I have been writing about him since the eighties, when he began his career in the Texas Legislature. Along the way I have learned a few things, which I have arranged in this handy list of Eight Points to Keep in Mind When Writing About Rick Perry.
1. Perry is not George Bush. Don’t assume that because Bush and Perry served together in the Capitol, or because they’re both Republican Texans who wear boots, the two men have a lot in common. They don’t. As governor, Bush positioned himself as “a uniter, not a divider,” championing education as one of his main priorities. Perry has been the opposite kind of chief executive: dismissive of Democrats and fond of political maneuvers that put the heat on moderates within his own party. And in the legislative session that just wrapped up, he presided over a budget that cut $4 billion from public schools. The cultural differences are striking too. Perry, the son of a Big Country cotton farmer, is at ease with a populist tea party message; W., the scion of a political dynasty, always seemed more comfortable with the country club set. They have followed starkly different paths. When W. began his political career, he had a famous name, access to his father’s huge national fund-raising base, and the backing of the establishment wing of the Republican party. As a late arrival in the Republican ranks, Perry had no fund-raising base and little name identification. He had no choice but to gravitate to the conservative wing of the GOP, where he could prove up his conservative bona fides. Nor is there any love lost between the two men. When Perry ran for lieutenant governor, in 1998, Bush’s camp wanted everyone on the ticket to run positive races; the Perry team defied the order, and ever since, relations have been frosty. There is one other critical difference. Bush lost his first race, for Congress. Perry has won every race he’s ever run.
2. It’s not a big deal that Perry was once a Democrat. To suggest otherwise will make you look foolish. When Perry was elected to the statehouse, in 1985, conservative Democrats ran the Legislature. In 1989, realizing that a conservative had little future in the party, Perry switched to the GOP. He has been a rock-solid Republican ever since and has driven the state party further to the right. Only twice has he made strategic errors that brought him into conflict with his hard-right base. One was an edict that twelve-year-old girls be inoculated against cervical cancer (it was quickly overturned); another was his promotion of a giant system of toll roads called the Trans-Texas Corridor, which stirred up significant opposition from landowners. These two bobbles aside, Perry has a genius for sensing where his base is on any given issue.
3. Texas is not a “weak governor” state. A common misconception. It used to be true, but during his historic governorship, Perry has reinvented the office as a power center. This may be his greatest accomplishment. Yes, our state constitution, written the year before Reconstruction ended, created a weak governor’s office (as did most constitutions of the states of the former Confederacy). We had two-year terms (the Legislature changed it to four-year terms beginning with the 1974 election) and a fragmented executive department with power divided among the governor, the lieutenant governor, the comptroller, the land and agriculture commissioners, the attorney general, and the railroad commission. But Perry has used his appointment power to install political allies in every state agency, effectively establishing a Cabinet form of government and making him vastly more powerful than any of his predecessors. In this regard, the Texas politician he most resembles is LBJ, who, Robert Caro reports, once told an assistant, “I do understand power, whatever else may be said about me. I know where to look for it and how to use it.” Rick Perry, to a tee.