Another Texas governor who drops his “g’s” and scorns elites is running for president and the whispers are the same: lightweight, incurious, instinctual. Strip away the euphemisms and Rick Perry is confronting an unavoidable question: Is he dumb — or just “misunderestimated?” Doubts about Perry’s intellect have hounded him since he was first elected as a state legislator nearly three decades ago. In Austin, he’s been derided as a right-place, right-time pol who looks the part but isn’t so deep — “Gov. Goodhair.”
In the interest of something resembling fairness, I think that starting with the question, “Is Rick Perry Dumb?” is hardly a recipe for starting a reasoned and rational discussion. Many on the Far Right who will react with fury based on the title of the article alone. If they even bother to read it, they might come to understand that Jonathan Martin’s assessment of Perry is hardly a hit job. And it’s not as if there’s any denying that Perry isn’t exactly Nobel Prize material. Gov. Goodhair is not an “idea guy”, nor is he prone to deep thinking about issues. He leans on his Fundamentalist Christian faith for (sometimes simplistic) answers, and the rest he fakes his way through. Clearly, he’s been doing something right, because he’s been the governor of Texas since January, 2001. You don’t get re-elected that often, even in low-expectations Texas- without having something going for you.
Perry is prone to speaking in very broad and general terms about issues he may not fully grasp, because that works in Texas. Voters in the Lone Star State don’t want- indeed, they fervently distrust- a brainiac in the Governor’s mansion (e.g.- George W. Bush, no man’s intellectual). What Texans want is someone who promotes and feeds their mythological view of themselves and the Lone Star State. Though as recently as the mid-’90s, Texas was (very Conservatively) Democratic, most Texans now would vote for a ham sandwich if it had an “R” behind its name. Rick Perry didn’t ever have to work very hard to push the buttons of Texas voters. When you get right down to it, most Texans voted for Rick Perry because he’s a Texas version of the Marlboro Man…an image Perry has never had to work very hard to maintain.
Perry isn’t “dumb.” He may not be a great thinker, but how many prominent politicians on the national level really are? Perry knows that it’s about winning elections, and that means it’s about the image he cultivates. Being the Governor of Texas, he has the mythology and legends of the Lone Star State in his corner. You can bet his campaign staff will be working overtime to use that mythology to full advantage. Expect to see numerous campaign commercials with shots of Gov. Goodhair on horseback, clearing brush, wearing cowboy boots, jeans, and an open-necked shirt, looking pensively into the Great Wide Open. It won’t do a thing to create the impression that Perry is current on the issues America faces today, but that’s not his strength anyway. Perry has carved out a very impressive political career by setting the bar low and then consistently exceeding those miniscule expectations.
Perry may not be a wonk, but that doesn’t mean he’s a rube — a costly mistake many of his foes have made.
His policy focus as governor hasn’t been complex — it’s almost entirely jobs and business-focused — but that’s not where Perry’s mind is, say those who know him.
He’s a power politician and a very canny one. And what seems to animate him is competition.
Whether it is winning elections, beating out other states in attracting jobs or besting them for college football recruits, Perry is ferociously single-minded.
The key to Perry’s political successes has been his willingness to stay within his limitations. He’s no wonk, but he excels at being able to speak to Texans in the simplistic way that works for them. No, that’s not to call Texans stupid, but neither could you refer to folks who repeatedly vote for Perry or George W. Bush to be MENSA candidates. Perry knows what works, and he’s stayed within that. To Texans, he’s a known quantity- safe, comfortable, reliably Conservative, a man of God, and willing to keep government out of their lives (at least in the ways they approve of).
He’s fond of joking that the difference between himself and George W. Bush is that he went to Texas A&M and Bush went to Yale. A&M, while a decent enough school, doesn’t exactly have an Ivy League reputation. Considering the number of Texans who went to A&M, being an Aggie isn’t exactly a liability (Aggie jokes aside). Even better for Perry, A&M is without a doubt one of the most thoroughly and reliably Conservative public universities in the country. Perry’s smart enough to recognize that as an advantage, and while it probably won’t play as well nationally, in Texas being an Aggie is reliable proof of being authentically Texan.
To call Perry stupid would be to “misunderestimate” the man. You don’t spend 10+ years in the Governor’s mansion in Austin without having at least enough brains to ensure your continued employment. What Perry will more difficult will be convincing the American electorate that he isn’t a Dominionist Christocrat in sheep’s clothing. While he may well be able to secure the GOP nomination to run against Barack Obama based on his narrow, inflexible religiosity, that sort of thing doesn’t play so well in a general election. Texans generally love that Gov. Goodhair is such an openly pious Christian; most folks outside of Texas tend to be leery of overt religiosity and Far Right inflexibility. It’s not that that Perry couldn’t win, of course, but he will very likely have to chart a different course if he’s to have any realistic hope of defeating Barack Obama.
Democrats will focus on Perry’s overt religiosity, his hatred of homosexuality, and his antipathy to abortion rights. You can count on Democrats hammering Perry on his Houston prayer rally, his call for Texans to pray for rain to end the drought in the Lone Star State, and anything else that they can use to paint Perry as an extremist…because let’s be honest; he IS an extremist. Perry will be thoroughly coached to make every effort to sound moderate and reasonable, but he won’t be able to escape his long record of Right-wing extremism and religiosity.
Oh, and did I mention that Gov. Goodhair also suggested that Texas just might want to secede from the Union- the very Union that he now is running for President of? Yeah, well…that was then….
No, Rick Perry isn’t dumb, but I’m also not certain that he’s smart enough to figure out how to escape his past.