It’s a funny thing how political predictions work. When Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison declared her candidacy for the governorship of Texas, few would’ve bet against her — popular, moderate, and established, the ex-cheerleader who loves the cameras seemed a perfect fit for the limited authority (and sizable promotional duties) of the Texas governor’s mansion.
Except at some point, when no one outside Texas was paying attention, Rick Perry got good at politics. By understanding the zeitgeist of the 2010 cycle and connecting with a surprising upsurge in populism, Perry somehow managed to make an anti-establishment case to the voters despite serving as governor for a decade — an impressive feat for any incumbent.
It’s surprising to see the governor, who just trounced Hutchison with a runoff-proof margin, in person these days. Perry’s grown into the role, shedding the frat boy attitude for a more professional approach to governance. He’s about to turn sixty, and looks more like a western executive than a political upstart. He spoke to TNL in Austin a few weeks ago, when Texas Monthly was suggesting he should run for president. We asked him about that, and more.
TNL: I don’t think I’m saying anything surprising to suggest that you are tied to the Tea Party movement more than any governor, or perhaps any political figure, in the country. This came out of nowhere for a lot of people. Where did this upsurge come from?
Perry: I think what you’re seeing now is the result of years of people’s frustration with government frittering away their hard earned money. It was fermenting in the mind and soul of the public for years, but I think you started to see a real response to it in mid 2008. They were really frustrated with what they saw, particularly from Republicans, when it came to handling governing.
They saw a charismatic, very slick candidate who came along in the summer who was offering hope and change. And they were looking for that.
Now, he didn’t explain to them what he was actually talking about very well, or very thoroughly — purposefully, I think. So Americans had in their own minds, “here’s what my hope is,” “here’s the change I’m looking for,” and a lot of young people and moderates, and disaffected Republicans upset with what they had seen in their own party — throwing money around, the moral and ethical lapses, everything that was happening then.
So we elected a president in kind of the same way you’d buy a pig in a poke — not really knowing what this guy believes in. And then they started seeing what he believed in.
By April of 2009 or so, they’re scared. They’re worried about their future, they’re frightened for their children’s future, and the Tea Parties were a natural, organic outcome of that concern.
TNL: Do you think of yourself as a populist, and what does that mean to you?
Perry: I’d say that I’ve always known what I believed in, and I’ve never been afraid to get outside the mainstream — you shouldn’t be afraid of that when you are sure about what’s right.
I’m not sure I’d put it as just “populist” — I’d say it was common sense. I see regular people who started to look around and see a Congress and a president who are on a path that is very socialistic. They’re seeing things happen in Washington that are way out of their comfort zone. And because of that, they’re afraid for their country.
I think my response was like that of any other concerned Texan or American who has traditional values and a conservative view of the marketplace. I just happen to have a bigger bully pulpit than others do, I’ve got a bigger megaphone. This wasn’t me sitting back and analyzing, saying this was going to become a larger political movement.
My hope was that the American people and Texans were going to be very vocal and active, and pressure their Congressional leaders to not buy into this cap and trade deal, and to not spend more and more stimulus on programs that won’t create any real, permanent jobs.
As the last year and the job results of it come into focus, I think we see it did the exact opposite of what it was intended to do. It’s caused people to hunker down, it’s driven down investments in America. It only exacerbated a bad situation.
TNL: What are your thoughts on the health care bill being discussed so much in Washington right now? Do you think people are so concerned about the current plan, that if it doesn’t pass there will be few people who want to even touch the issue?
Perry: I think if you would go down to a fifty page bill that would actually do something, which contained real tort reform and not just some lite package, had portability to ensure people could take their insurance from state to state, job to job, encourage individual ownership and Health Savings Accounts — which a lot of companies are turning to more and more — so people could direct their care and prioritize, you’d see a different reaction.
You just have to keep it simple. One of the big reasons this failed to pass by normal means is because of how huge it became, thousands of pages of kickbacks and the equivalent of payoffs to special interests.
Complexity versus simplicity. If there’s a lesson in all of this, it’s that you better keep it simple, or the American people are going to rise up and smite you, just like we saw in Massachusetts. Keep it simple, stupid.
TNL: You have four points you keep going back to in your speeches…
Perry: Yeah, speaking of keeping it simple — my four principles of governing are low taxes, a regulatory environment that’s fair and predictable, a legal system that doesn’t allow for oversuing, and appropriately funding an accountable school system which ensures a skilled, innovative workforce. Then get out of the way.
TNL: …do you think Republicans will win if they embrace that sort of approach in other states with all their challenges? And what does that look like?
Perry: Well, look at a state like Virginia, where Bob [McDonnell] just won by doing something very similar. He said we’re going to stop spending irresponsibly, we’re going to cut taxes, we’re going to encourage and enable those who risk their capital — job creators — and having what I would describe as a progressive energy policy, where he’s going to drill offshore in a way that’s environmentally sensitive and happens to be supported by his two Democratic senators.
That’s all pretty simple. These are not complex things — they’re challenging, but they’re straightforward. It’s not about understanding what you need to do as much as it is about having the courage to do it.
You look at a state like California. There are going to be some really tough decisions that have to be made to save that state. If Jerry Brown gets up and says “I’ve figured out a way to make this less painful,” well, here, smoke this — because at the end of the day, it’s going to be painful. Because that’s a state that has for too long made the easy decisions instead of the hard decisions.
If you are a state that has just said yes all the time to everything, there is a comeuppance, a day of reckoning for you. It’s right now.
TNL: The momentum from the Tea Parties could go away, or it could keep going, and possibly reform your party from within. Which is more likely and why?
Perry: That’s easy. Any Republican candidate, any Republican activist or consultant or what have you, who is not paying attention will be so much roadkill.
The gravity of this, the weight of it, the momentum — whatever you want to call it, I’m convinced it’s unstoppable. You can join with this movement, and most people who are comfortable in the Republican Party should be very comfortable with what’s being said, or you can find another line of work.
TNL: But part of being organic is that they’re still disorganized. Do you think there’s going to be a national leadership here that emerges by 2010, 2012, either within your party or outside it?
Perry: I think there are several folks. I don’t know them all, but I think the people are focused on the 2010 Congressional elections, and I think you’ll see a lot of folks come out of that.
As for the party, I would tend to discount any individual who I perceive as using the time between now and 2010 to promote themselves. We’ve got a long way to go. Someone in this capacity needs to be using this time to build everyone up rather than worrying about positioning themselves.
And I do think that we may not even see right now who’s going to be the standard bearer in 2012. I have no idea who it is.
TNL: Texas Monthly and others are suggesting you could be that person.
Perry: [laughs] Yeah, anyone who says that, I’m gonna tell them no. Seriously.
I’ll tell you what I’m interested in is being a leader in a very strong 10th Amendment movement in this country, working with other governors who share that passion, and working with whoever we choose as our leaders in 2010 and hopefully our president in 2012. I want to work with whoever will stand up and say Washington has gotten too big, become too intrusive, become too costly, and we need to respond.
We need to do what it takes to make the states once again into laboratories of innovation, and that will put America back on the road to recovery, not with centralized government and massive spending in Washington, DC. We need to get back to having fifty states competing against each other, encouraging prosperity. That’s what I’m interested in. If we’re going to become a powerful country, a powerful economy again, I think that’s what has to happen, and I’m going to be looking for whoever can take us there.
And those guys in Washington, just support the military, deliver the mail, protect the borders — like I say, one out of three ain’t bad.