Rick Perry's Political Savvy


Is Texas Gov. Rick Perry an idiot? Reason contributor and former Reagan economic adviser Bruce Bartlett made a minor news splash for saying as much about the newly announced GOP presidential contender. I've never spoken to Perry, and while I've followed a number of his state's recent health care and budget policy fights, I've done so from afar, so I'm hesitant to judge too strongly. But The Economist's Erica Greider has had a front-row seat, covering Perry from Austin since 2007, and interviewing him several times. And she has a somewhat different opinion about the governor's intelligence:

To the first critique, that Perry is a moron, I would respond that he has been governor for more than ten years now and he has actually made very few political missteps. The HPV vaccine order (which was overturned several months later) was probably the biggest. The other controversy that has caused him the most headache in Texas was the Trans-Texas Corridor, his plan to build a network of new roads, including a new interstate that would cut a swathe up the state. This would have been largely financed by toll roads, with the proceeds going to private contrators. The project was wildly controversial, partly because it would have yielded a number of eminent domain actions, and it was officially killed last year.

This tracks with Texas Monthly's assessment of the governor. "Perry is cannier than you think," writes Paul Burka in a "Dear Yankee" letter designed to provide some local insight as Perry steps onto the national stage:

In 1989, realizing that a conservative had little future in the party, Perry switched to the GOP. He has been a rock-solid Republican ever since and has driven the state party further to the right. Only twice has he made strategic errors that brought him into conflict with his hard-right base. One was an edict that twelve-year-old girls be inoculated against cervical cancer (it was quickly overturned); another was his promotion of a giant system of toll roads called the Trans-Texas Corridor, which stirred up significant opposition from landowners. These two bobbles aside, Perry has a genius for sensing where his base is on any given issue.

With big-time political figures like Perry, I think it's necessary to distinguish between wonky policy smarts and calculated political savvy. Perry is obviously less of a wonk than your average Congressional Budget Office director (although he's apparently familiar enough with budgeting gimmicks to game the system fairly well). But when it comes to political smarts, there seems to be a good case that he's a reasonably effective operator—perhaps by calculated design, perhaps by natural instinct—who not only knows what his base wants done, but what it wants to hear. And that, I suspect, helps explain the "superficial extremism" I wrote about in my column this morning: Perry's "genius for sensing where his base is" has led him to stake out a number of fiery rhetorical positions, but also to follow-through with substantially less radical governance.