Ross Douthat: Focus on the man, not the state, to break Perry's streak

By Ross Douthat

New York Times

Published: Monday, Aug. 22 2011 7:10 p.m. MDT

Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks at a national prayer rally in Houston in early August.

Associated Press

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Gov. Rick Perry of Texas hasn't lost an election in 10 tries. Among his vanquished opponents, this streak has inspired not only the usual mix of resentment and respect, but a touch of supernatural awe. "Running against Perry," one of them told Texas Monthly, "is like running against God."

Perry's 2012 rivals can't afford to entertain such thoughts. If either Mitt Romney or Barack Obama hopes to snap the Texas governor's winning streak, the election will need to become a referendum on Perry himself, in all his heat-packing, secession-contemplating glory. If it becomes a referendum on his home state instead, Perry's 11th campaign will probably turn out like all the others.

Perry's critics don't like to admit this. After he launched his campaign with an extended brag about Texan job creation, there was a rush to cut Texas down to size — to dismiss the Lone Star economic miracle as a mirage conjured by population growth, petro-dollars and low-paying McJobs.

But the more the Internet's hive mind worked through the data, the weaker this critique looked. Yes, Texas' growing population has contributed to the job boom, but the boom has driven population growth as well. It's likely thousands of Americans have responded to hard times in their home states by moving to Texas in search of work.

As policy blogger Matthias Shapiro pointed out in an exhaustive analysis, the jobs they're finding aren't unusually low-paying: The state's median hourly wage is close to the national average, and since the recession started, Texas wages have increased at the sixth-fastest pace in the country. Nor are the jobs confined to the oil and gas industries: "Take the energy sector completely out of the equation," Shapiro noted, "and Texas is still growing faster than any other state."

On Friday, in a Bloomberg Television interview, Education Secretary Arne Duncan tried to open up another anti-Texan front, saying he feels "very, very badly for the children" in Texas' supposedly underfinanced public schools.

But here, too, the evidence doesn't back up Duncan's criticism. Texas isn't an average state: It's an enormous melting pot that shares a porous, 1,969-mile border with Mexico. Once you control for demographics and compare like with like, the Texan educational record looks much more impressive.

When it comes to minority achievement, Texas looks even better: On the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress math exam, black eighth-graders in Texas outscored black eighth-graders in every other state.

To be sure, the Texas model doesn't always impress. (Twenty-seven percent of Texans lack health insurance, for instance, compared with 21 percent of Californians.) But Perry can credibly claim that his state delivers on conservative governance's two most important promises: a private sector that creates jobs, and a public sector that seems to get more for the taxpayers' money.

The question is whether Perry himself deserves any of the credit. Here his critics become much more persuasive. When Perry became governor, taxes were already low, regulations were light, and test scores were on their way up. He didn't create the zoning rules that keep Texas real estate affordable, or the strict lending requirements that minimized the state's housing bubble. Overall, the Texas model looks like something he inherited rather than a system he built.

This means that unlike many of his fellow Republican governors, from Mitch Daniels to Chris Christie to Scott Walker — or a Democratic governor like Andrew Cuomo, for that matter — Perry can't claim to have battled entrenched interest groups, or stemmed a flood tide of red ink. Instead, many of his policy forays have been boondoggles or train wrecks, from the failed attempt to build a $175 billion Trans-Texas Corridor (the kind of project conservatives would mock mercilessly if a Democrat proposed it) to an ill-designed 2006 tax reform that's undercut the state's finances.

But of course none of those reforming governors are in the race against him. Instead Perry faces an unloved Republican front-runner, with a weakened incumbent president waiting in the wings.

Which bring us back to that 10-election winning streak. Maybe God really is on Rick Perry's side. Or maybe Perry just knows how to pick his opponents.

Ross Douthat is a New York Times columnist.

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