, an arsonist pitched a Molotov cocktail at the historic building in the middle of the night. It almost burned down.
Looking back at it all, Perry might have seen metaphors in the smoke: maybe he shouldn’t have strayed too far from home.