Now that Texas Governor Rick Perry has thrown his hat into the ring for the GOP presidential nomination he is beginning to get more national scrutiny. While conservatives may like what they hear, he will likely have to temper his views if he wants to do well with independent voters who are essential to winning the White House.
On paper, Rick Perry has a compelling life story. He was born Paint Creek, Texas, about 60 miles north of Abilene. As a child he worked hard on his family's ranch, he joined the Boy Scouts and later became an Eagle Scout. He graduated from Texas A&M University and served in the United States Air Force flying C-130's.
Governor Perry began his political career in 1984 when he was elected to the Texas House of Representatives as a Democrat from his home county of Haskell. He supported Al Gore in the 1988 Democratic presidential primaries as chairman of the Gore campaign in Texas. Then in 1989 Perry announced that he was joining the Republican Party.
Governor Perry then ran and was elected Agriculture Commissioner twice. In 1998 he decided to run for Lieutenant Governor and narrowly won, becoming the first Republican to hold that office since Reconstruction. In December 2000 he assumed the state's governorship when then Governor George W. Bush resigned. Governor Perry was subsequently reelected twice as governor.
Texas has had a rapidly growing population throughout Governor Perry's three terms. It has also enjoyed strong economic growth, which the governor calls the "Texas Miracle." And the Texas governor says his state is responsible for "more than 40% of all new jobs created in America" since June 2009. However, critics say that a large number of those jobs came in the state's booming gas and oil industry, fueled by higher prices. And a substantial percentage of the new jobs were in government.
His opponents also say that much of Texas's job growth has been in low-paying jobs. And there are now strong signs that the growth is slowing. Last month, the Texas jobless rate increased to 8.4%, not far below the national average of 9.1%, and higher than any of Texas's bordering states.
The governor cites several reasons for the Texas Miracle: low taxes, less regulation and tightly-managed state spending. Nonetheless, Texas has had to deal with huge deficits. In 2010-11 Governor Perry used $6.4 billion in Recovery Act money (President Barack Obama's stimulus funding) to plug a $6.6 billion state deficit. And in 2011 he pushed through budget reductions of $15 billion, mostly from schools and health care, refusing to instead raise taxes or use some of the state's $9 billion "rainy day" funds. Texas is already ranked 37th among all states in "per-pupil" education spending, and 5.8 million Texans do not have health insurance, a quarter of its population. So is it a miracle or myth?
Governor Perry is known for his swagger and straight talk. For instance, when recently speaking of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke he said, "If this guy prints more money, I don't know what you all would do to him in Iowa, but we would treat him pretty ugly down in Texas." He concluded, "Printing more money to play politics at this particular time in American history is almost treacherous or treasonous in my opinion." Republican strategist Karl Rove responded on Fox News, "You don't want to accuse the Federal Reserve chairman of being guilty of a crime punishable by death, which is what treason is."
In April 2009 Governor Perry raised the possibility that Texas could secede from the United States. "When we came into the nation in 1845, we were a republic, we were a stand-alone nation. And one of the deals was, we can leave anytime we want. So we're kind of thinking about that again." A spokesman later denied that the governor advocates secession.
Last week the governor spoke to a young boy about creationism at a campaign stop. "In Texas we teach both creationism and evolution in our public schools, because I figured you're smart enough to figure out which one is right," he said. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that teaching creationism in public schools is unconstitutional because it amounts to the endorsement of religion. Later Governor Perry addressed the issue again, "God may have done it in the blink of the eye or he may have done it over this long period of time, I don't know. But I know how it got started."
The governor immediately turned to God when commenting shortly after last year's devastating BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. He said, "I hope we don't see a knee-jerk reaction across this country that says we're going to shut down drilling in the Gulf of Mexico...From time to time there are going to be things that occur that are acts of God that cannot be prevented."
Last week, Governor Perry's spoke about climate change while in New Hampshire, "I think there are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects." He continued, "I think we're seeing it almost weekly or even daily, scientists who are coming forward and questioning the original idea that man-made global warming is what is causing the climate to change." But, in fact, several surveys of climate researchers show that as many as 98% of them believe in the concept of man-made climate change.
In a book he wrote last year, "Fed Up! Our Fight to Save America from Washington," the Texas governor is blunt about Social Security, calling it an "illegal Ponzi scheme." His spokesman recently said that the governor will do nothing to cut Social Security. In Fed Up! Governor Perry also writes about states' rights, "If you don't support the death penalty and citizens packing a pistol, don't come to Texas." During his 11 years as governor there have been 234 executions in Texas, far more than any other state.
Over the next few months, Republican presidential candidates will vigorously compete for their party's nomination. So far, according to polls, Governor Perry is among the front-runners. Now a spotlight has been intensely focused on his record and his statements. He is also being attacked by his Republican opponents.
Should Perry get his party's nomination he will have to appeal more to voters in the center to prevail in November 2012. And he may be haunted by the memory of a recent president from Texas who walked with swagger and ushered in a great recession.
The country's rapid economic recovery is certain to be the key issue in 2012. And that may actually call for a real miracle.