Now that he has made his intention to run official, Rick Perry should be considered one of the two frontrunners for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. His selling points to the Republican base are clear: he has more obvious appeal to the conservative base than former pro-choicer and universal health care supporter Mitt Romney, while he will be seen as more mainstream and “electable” than Tea Party favorite Michelle Bachmann. Given the very real chance that Rick Perry will be the 45th president of the United States, however, it should be noted that there’s no reason (apart from sexism) to consider him any less nutty than Bachmann. All signs indicate that a Perry administration would be even worse than that of his fellow Texas governor George W. Bush, and he would be by far the most radical presidential candidate since Barry Goldwater.
As readers of this blog know, the most powerful symbol for Perry’s style of governance is Cameron Todd Willingham. Willingham was executed by the state of Texas on February 16, 2004 for allegedly killing his three children by burning down his family’s house. This execution was an appalling miscarriage of justice. The case against him was a complete shambles, with the evidence that the fire was deliberately set consisting of completely worthless junk science and the transparently implausible, uncorroborated, and later recanted testimony of a mentally ill jailhouse snitch. How could the execution of someone who shouldn’t even have been arrested been allowed to proceed? One reason was Governor Rick Perry, whose hand-picked Board of Pardons and Paroles upheld the death sentence while Perry failed to use his power to recommend commuting his sentence. And to dispel the possibility that Perry had made good faith (if tragic) mistake, Perry then fired several members of the state’s Forensic Science Commission to cover up the fact that Willingham’s conviction was based on junk science about as reliable as astrology.
Alas, Perry’s disgraceful behavior in abetting the execution of an almost certainly innocent man is no aberration. His governorship is a virtual parody of contemporary Republicanism, comforting the wealthy while throttling the relatively powerless. Despite an already low level of social services and a highly regressive tax code, with Perry’s support Texas has responded to the recession with savage spending cuts and no tax increases. Poor and lower-middle class Texans will be hit particularly hard by the draconian cuts to public schools and Medicaid. The educational cuts are particularly cruel and short-sighted, given that Texas “forty-fifth in SAT scores, third in teen pregnancies and dead last in the percentage of adults with high school diplomas.”
The case Perry will make to mainstream voters rests on Texas’s allegedly impressive economic growth under his governorship. But even leaving aside the huge number of Texas residents who have been left without access to decent schools or medical care, these claims are exaggerated. Massachusetts and New York have combined much stronger social services with faster economic growth and similar or lower unemployment than Perry’s Texas. And while Texas’ job creation rate under Perry looks superficially good, most of this growth has come from minimum wage and public sector jobs. A more careful look, in other words, should dispel the idea that Texas’s regressive taxes and frugal social services have unleashed a wave of entrepreneurship.
In addition, it must be noted that the Texas model would be particularly disastrous if implemented on a national level. Texas has managed to maintain decent economic growth throughout the recession because it is major oil-producing state during a time in which oil prices have soared. Alas, most states cannot rely on oil as a crutch. Republican bastions such as Alabama and Mississippi demonstrate what the policies Perry advocates produce in states not sitting on huge oil reserves – massive inequalities, high rates of poverty, and unacceptably bad social services without even decent economic growth.
Perry’s worldview has been bad for Texas and would be even worse if implemented on a nationwide basis. But his status as frontrunner tells us a great deal about the state of today’s Republican Party. Even by the standards of the increasingly extremist GOP, the Texas Republican Party is a model of wingnuttery, with a platform that (among many ludicrous elements) calls for Congress to prevent federal courts from applying the Bill of Rights, the abolition of the Department of Education, the abolition of the minimum wage, and to restrict citizenship to the children of U.S. Citizens in contradiction of the clear language of the 14th Amendment. In keeping with this kind of extremism, in a book released just last year Perry endorsed a wide variety of ultra-reactionary ideas, including the belief that most of the 20th century administrative state (including Medicare and Social Security) violate the federal constitution. He has also flirted with secessionism — admittedly, an option that may look more attractive should Perry stumble into the presidency. Unlike the Texas governor who was elected in 2000, Perry doesn’t even pretend to reasonableness or moderation.
Perry’s radicalism may alienate some swing voters, but there can be no doubt that he can win under the the wrong economic circumstances. If a stalled recovery leads to Rick Perry taking over the White House with a Republican Congress that reflects similar values, it may be decades before the United States can recover.