I arrived at Rick Perry's Capitol suite, accompanied by another Texas Tribune reporter and one of our photographers, around lunchtime on Thursday, April 15. We were there to capture, on tape and on film, an exclusive interview with the governor conducted as the first-ever collaboration between the Tribune and Newsweek magazine. A Newsweek photographer was also on hand, having earlier shot Perry for the cover of this week's issue, which features several pieces about Texas.
Inside his office, the governor greeted us cheerfully and plopped down on a leather sofa, eager to talk about a full range of topics: the Tea Party, health care reform, Mexico, the state budget and, of course, his plans for 2012.
The Q&A that follows is condensed and edited, though it includes several exchanges that do not appear in the version Newsweek published today. The full, unedited audio of the interview can be found in the right-hand column of this page, along with snippets broken out by subject.
Exactly one year ago today you were on the steps of Austin City Hall, talking about the possibility of secession.
I was asked, “What do you think about the people who shout out the word ‘secede?’” And I said that we live in an incredibly wonderful country, and I see absolutely no reason for that to ever happen. But I do understand people’s concern and anger about what this administration is doing from an economic standpoint — in particular, the long-term debt that’s being created for not only them but for future generations.
A year later, you’re more resolute about the divide between the states and the federal government.
Absolutely. I think more people in the last year have picked up a copy of the Constitution and read what the Tenth Amendment says in its simplicity: that the federal government was created to be an agent for the states, not the other way around. I think that is a very, very good thing. The future of America is inextricably intertwined with the states pushing back on Washington, D.C. Our Founding Fathers had a vision of this collection of states working together but competing against each other — putting different concepts into play, seeing which ones work, which ones don’t, allowing governors and legislatures to look around and say, “You know what? That’s a good idea over there.”
The federal government wants to be the epicenter of all thought and policy and one-size-fits-all. It’s very clear that we have very, very different ideas about the structure of this country and how it should work. The Tea Parties are a reflection of that. I think they are highly economic-driven. At the end of the day, it is about the economy — that’s really what drives people. Government is basically saying, “I don’t care how hard you work. We are going to take more of [your money], because we know best how to redistribute it around the country.” It really irritates a lot of Americans.
You talked very early about invoking the 10th Amendment to rebut health care reform, and now you and the attorney general have joined with other states to sue the federal government.
I think Texans do not want a government 1,500 miles removed from the state micromanaging health care.
As you know, our state has the highest percentage of its citizens without insurance: senior citizens, children, working families. If you don’t like reform coming out of Washington, what do you do to solve that problem?
For over two years, we’ve had a waiver request in front of the Health and Human Services Committee — before this administration got in place, I might add — that would allow us some flexibility to use federal dollars differently than what’s mandated by the federal government to create insurance opportunities for those who are uninsured today. That’s one example. I think there are a number of ways that, if the states were left to their own devices, you would see substantially more Texans who had access to health care. What we would like to see are ways to create a more efficient distribution and preventative healthcare.
Let’s switch gears to Mexico. Foreign policy is not often a concern of the governor of Texas —
Actually, foreign policy is a concern of the governor of Texas, or it should be, every day. The reason is a 1,200-mile border with a foreign country. And the number one exporting state in America has to have substantial interest and knowledge of foreign markets.
You believe that we need to do more on border security.
Let me speak to the 800-pound gorilla sitting in the room, and that is the failure of Washington to do one of its primary duties: secure our border. That’s the reason I went to the Legislature in '07 — prior to this administration. This was during the Bush administration, with [Michael] Chertoff as the secretary [of homeland security]. We were making pleas. We were requesting support. I talked about bringing predator drones to the border as early as '05. Those training missions were going to be flown somewhere. Why not up and down the border of the United States with Mexico?
So what are we not doing in Texas that we should be doing?
The fact is, we shouldn’t have to be doing anything. The federal government’s responsibility has always been to operate the security mechanism along the border. When they proved to us that they did not have the interest or the desire, that’s when we acted. That’s when we put Operation Linebacker and multiple surge operations in place. Those have been successful up to a point, but we don’t have the resources or the manpower to secure the border the way it needs to be. A 1,000-troop National Guard request has been in front of this president for over a year, and no response. We are forced by Washington’s inaction to take action ourselves.
You govern a state at the epicenter of the demographic change coming to this country. There’s a debate going on right now about whether, after [the protracted fight over] health care reform, Congress should take up immigration. Would you like to see some kind of reform come together?
Immigration reform can’t happen until you secure the border. This isn’t a chicken-or-egg issue. You can have all the discussions and the debates you want, but they are all going to be failures unless and until you secure the border.
We are about to enter a legislative session with a biennial budget shortfall of anywhere from $10 billion to $20 billion, depending upon on who you talk to. Last session, the federal stimulus was used to help balance our books — and to help pay down our debt from two sessions ago. By the way, if you hate the feds so much, why did you take $17 billion in stimulus money?
Texas is a major donor state. We Texans send billions of dollars to Washington, D.C., in the form of federal gas taxes and income taxes. These are Texas-earned, Texas-generated dollars — monumental amounts of money, substantially more than flows back into this state. So the idea that we’re going to be purer than pure and not take any money back because it’s been identified as stimulus dollars? These are our dollars. This is our money.
This session there will be no stimulus money available, so you and the lieutenant governor and the speaker have asked state agencies to cut 5 percent of their budgets. Your Democratic opponent, Bill White, refers to this as “Soviet-style budgeting” — he thinks having a mandate for every state agency to cut the same thing is not the best way to go.
