By George Will
SAN ANTONIO – In the 1850s, on the steps of the Waco courthouse, Wallace Jefferson’s great great grandfather was sold. Today, Jefferson is chief justice of Texas’ Supreme Court. The governor who nominated him also nominated the state’s first Latina justice. Rick Perry, 61, the longest-serving governor in Texas history and, in his 11th year, currently the nation’s senior governor, says these nominations are two of his proudest accomplishments.
French cuffs and cowboy boots are, like sauerkraut ice cream, an eclectic combination, but Perry, who wears both, is a potentially potent candidate for the Republican presidential nomination because his political creed is uneclectic, matching that of the Republican nominating electorate. He was a “10th Amendment conservative” (“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people”) before the tea party appeared. And before Barack Obama’s statism – especially Obamacare’s individual mandate – catalyzed concern for the American project of limited government.
Social issues, especially abortion, are gateways to the Republican nominating electorate: In today’s climate of economic fear, a candidate’s positions on social issues will not be decisive with his electorate – but they can be disqualifying. Perry – an evangelical Christian, like most Republican participants in Iowa’s caucuses and the South Carolina primary – emphatically qualifies.
Pausing in his enjoyment of a hamburger the size of a hubcap, Perry, the Eagle Scout son of Democratic tenant farmers, says he entered politics as a Democrat: “I never met a Republican until I was in the Air Force.” Perry’s father had been a B-17 tail gunner flying out of England in 1944. Perry, stationed abroad flying C-130 transports, became a captain and a believer in American exceptionalism.
He matriculated into the culture wars in the riotous year of 1968. As the University of Texas at Austin was becoming a bastion of liberalism, Perry headed to Texas A&M, which was transitioning from an all-male military school, but not from conservatism. He became a Republican in 1989 – “I made both parties happy” – at a younger age than Ronald Reagan did, and has never lost an election.
Mitt Romney, the Republican front-runner, might be easier to elect than to nominate. The reverse might be true of Perry. Is he a wine that will not travel? To win the White House, a Republican must be competitive among independents, including women, in places like Montgomery County outside Philadelphia. Perry – his accent, his Westerner’s body language, those boots – is proof that, in spite of the culture’s homogenizing forces, regional differences remain remarkably durable. But so, too, do regional antipathies, some of which have intensified as voters have become more polarized, partly because of a Texas governor who became president.
Obama will not win another term stressing his accomplishments, which consist of an unpopular health care law, a failed stimulus and an anemic recovery. So Obama’s campaign must be relentlessly negative, decrying the Republican nominee’s “extremism.” Democrats have worked that pedal on the political organ frequently – successfully against Barry Goldwater, futilely against Ronald Reagan.
Supposed examples of Perry’s extremism evaporate in sunlight. One is that he intimated support for Texas’ secession from the Union. After people shouted “Secede!” at a rally, he said he understood their frustration but added: “We’ve got a great union. There is absolutely no reason to dissolve it.” He signed a law requiring women seeking abortions to be shown sonograms of their babies. Do people objecting to this mandatory provision of information object to the new graphic warnings on cigarette packs?
The Republican contest probably will become a binary choice – Romney and the Not Romney candidate. If Perry becomes the latter, he will do so by his visceral appeal to social conservatives, and by trumping Romney’s economic expertise with “Texas exceptionalism”:
• Between 2001 and last June, Texas – a right-to-work state that taxes neither personal income nor capital gains – added more jobs than the other 49 states combined. And since the recovery began two Junes ago, Texas has created 37 percent of America’s net new jobs.
Perry would rather not run but his wife, who has a nursing background and is alarmed by Obamacare, says sometimes desires are secondary to duties. Perry, who sensibly did not watch the Republicans’ recent New Hampshire debate because the Aggies were on ESPN playing Florida State in the NCAA baseball tournament, says, “I’m a long way from being a candidate.” But he did not finish the hamburger. Perhaps he is in training for something strenuous.
George Will’s email address is email@example.com. He writes for The Washington Post Writers Group.