Rick Perry looks as broad-shouldered and tall as the state fair's Big Tex on the latest cover of Newsweek, confidently leaning on a raised knee, his pant leg raised to reveal the words "Come and take it" on his black cowboy boots.
Though the cover line promises to tell us "what Governor Perry's hard-right creed tells us about America," the article isn't particularly earth-shaking, touching on Perry's background (including his history as a Democrat until 1989), his vanquishment of Kay Bailey Hutchison in the Republican primaries, and his Democratic opponent for the fall, Bill White (described by Newsweek as "kind of like President Obama without the good looks and charisma") — none of which will be news to Texans who pay any attention to state politics.
What Newsweek does tap into is how the particular anti-federal-government salvo of the Tea Party movement fits perfectly into the thinking of a number of Texans. It's the combination of a proud and independent history of the state — cue our unofficial motto ("Don't Mess with Texas," in case you've never driven on a Texas freeway) — and our new status as the fourth majority-minority state.
The forces of suspicion and anger may be exaggerated in the Lone Star State. They're also compounded by a strong streak of Texas exceptionalism. It dates back to the War of Independence against Mexico and the founding of the Republic of Texas in 1836, says historian David McComb, professor emeritus at Colorado State University. Texans have a "kind of macho, frontier, independent attitude of 'I can do what I damn well please and nobody else can tell me,'" he says.
The independent strain has a racial dimension. Conservative, rural whites embrace it most fervently, says McComb. In 2004, Texas became the fourth state in the union (after Hawaii, New Mexico, and California) to be "majority minority"—to have a population that is less than 50 percent white. The less dominant whites become in Texas, the more some of them cling to a mythical past of the cowboy and oilman. "A lot of these conservatives don't want to change. The ground is moving underneath them, and they don't want to recognize that and don't know what to do about it. So they join a tea-party group and strap on a six-gun and strut around," McComb says.
Hispanics comprise about 37 percent of the state's population—but only 22 percent of Texas's registered voters, and on Election Day, the percentage who turn out is lower. In time, the demographics will translate into real muscle for Hispanics at the ballot box. The question is when. "Is it 5, 10, 15 years?" says Robert Stein, a political-science professor at Rice University. "I think it's less than 15 but more than 5."
The article points out that in some ways Perry is still not conservative enough for the Tea Party activists, particularly in his avoidance of immigration debates, which led to the failed gubernatorial run of Debra Medina, despite his much-publicized drift towards secession rhetoric at the 2009 Tax Day Tea Party in Austin.
More illuminating about Perry is the attached interview with the Texas Tribune's editor Evan Smith, who questions Perry on his acceptance of stimulus funds, his opinion on George W. Bush, his views on the New Deal, and a potential run for the White House. A few excerpts:
Texas Tribune: We are about to enter a legislative session with a biennial budget shortfall of anywhere from $10 billion to $20 billion, depending upon whom you talk to. Last session, the federal stimulus was used to help balance our books—and to help pay down our debt from two sessions ago. By the way, if you hate the feds so much, why did you take $16 billion in stimulus money?
Rick Perry: Texas is a major donor state. We Texans send billions of dollars to Washington, D.C., in the form of federal gas taxes and income taxes. These are Texas-earned, Texas-generated dollars —monumental amounts of money, substantially more than flows back into this state. So the idea that we're going to be purer than pure and not take any money back because it's been identified as stimulus dollars? These are our dollars. This is our money.
TT: A couple of different times in this conversation, you've alluded to having to battle problems that predated the Obama administration. I can't help but notice that you have a bust of Ronald Reagan, whom you consider to be a great president, over your shoulder. I don't see a bust anywhere of George W. Bush.
RP: Um, I don't know whether George's gotten any busts done yet.
TT: When you said (last) week at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference that America has been flying in the fog for too long, you were likewise talking about a time before Obama administration.
RP: Oh, yeah, since the '30s. If Americans want to really go back and historically engage when we really got off track, it started with Franklin Roosevelt and the start of the Great Depression and the maneuvering of Roosevelt and Congress as they started to pull power into Washington, D.C., and create government programs and government agencies.
TT: You're opposed to the New Deal?
RP: Yes. I think the programs created by the New Deal and the monetary jury-rigging that went on in our society exacerbated the Great Depression and pushed us farther down. The New Deal did not get America out of the Great Depression; World War II did. Generally speaking, the expansion of government at the federal level has not, by and large, been good for the American people.
TT: Everybody wants to know about your plans for 2012. Are you considering running (for president) and would you consider it?
RP:No and no.
TT: Under any circumstances?
RP: That's correct.