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Michael Brendan DoughertyBack to OpinionMichael Brendan Dougherty

Is Rick Perry the new Fred Thompson?

Governor Ricky Perry. Photo: Gage Skidmore / Fred Thompson. Photo: Flickr/freddthompson

Texas Governor Rick Perry has everything that an already bored media and dispirited Republican electorate want in a soon-to-be announced candidate. He’s not just another House member. He has gravitas. He looks like he could be cast by a Hollywood studio to play a president. And at first glance he can appeal to grassroots conservatives and party elites. This makes him exactly what Fred Thompson was just four years ago: overrated.

Actually, Perry may be more overpraised than the Law & Order veteran, and more vulnerable.

A deeper examination of Perry’s record and rhetoric provide plenty of ammunition for his Republican opponents. His stands on immigration, public health issues, and spending will offend Tea Partiers, and his over-the-top rhetoric and religion-soaked patois will unnerve party moderates and donors.

The first problem is his history. While Perry has lately crafted the image of a more-Republican-than-thou conservative, he was actually a Democrat in the 1980s. He supported Al Gore in the Democratic presidential primary in 1988. And he supported a massive $5.7 billion tax-hike in 1987, which was opposed by most Texas Republican legislators. No current Republican voted for a tax increase that large, and none will fail to point this out when given the chance.

But what about jobs? While Texas can claim to have added 37 percent of all American jobs since the beginning of our anemic economic recovery, Massimo Calabresi points out that in that same time period, Texas’ unemployment rate has actually gone up from 7.7 percent to 8.0, leaving it in the middle of the pack of all states. Texas adds jobs, sure. But their labor force is growing faster. And many of the new jobs are low-wage; the Lone Star state has the largest percentage of minimum wage jobs in the country.

Perry also has created many Texas jobs by making the playing field unfair. He created a massive series of tax-credits including the Texas Enterprise Fund ($412 million) and the Texas Emerging Technologies Fund ($320 million) to lure jobs to the Lone Star state. Perry claims that 60,000 jobs were created or moved to Texas this way — a more effective money-per-job rate than Obama’s stimulus. But the Texas comptroller’s office investigation into these programs found some of the credits went to companies that failed to meet their obligations and in fact created jobs overseas. The inquiry also showed many board members of receiving companies were Perry campaign-fundraisers, a fact that drew the ire of Texas Republican Kay Bailey Hutchinson.

If Perry’s job creation initiatives seem gimmicky, just look at this budget process. Texas’ debt has doubled from $13.7 billion to $34.08 billion since 2001. Texas had its largest ever budget deficit last year, $27 billion. Perry and his Republican legislature closed the gap by delaying a $2.3 billion payment to schools by a day to push it into the next year. He also had the state’s accountants revise their prediction for the growth of land values, and his budget writers assume that Texas will maintain the exact same number of children in its public schools, despite the fastest growing population in the country.

Perry has criticized Arizona’s tough anti-illegal immigration laws, and is a supporter of comprehensive immigration reform, a battery of legislation that would put over 10 million illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship. Conservatives call this amnesty. They are so offended by the policy that they were able to stop its implementation when another Texas Republican tried to push it through with help from a Democratic congress. Conservatives never trusted Bush again.

Perry has also issues with social conservatives. He approved mandatory HPV vaccinations for all Texas public school girls above the objections of the religious right. He says he is “Okay” with New York’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage, a provocative position for a candidate who wants to appeal to religious conservaties, and one that could intensify the now-whispered accusation that Perry is a closeted homosexual.

And moderates can find plenty to dislike as well. There was the governor’s well-publicized flirtation with secession in 2009 for starters. And Perry’s religiosity goes beyond investing common American political maxims with Biblical language the way Obama does. Perry has encouraged Texas residents to pray for rain, a decision that was widely mocked. And he is holding a Day of Prayer and Fasting on August 6 that will include a panoply of pastors whose views go beyond the Evangelical mainstream. Needless to say, DAR Republicans don’t want a candidate whose religious friends describe the Statue of Liberty as an “idol” or think Oprah’s career portends the arrival of the Antichrist.

At this moment, as a non-scrutinized non-candidate, Perry is a handsome canvas on which Republicans of all stripes can project their favorite policies and personal qualities. But a little exposure threatens to undo it all. For conservatives, Perry’s Texas is almost their nightmare vision for America’s future: a debt-ridden crony-corporatist economy in which the growth of legal and illegal immigrant populations drives down wages for working Americans. For party moderates and moneymen, the man is a high-risk blunderbuss decorated with a charmless smirk. The only hope for Perry is that his initial honeymoon with voters lasts until next November.

Michael Brendan Dougherty is a contributing editor to The American Conservative. His work has appeared in Politico, The Guardian, The New York Times Magazine and other outlets.