Mr. Perry isn’t likely for the Oval Office

Is Rick Perry running for president? This has been the question on many minds both before and since the Texas governor won his third election bid, becoming the longest-sitting governor in the state’s history. But the chatter has grown more acute with the straight-off-the-election publication of Fed Up, a tome that might be read as his blueprint for nationwide governance (See “How to throw a Tea Party,” Page 17).

During a Perry stop in Washington D.C., Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank discussed the book with the governor and asked him (of all things) about his comments on how “the federal government wants to tell you how much salt to eat.” The governor complains in his work that the federal government is unfairly regulating the nation’s sodium intake. It seemed like an odd fact, and Milbank asked about its origin.

The governor said the quotation was documented in the footnotes. Yet Milbank reports that he couldn’t find any to support Perry’s assertion. In fact, there is none.

More items in the book are bound to fail the salt test. But, more importantly, some of his ideas, such as term-limiting the Supreme Court, are so unlikely to happen that it doesn’t matter who he cites (though he quotes Robert Bork heavily, former President Reagan’s appointee that failed to make the grade with Congress).

So we know what he thinks about the Supreme Court. How does this impact Texas institutions? He’s not telling — at least, he’s not telling us here at home.

Governor Perry willfully ignored the state’s newspaper editorial boards before the election and refused to debate his opponent, former Houston Mayor Bill White. Some papers, including the Tyler Telegraph, were ready to endorse him if he’d just show up and provide specific policy ideas. Why not brag to them directly about his refusal to apply for the federal “Race to the Top” education grants? About how clean he believes he’s made Texas air despite refusing to follow EPA directives?

He would have had them at hello.

Was that because, print journalism no longer matters to voters? Or, perhaps, does he resent the notion that he is somehow answerable for his past job performance? Amy Jasperson, assistant professor of political science at UTSA, says Perry has nothing to lose by choosing television instead of print. “On television, you don’t just get verbal information, you get visual information, and that works well for him.” Governor Perry’s book tour has no political downside, she adds. “It only increases his profile, in Texas and nationwide.”

Another way of looking at it might seem less charitable, but it’s worth considering: it’s quite possible that Perry just isn’t all that interested in governing Texas.

He may not have to. As State Senator Leticia Van de Putte told the Current about the post-election reality taking shape in Austin, “The overriding dynamic is not just the loss of seats (by Democrats), it’s the philosophy of the new members coming in. The concern is that the House will not be able to pass a tax bill — and they may not be able to access the rainy day fund.”

Given the temperament of many new members, even if the Legislature can’t find a budget easily, it can still pass a Voter ID law to disenfranchise poorer Texans, redistrict to ensure a perpetual Republican majority, and push out Arizona-style immigration laws.

Which frees Governor Perry to stay loftily above the fray and focus on primping his national image. Perhaps he will appeal to end a potential budget deadlock in some presidential way. It would make him look good: measured outrage suits him. The only complication to that, as Senator Van De Putte affirmed, is that he may not get to use his veto threat (one of his few powers as governor) “because the Legislature will be too conservative to send him anything he would veto.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean that Perry is positioning himself for national office. As the Tea Party is about to discover, it’s far easier to complain about the government in homogenous rallies than it is to actually run it. The wave of voter disenchantment that voted them in will likely be voting them out as well.

In 2012, the governor may not have the base support that an anti-government activist has in 2010 to pursue national office, even though some may believe he is a personality who can challenge President Barack Obama. But that’s not certain. As Nate Silver of the New York Times reports, Perry is far down on the list of potential candidates, with five different national polls showing less than an average of one percent of likely Republican voters supporting a Perry bid on the Oval Office.

Another crimp in the “Perry for President” theory that the governor’s media tour suggests: Perry may believe that being a president-maker is more profitable than being president. To achieve that kind of influence without resembling the former governor of another large state, Sarah Palin, he wants to keep his relevance by staying in office — while continuing to sell himself and his book.

That means on Fox News, his book is a paean to freedom with a capital F; on CNN, his book is a complaint about media bias; on Comedy Central, his book is an honest reflection about how ordinary Texans feel.

Of course, Perry hasn’t been an ordinary Texan for some time, nor have many of his contributors (a discomforting percentage of his campaign money came from his own political appointees). It’s also worth noting that ordinary Texans don’t spend mid-six figures on foreign travel, as Bill White’s campaign was so eager to point out.

And by complaining on national television that the states should be free to govern without federal intervention, Perry is arguing a point that didn’t convince 150 years ago and doesn’t convince now. As Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart asserted in his interview, without federal intervention we’d still have slavery, women wouldn’t be voting, and children would be working in factories.

That’s a more polite way of saying that Texas occasionally needs to be bitch-slapped by the citizens of other states into doing the right thing. Only the federal government can act as their agent in that regard. Perry has declared that he is “fed up,” and wants to slap the Feds back. But how does that translate into direct, local policy statements? No matter how he hawks it, his book is curiously silent on these questions. And it begs the question: by fanning the flames of the current anti-government outrage, is Governor Perry working for Texas or for himself?

He won’t be telling Texas newspapers that answer because that’s not where the money is. At this moment, the real money is in selling his book to the Tea Party.

The governor may be positioning himself for the presidency, but it’s also plausible that Perry is grabbing chips from the table like a card counter with an angry pit boss approaching.

Another option that Milbank proposed to the Current: the governor may be positioning himself for a vice presidential bid. In that case, all of his protests that he’s not interested in the presidency would be true, and his biggest concern might be about how much cholesterol Mitt Romney has in his diet. Perhaps a Texas brisket or two has already made its way from Texas to Massachusetts.

We don’t know: the governor’s office wouldn’t comment. •

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