Former Washington Post reporter Alec MacGillis, who has joined The New Republic to cover the 2012 campaign, has his first long feature story in the current issue of that magazine, and it’s a winner.
“The Permanent Candidate,” an examination of Rick Perry’s record, runs through the basics on the Texas governor (indifferent policy thinker, avid and skillful politician) before focusing on its real interest: Perry’s cultivation of a sort of “crony capitalist” environment that has profited the governor and his allies, but produced less clear public benefits. This is ground that’s been well-covered before by both mainstream and conservative-aligned media, but MacGillis adds some valuable material. It’s worth reading to the end for a section that demolishes the Perry administration’s claim that one recipient of state largesse, the Texas Energy Center, has created nearly 1,500 jobs.
I’ll focus here, though, on what Perry’s record means for how journalists should understand the Republican presidential primary. About halfway through the article, MacGillis presents a dilemma: Perry’s tenure is the longest of any Texas governor’s, and it has coincided with a Republican-controlled legislature in Austin. So why does Perry have so few policy achievements—why, in fact, is he better known for vetoing bills than signing them? MacGillis’s answer, which seems astute, is that “Perry often seemed more driven by personal priorities than ideological ones.”
Why does this matter for the GOP primary? Well, as the political scientist Hans Noel told me a few months ago, when party leaders vet potential nominees they have a number of goals in mind:
And those goals are to find a nominee who can win, but who is also someone they can trust. Whether they can trust them because they’re in the right place ideologically is part of it, but it’s richer than that. It’s someone who they think will advance party goals over their own personal goals. One of the problems with someone like John McCain in 2000 is that one of his signature issues was campaign finance reform, which many Republicans were not pleased with. So, here’s somebody who, with the power he has as senator is doing things we don’t like. We make him president, and maybe he’ll do even more things we don’t like. You don’t want to nominate that person.
The issue here is that the conservative movement, and the Republican Party through which it operates, is very definitely driven by ideological motivations. So if MacGillis is correct about Perry’s relative indifference to ideology, it suggests that—while Perry is indisputably conservative; while he has been an enthusiastic partisan; and while he is a faithful steward of a longstanding project to drive down the cost of doing business in Texas (e.g., low taxes, low regulations, low wages)—he may be less committed to advancing the party’s goals, and the conservative movement’s goals, than his own.
MacGillis and other journalists present a credible argument that when Perry strays from the party line—as in his championing of the failed Trans-Texas Corridor, or his executive order mandating HPV vaccinations for schoolgirls—it’s because he is swayed by corporate benefactors. At least in some cases, it’s equally plausible that he is acting out of personal conviction. (The New York Times recently speculated that Perry’s wife Anita, a nurse and women’s health advocate, influenced his stance on the HPV vaccine.) But in Noel’s framing, Perry’s reasons don’t matter. What matters is whether party leaders can trust him to advance party goals.
It’s possible, though hardly clear, that Perry’s apparent recent slippage in the “invisible primary” results from growing uncertainty on that front. At the least, it’s fruitful ground for reporters covering the horse race to explore.
MacGillis’s article should also, perhaps, prompt a reassessment of how journalists present Perry. Partly due to his Texas-tough affect, which seems designed to drive coastal liberals crazy, partly due to his fairly recent adoption of Tea Party-style rhetoric, and partly because his leading opponent is the temperate Mitt Romney, Perry has been cast as the consummate warrior for the conservative cause. The evidence MacGillis has marshaled suggests this image has as much to do with the politics of the moment as any long-standing allegiance to a particular movement.Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.