Texas Gov. Rick Perry formally launched his presidential campaign last weekend, apparently hoping to upstage those competitors who were slugging it out in the Iowa Straw Poll. The event was won by Michele Bachmann, whose core supporters come from the same Religious Right-Tea Party crowd expected to be Perry's base. He may have just made it official, but in fact Perry has already been running hard. A week before his announcement, he solidified the devotion of Religious Right leaders and activists with a defiantly sectarian prayer rally sponsored by some of the country's most extreme promoters of religious and anti-gay bigotry. His financial backers began hitting up donors a while ago.
Perry is hoping to take advantage of a relative lack of enthusiasm for the current Republican field and its erstwhile front-runners. His potential to upset the field is reflected in the fact that he was polling in the double-digits before even entering the race, drawing far more support than candidates like Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum who have seemingly been running for years. Ed Kilgore at The New Republic wrote recently that Perry has become "the unity candidate of the GOP" because he "seems to perfectly embody the Republican zeitgeist of the moment, appealing equally to the GOP's Tea Party, Christian Right, and establishment factions while exemplifying the militant anti-Obama attitude that holds it all together." Perry does indeed draw support from both establishment and far-right Republicans: last year, prizes offered by his election campaign included lunch with GOP strategist Karl Rove and a spiritual tour of the U.S. Capitol with right-wing pseudo-historian David Barton.
The Religious Right
Perry's love affair with even the most extreme elements of the Religious Right is a long-term relationship that started years before the recent prayer rally. Over the years, Perry has persistently backed the efforts of Religious Right activists on the Texas school board to use the textbook selection process to impose right-wing religious and political ideology on science and history textbooks. He has shown little respect for the separation of church and state and has worked to further restrict access to abortion in the state.
His reelection campaigns have relied heavily on church-based organizing and networks of far-right evangelical pastors mobilized by the likes of self-described "Christocrat" Rick Scarborough. According to the Texas Freedom Network, Between May 2005 and October 2008 the Texas Restoration Project held eight pastors' policy briefings. Part of Perry's invitation to the October 2008 event said:
While Congress occupies its time trying to legislate defeat in Iraq, we hope you will attend a Pastors Policy Briefing that will equip you to walk point in the war of values and ideas.
Rediscovering God in America -- Austin is intended to remind us that excuses are not the proper strategy when facing evil and confronting enemies. Instead, we must rally godly people and seek God's provision for the resources, the courage, and the strength necessary to win and, ultimately, glorify Him.
In 2009, he participated in a closed-door session with Texas pastors sponsored by the U.S. Pastor Council, and hosted a state prayer breakfast that featured Gary Bauer as the keynote speaker. And last year, he was visited by a group of pastors associated with the dominionist New Apostolic Reformation, who told him that God had chosen him for bigger things; they were among the leaders of last weekend's "Response."
The Response itself was called by Perry but sponsored and paid for by the American Family Association, which has been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its pattern or spreading false and denigrating information about gay people, and which promotes some of the ugliest bigotry spewed on the nation's airwaves. Among the extremist co-sponsors and speakers at The Response were dominionist Mike Bickle, who has said that Oprah is a harbinger of the anti-Christ, and pseudo-historian David Barton, who claims that Jesus opposed progressive taxes, the minimum wage, and collective bargaining by unions.
The Tea Party Right
Perry also seamlessly blends the Tea Party's anti-Washington fervor with the Religious Right's Christian-nation vision. Last year, at an event sponsored by the Texas Eagle Forum, Perry said the November 2010 elections were "a struggle for the heart and soul of our nation." Said Perry, "That's the question: Who do you worship? Do you believe in the primacy of unrestrained federal government? Or do you worship the God of the universe, placing our trust in him?"
If it seems remarkable and contradictory that Perry would seek the presidency so soon after speculating on the benefits of seceding from the union "if Washington continues to thumb its nose at the American people," it is no less contradictory than Perry promoting his anti-Washington book, "Fed Up: Our Fight to Save America from Washington," while repeatedly requesting federal emergency assistance to fight wildfires that have raged in Texas this year.
The Economic Right
Perry is almost certain to make jobs -- and his claims that Texas' low-tax, low-regulation, low-wage environment would be good for what ails America -- a centerpiece of his campaign. In fact he has been publicly praying about regulations that he says stifle business and jobs. That vision will almost certainly make Perry popular among the corporate funders that are increasingly funneling money into Republican campaigns in the wake of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision that corporations have the same rights as citizens to influence elections.
Perry's economic policies may be good for corporate profits, but they aren't much of an economic model for the rest of us. Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote earlier this year:
Texas is where the modern conservative theory of budgeting -- the belief that you should never raise taxes under any circumstances, that you can always balance the budget by cutting wasteful spending -- has been implemented most completely. If the theory can't make it there, it can't make it anywhere.
Debt owed by the state of Texas has doubled during Perry's tenure as governor; the state's per-capita debt is worse than California's. And this year, Texas lawmakers wrestled with a budget shortfall that Associated Press called "one of the worst in the nation." Perry's budget relied heavily on federal stimulus funds to plug a massive 2010 budget deficit. The budget finally passed this year cut some $4 billion out of state support for public education and is expected to result in tens of thousands of teacher layoffs.
Meanwhile, Texas ranks at or near the bottom of many indicators of individual and community health. It is worst in the country in the percentage of children with health insurance and pregnant women receiving early prenatal care. It has the highest percentage of workers earning at or below the minimum wage. It has the lowest percentage of adults with a high school diploma. It is worst for known carcinogens released into the air and among the worst for toxic pollution overall.
The Right Online
Perry has sometimes adopted the Sarah Palin approach to media. According to the conservative Daily Caller, Perry declined to meet with newspaper editorial boards during his primary race against Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, but "went out of his way to make himself available to conservative bloggers." The Caller's Matt Lewis predicts that "a large percentage of conservative bloggers for sites like RedState.com" will "jump on the Perry bandwagon."
Perry the Prevaricator
Perry statements have received no fewer than seven "pants on fire" ratings from Politifact Texas; he earned those awards for repeated false statements about his policies and his political opponents. Of 67 Perry statements reviewed by Politifact, 14 were declared false in addition to the seven "pants on fire" lies -- while another 10 were rated "mostly false." Only 17 were considered true (10) or mostly true (7), with 19 called "half true."
Perry and the Republican Party
If Rick Perry does indeed become the Republican "unity candidate," that will be further evidence that the GOP has become the party of, by, and for the far right -- a party that has abandoned any credible claim to representing the economic interests or constitutional values embraced by most Americans.