Rick Perry: The Candidate Who Might Have Been

Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s strong stand against Texas secession is a reminder that not-so-long ago it looked like he was going to be the next president of the United States.

Jon Chait thinks that had Perry been the nominee, GOP moderates would have a fighting chance today since the party would have just gone down to defeat with a rock-ribbed conservative standard-bearer. I think that if we accept the theory that it was back pain rather than innate stupidity that made Perry’s debate performances so poor that a healthy Perry really would have been a stronger nominee.

Part of that is the Latino vote. Not only did Perry have a somewhat more moderate stance on immigration than Mitt Romney, he had it for the politically savvy reason that Romney’s view was heartless. In Perry’s eyes, Latinos—even immigrant Latinos and even undocumented immigrant Latinos—are human beings whose welfare is worthy of consideration. Not coincidentally, the Texas GOP has a much healthier relationship with its state’s Hispanic population than you see in the Arizona GOP. Romney went the Arizona route to his detriment.

Related to this is that as a solid movement conservative, Perry would have had much more scope to pivot to the center. Romney spent much of the campaign essentially laying the groundwork for a pivot to the center. He put Paul Ryan on the ticket. He dedicated his entire convention to Randian fantasies. And then just when the party was starting to despair about Obama’s enormous lead, he shook the Etch A Sketch and narrowed the gap. Conservatives cheered because nothing succeeds like success. Perry could have made the same kind of move, but faster with less need to indulge every whim of his core supporters.

Last but by no means least, my recollection from when I was working at the Center for American Progress is that the liberal pushback against the basic “Texas Miracle” narrative was pretty unpersuasive.

If you want to sell a conservative policy agenda, Texas really is a smart place to point to show it in action. Texas has exactly the problem you’d think a very conservative state would have—a stingy safety net, meaning low living standards for poor Texans. But in exchange it really does have very rapid employment and population growth. Texas’ public school funding is very stingy, but its students results are somewhat above average—a great example of how efficiency matters to public service delivery. The basic infrastructure in Texas is solid. Texas even includes every liberal’s favorite city, Austin. Agglomerate a bunch of liberals in Texas together in one town, but still subject to the same Texas public policies, and liberals like the results. Its a good message.

Massachusetts, ironically, is also a great state and a great success story. But awkwardly for former Gov. Mitt Romney it’s a great progressive success story, a state where taxes are annoyingly high but in exchange you really do get excellent public services and a very high standard of human development. Romney couldn’t point to any credible linkages between his ideas and desirable policy outcomes. Perry could have promised to make America more like Texas—less friendly to the interests of the poor, but faster growing—and pointed to some very real facts on the ground.