Texas Gov. Rick Perry's latest verbal blunder might not have been a gaffe. But comments in his speech at the National Right to Life convention Thursday about Wendy Davis, the instant Democratic star who filibustered an antiabortion bill in Texas Tuesday, were squirm-inducing just the same. Here's what Perry said:
"Who are we to say that children born into the worst of circumstances can’t grow to live successful lives? In fact, even the woman who filibustered the Senate the other day was born into some difficult circumstances. She was the daughter of a single woman. She was a teenage mother herself. She managed to eventually graduate from Harvard Law School and serve in the Texas Senate. It's just unfortunate that she hasn’t learned from her own example that every life must be given a chance to realize its full potential and that every life matters."
Here's the problem -- make that problems -- with that statement. Many will hear the condescending words "she hasn't learned from her own example" and hear him shaming teenage mothers, even if that may not have been Perry's intent. His attempt to applaud what she's achieved in her life while in the same breath chiding her for not learning from it -- all while refusing to say her name -- comes off as the political equivalent of "bless her heart." Most of all, bringing up Davis's teenage pregnancy gets way too personal. Davis's life experience may be compelling, but it's her story and reflects her choices, and shouldn't be fodder for Perry. (Davis called the statement "without dignity and tarnishes the high office he holds.")
Moreover, in directly calling out Davis, Perry also unwittingly set up a political duel between himself -- a three-term governor, who as recently as last year, was a candidate for president -- and a Texas state senator who before Tuesday was barely known outside the state. The Dallas Morning News's Wayne Slater puts it this way:
"Gov Rick Perry’s decision to directly bring Sen. Wendy Davis into his speech Thursday ... did two things: It risked reducing Perry in the debate and elevating Davis to equal status. That’s where she’s been in the media following this week’s filibuster fight in the Texas Senate, but politically – he’s the governor, she’s a relative newcomer on the political scene..."
Whether or not Davis ever decides to run for governor, Perry did more than just take a personal dig at Davis. He also just raised her profile as an opponent.
Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.