Gov. Rick Perry was the first to admit that his views on a host of hot-button political issues — from letting states legalize marijuana and same-sex marriage to describing Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme” — could cause him heartburn in a race for the White House.
On the day he was re-elected to an unprecedented third four-year term as Texas governor, Perry said the string of controversial ideas in his Washington-bashing book, Fed Up!, would make him a downright unattractive presidential contender.
“The best concrete evidence that I’m really not running for president is this book,” Perry said in early November. “You’re going to see me talking about issues that, for someone running for president, it’s kind of been the third rail.”
Things have changed, of course, since Election Day 2010. Back then, Perry said there was no way he would run for president. Now he’s actively considering it, and critics are sure to pore over Perry's 26-year career in elected office, his writings and his actions, for fodder in a possible presidential race.
As Perry openly toys with the idea of taking his ambition nationwide, voters across the country are just beginning to get acquainted with the brash Texan, who generally doesn’t back away from controversial positions even in the face of harsh criticism.
Months before liberal Congressman Barney Frank, D-Massachusetts, teamed up with Republican U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, to back an effort to de-criminalize marijuana, Perry was making essentially the same point in his book, writing that Washington has greatly overstepped its bounds by making pot use a federal crime.
“It ought not be the federal government’s job telling them they can’t do it,” Perry said in that November interview. “I totally and completely disagree with the concept of legalizing marijuana, but it ought to be California’s decision.”
Perry has made the same argument about same-sex marriage. He’s against gay marriage himself — reflecting the conservative state he represents — but he has argued in favor of allowing each state to decide for itself what its policy will be.
“If you don’t support the death penalty and citizens packing a pistol, don’t come to Texas,” Perry says. “If you don’t like medical marijuana and gay marriage, don’t move to California.”
Perry has also argued for a complete overhaul of government entitlement programs. He wants more private sector solutions and less spending on taxpayer-supported programs such as Medicare and Social Security, a shift that he says would give people more freedom to take care of their heath and retirement needs without government assistance. Critics say it will leave a large swath of America, particularly the elderly, with less health care and financial security when they need it the most.
“Why is the government collecting your tax money for retirement and health care programs? That’s not stated as a constitutional role,” Perry said.
Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia and veteran presidential campaign analyst, said the 2012 GOP primary is a good forum for Perry to be putting forth edgy proposals. Tea party enthusiasts are demanding that politicians shake up Washington and enact deep spending cuts.
“I don’t think he has a thing to worry about on these items in the Republican primary. There are a lot of cross currents that will protect him,” Sabato said. “So many of them have unorthodox positions. It’s a choose your poison type of election year for Republicans.”
But Sabato said Perry would likely face blowback on his ideas from independents and, of course, Democrats if he makes it into a general election contest against President Barack Obama. Sabato also said there are other positions Perry has taken in the past — positions that don’t make into Fed Up! — that could dog Perry in a Republican primary race.
Chief among them is the governor’s unsuccessful attempt in 2007 to require that teenage girls be immunized against Human papillomavirus, or HPV, the most common sexually transmitted sexual disease and a known cause of cervical cancer. During the 2012 governor's race, Republican U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison repeatedly criticized Perry for issuing the executive order that was later overturned by the Texas Legislature.
The governor noted that parents could opt out of the provision, but critics said parents should be able to opt in voluntarily instead. On the political front, it sent Perry’s social conservative base into an uproar over fears that the vaccine would encourage sexual promiscuity among teenagers.
Perry said it was the “pro-life” thing to do, and he has never disavowed the decision. In an interview after a campaign swing in the spring of last year, Perry choked up as he told the story of Heather Burcham, who died of cervical cancer in 2007 and had become a spokeswoman for mandatory vaccination.
“There will be young women who, because we had this big national dialogue, educated themselves about a number of things, whether it’s premarital sex, whether it’s this vaccine about their own personal health,” Perry said. “This issue was always about saving lives.”
Perry said he knew he was “going to take a political hit” when he signed the HPV order but still believed it “wasn’t a bad idea.”
“At the end of the day, I did what was right from my perspective,” he said.
While Perry is sure to face criticism from fellow conservatives should he jump in the race, Sabato said it would be even worse if he reverses positions.
“He would look like a wishy-washy flip-flopper if he moves away from that. He’s stuck with it,” Sabato said. “He has set the standard of the tough-talking Texan who tells it like it is . . . if he loses his brand, then what’s he got? He’s just another candidate running for president.”
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