Texas Gov. Rick Perry is master at embodying the in-your-face, Obama-bashing, D.C.-decrying ethos of the Tea Party. He harbors none of the woe-is-me victimology that has come to dominate Sarah Palin’s nonstop complaining about the “lamestream media.” But he is in some way the natural heir to her defiance of elite opinion. He may have owed his governorship to George W. Bush (or rather, Bush’s presidential victory), but he owes his political soul to the Tea Party movement that was the successor to Palin’s vice presidential run.
Perhaps the D.C.-trash talking is genuine (he’s no Kennebunkport Texan) and perhaps he inhabited a persona that simply had paid off for him. The Associated Press reported:
[I]n the 2010 Republican primary, Perry’s Republican base just couldn’t get enough of his “Don’t Mess With Texas” schtick. And the shortcomings of U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and her often inept campaign don’t explain the enduring appeal Perry has among the conservative voters who pick Republican gubernatorial candidates.
Those voters ignored the fact that Perry, the longest serving governor in Texas history, took billions of dollars from the Obama administration to help balance the state budget. They listened when Perry talked about how he turned down a tiny fraction of it and had the guts to “say no” to Washington.
Critics whined about how Perry went too far with his chest-beating Texas nationalism and his flirtation with secession. Yet for every “elitist” who thought Perry stepped over the line, for all the “eye-rolling, head-nodding, tisk-tisking of the white wine and brie set up in D.C.,” there were voters roaring with approval, said Perry strategist Dave Carney.
That chest-beating is now causing his campaign some consternation. Certainly his fiery rhetoric about Social Security and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has caused him gave establishment voters and donors pause. But in a less obvious way it is also boxing him in.
Consider his impassioned speech on July 23, 2011, at the Aspen Institute on states’ rights (beginning at the 32:00 mark):
It’s hard to see him as insincere on the subject of gay marriage. He appears entirely convinced that the 10th Amendment allows states to do all sorts of things the Texas governor wouldn’t approve of his state. (He’s got a point: That is what federalism is all about.) And, as I’ve previously written, in his book “Fed Up!,” he repeatedly defends the 10th Amendment, reaching the conclusion that states should be allowed to control areas that the federal government has improperly intruded:
His devotion to the 10th Amendment is sincere and robust. Several times throughout the book he says that marriage is an issue for the states. “If you don’t like medicinal marijuana and gay marriage, don’t move to California.” (p.13) Later he writes, “From marriage to prayer, from zoning laws to tax policy, from our school systems to healthcare, and everything in between it is essential to our liberty that we be allowed to live as we see fit through the democratic process at the local and state level.” (p.27) Once again, he writes in the section entitled “States Should be the Laboratories of Democracy” that states and localities need the leeway to devise different solutions to a range of social issues. (He is savvy enough to carve out civil rights legislation, which he contends is authorized by the Civil War amendments.)
However, when confronted with those statements on gay marriage, Perry beat a hasty retreat with an eye toward winning over social conservatives in South Carolina, Iowa and elsewhere. But wait. What happened to the plain-talking governor? Is he melting like other pols under the bright light of scrutiny.
Likewise on HPV vaccinations, up through the last debate he stuck by his mandatory opt-out plan. Days later, as the heat intensified, he retreated.
So we come back to the dilemma for Perry: Can a candidate who is running almost exclusively on ethos — no waffling, all tough talk, zilch on policies — reverse himself on matters of deep concern to the same hardcore conservatives whom he is courting without sacrificing his main selling point? Put differently, Perry’s appeal is as someone who’s not just another pol; if he conforms his views to get himself elected he becomes just another pol.