The indictment of Gov. Rick Perry obviously puts him at some political and legal risk, but a decisive victory could actually help him in his quest for national office.
He would be the guy who beat back the people trying to criminalize politics, at least in his own telling of the tale. It has happened before: Kay Bailey Hutchison was indicted by Travis County prosecutors in 1993, accused of using her public office — she was state treasurer — for political purposes. The prosecution fell apart on the first day of her trial, and she was acquitted. She then sailed into her first full term in the U.S. Senate as a conservative hero. Republican voters adored her, at least until she ran against Perry for governor in 2010.
Perry could use that kind of medicine, but timing is a huge obstacle: Unless his case goes quickly, it will still be underway while he is trying to persuade Republican voters that he should be their next presidential nominee.
He is not officially in that race — nobody is at this point. He has, however, expressed interest and started a federal political action committee. The governor has also spent a lot of time in the states with the earliest primaries and caucuses.
As those travels continue — New Hampshire is on his schedule now — he will face new questions stemming from the felony charges back home. In addition to questions about second chances and his botched run for the 2012 nomination, there will be new inquiries about hardball politics, drunken prosecutors and the risks of voting for a candidate with a potential prison sentence dangling over his head.
Even if an acquittal failed to have the same impact as Hutchison’s did, it would chase away those corrosive questions and remove the word “indictment” from every news blurb about Perry. Who would have thought Perry would yearn for conversations about the memory lapse that ended his earlier run? “Oops” beats criminal charges any day.
In the meantime, others are likely to gain from this, starting with the small herd of Republicans who, like the governor, would like to win that nomination.
Republican voters have a lot of candidates to choose from, and it’s hard to imagine the voters putting up a nominee who is under indictment, no matter how much they like his or her politics.
Here’s another example from Texas: Tom DeLay, the former U.S. House majority leader, is on the verge of exoneration in a criminal case stemming from the 2002 elections. Travis County prosecutors accused him and others of money laundering, contending they swapped money that could not be legally used in congressional elections in Texas for money that could be used, skirting election laws in the process.
DeLay appears to be close to clearing his name. A Texas appeals court overturned his conviction last year; a final appeal of that ruling is pending before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
Timing got him, though: Note the use of the word “former” in front of his title. The indictment and conviction undid the political career of the Republican from Sugar Land, and his successful appeals provided no remedy.
If Perry can win his case — and do so before the Republican nominee is chosen — he might attract serious support. (Voters will also have to forgive the “oops” moment.) If he loses, or wins too slowly to beat the presidential primary clock, Republicans will probably go with someone else.
It is impossible to know how long the legal fight will take. The governor’s term ends in January, about a year before ballots are cast in the early presidential contests.
Several of Perry’s potential primary rivals quickly came to his defense. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz called the charges “extremely questionable.” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal characterized the case as a “blatant misuse of the judicial system.” And New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie issued this: “I have complete faith and confidence in Gov. Perry’s honesty and integrity. And I’m sure that will be confirmed over time.”
Time. There’s the rub.