My suggestion is that he doesn’t know much about the way we operate here in Austin. It’s called prioritization, and we’ve done it before. In 2003, we had a $10 billion budget shortfall. We came into office and we addressed it, I will suggest to you, the same way we will address it 2011: We will make reductions, but we will prioritize where those cuts occur.
There are a thousand people a day moving to the state of Texas. If this was a vestige of the Soviet Union, as Mr. White made reference to, I’m not thinking that’s what people would be beating down our doors to come to. They are coming to Texas because they know this is the only place, or one of the only places left in this country, where freedom and liberty still reign, where you can keep more of what you worked for. The idea that somehow or another Texas has gone to hell in a handbasket — if that’s his campaign slogan, it will not be successful.
What about the Rainy Day Fund? There’s between $8 billion and $9 billion in there.
I really think it’s a little premature for me to be saying today, “I want to use part of the Rainy Day Fund.” Go back to 2003. We were able to cut a higher percentage of the budget in 2003 than we’d need to in 2011. So I’m going to say, “Oh, gosh, we can’t make that many reductions in spending. We’re going to have to go into the Rainy Day Fund?” Or, worse yet, “We’re going to have to raise taxes?” I don’t think you have to do that.
Earlier this year I asked Mayor White if he would commit not to raising taxes? Will you commit?
I don’t see any reason you have to [raise taxes]. And what’s happened to the city of Houston versus my record in 2003 — I like my track record better.
Mayor White says he reduced taxes six times as mayor.
We will have a most interesting discussion of the city of Houston’s financial affairs over the next six months.
I want to ask you about redistricting. A range of Republicans, from [former U.S. Secretary of State] James Baker to [Land Commissioner] Jerry Patterson to [San Antonio state Sen.] Jeff Wentworth, have told me recently that the process of redrawing the maps should be depoliticized — should be taken out of the hands of politicians. Given the controversy over redistricting the last time and the desire of many people at the Capitol to avoid it this time, what should we do on that issue?
Anyone who says “Let’s take politics out of redistricting” is either naive or has another agenda that I have a hard time identifying. You’ll have to ask those three whether they are naïve or they have another agenda. I don’t know what they’re thinking. I think the process will work. It has worked for a number of years. It has never been pleasant. And it can work without going into a special session. People need to stick around and do their jobs.
You’ve been in public office for more than 25 years, and you are the longest-serving governor in the history of the state. Yet you’ve managed to run for the last few months as an outsider.
I disagree that I paint myself as somehow outside. Now, I did run a [primary] campaign as us — Texas — versus Washington. We were running against an individual who was in Washington, D.C., for 17 years. Washington is the center of bad public policy in most people’s opinion and has been for some time — not just in this current administration, though this administration is carrying it to new levels. Do you want Texas to be run the way it has been run, with a Texas-centric philosophy, or do you want this person from Washington, D.C., to come down here and use Washington-style policies and philosophies? I think the people sent a pretty strong message.
A couple different times in this conversation, you’ve alluded to having to battle problems that predated the Obama administration. I can’t help but notice that you have a bust of Ronald Reagan, who you consider to be a great president, over your shoulder. I don’t see a bust anywhere of George W. Bush.
Um, I don’t know whether George has gotten any busts done yet.
Do you consider Mr. Bush to have been a great president?
At the end of the day, when the history books are written, I think George W. Bush will go down as a very, very good president. Approaching great? I don’t know yet — I mean, a year and a half after he’s been out of office may be a little too early to write George’s history. But here is why he was an incredibly good president: because the man kept America safe. As the president of the United States, he made one of the most difficult decisions that a sitting president ever makes: to go to war. There are two things that people judge presidents on: their safety and the economy.
When you were campaigning for Rudy Giuliani in Iowa during the '08 presidential campaign, you said, “George W. Bush was never a fiscal conservative. Never was.”
Do you still believe that?
I don’t think he was fiscally conservative in the sense that it was his main focus day in and day out. Cutting spending and looking for ways to make government more efficient was not something that George particularly focused on. Not as governor and not as president.
When you said earlier in the week at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference that America has been flying in the fog for too long, you were likewise talking about a time before Obama administration.
Oh, yeah, since the '30s. If Americans want to really go back and historically engage when we really got off track, it started in 1930, with Franklin Roosevelt and the start of the Great Depression and the maneuvering of Roosevelt and Congress as they started to pull power into Washington, D.C., and create government programs and government agencies.
You’re opposed to the New Deal?
Yes. I think the programs created by the New Deal and the monetary jury-rigging that went on in our society exacerbated the Great Depression and pushed us farther down. The New Deal did not get America out of the Great Depression; World War II did. Generally speaking, the expansion of government at the federal level has not, by and large, been good for the American people.
Everybody wants to know about your plans for 2012. In your speech at the SRLC last week, you sounded like a presidential candidate. Are you considering running and would you consider it?
No and no.
You are not considering running for president. You will not run for president.
Under any circumstances?
There is no way.
Vice president? Would you be willing to consider that?
No. I don’t care about going to Washington, D.C.
Your party could not come to you and say, “Governor, all the other alternatives are wanting. You’re our guy.”
There will be an alternative that is not wanting. I have a great interest in who this individual is going to be, but I want to be a governor who is leading a state. The reason I go to things like the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, the reason I am engaged in the Republican Governor’s Association, the reason I agree to do interviews with national publications is so that people will pay attention to what is going on in Texas. Our policies, and the results of those policies, are worth having a national dialogue about. I want people elected to Congress, to the United States Senate and to the presidency in 2012 with the express message that we are going to go to Washington and try to make Washington as inconsequential in your life as we can make it. I want the states to become the laboratories of innovation and experimentation. And I want to get this country back.