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Frenemies: A Love Story

More than in any past campaign, Rick Perry showed himself to be adept at what you might call the friendly attack, striking on one level while making nice on another. He did it to the press, and he did it to the federal government.

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Rick Perry’s third successful campaign for governor proved this much: He’s got the frenemies thing down pat.

More than in any past campaign, Perry showed himself to be adept at what you might call the friendly attack, striking on one level while making nice on another. He did it to the news media, and he did it to the federal government.

His bodyguards didn’t handcuff any bloggers the way those of Joe Miller, the Alaska Senate candidate, did. He didn’t threaten to take out any of his least-favorite reporters like Carl Paladino, the New York gubernatorial candidate, did. But he’s probably got some empathy for those guys, even if his disdain for the press is more nuanced.

All year, Perry froze out most of the media while he strategically kept the conversation going with the people who were actually writing about him on a regular basis. He even got reporters to write openly, and with full access to him, about his war with their employers and colleagues. Voters learned from the news media about the governor railing against the news media.

The National Conference of Editorial Writers met in Dallas in late September and got a collective case of heartburn when Perry addressed them without sticking around for the customary question-and-answer session. Instead, he went through the room shaking hands, did some interviews with local reporters and left. The editorial writers were peeved and griped about it.

“This is an affront to any notion of civil discourse, such as the kind you have called for on other occasions,” Tom Waseleski, the group’s president, wrote afterward to Perry. “We believe you and your staff have been disingenuous in the characterization of your schedule. If you had hoped to make a positive impression on this national press group, I must tell you that you utterly failed.”

That dyspepsia got a lot of coverage. Perry lapped it up.

You can see the method to his madness. It was materially no different than his attacks last year on the federal government, whose stimulus program bailed out the last two state budgets to the tune of about $17 billion. Perry got tons of attention for making a stand and turning down $556 million in federal unemployment insurance funds — because of the “strings attached.” He did it again this year when he balked at the competition for federal Race to the Top funds for education, pitching a fit about those same strings. But he accepted the much larger amount without a peep and balanced the state budget without a tax bill.

During this year’s Republican primary against U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Perry didn’t get a single newspaper endorsement after refusing to meet with editorial boards. His chief consultant, Dave Carney, said the campaign's internal polling showed an endorsement from a big metro paper registered as a negative with Republican voters.

In his campaign against Bill White (a classic, old-school pol, at least in terms of how he approached the media), Perry kept it up. No editorial boards, and — this time — no debates. The newsies were left to carp about how all this is bad for democracy. But it was a nonissue for voters.

Indeed, Hutchison, who spent nearly $25 million to win 30.3 percent of the vote in March, had all the big papers on her side and still got whupped. White, and third parties on his behalf, spent roughly the same amount. He got endorsements from all but two newspapers, and he got whupped, too, polling just 42.3 percent.

Perry is probably still laughing. What he has realized during his time in office is that hating on the media doesn’t make a difference, and probably helps. Hating on the federal government this year seemed to work pretty well, too. He hasn’t lost an election yet. Not one.

Now he's preparing to take the kiss-and-kill thing national. With the governor’s race in the rear-view mirror, he will travel the country to promote his new book, Fed Up!, which is being taken as a sure sign he’s running for president in 2012. (Wait, that’s a federal job.)

As part of his tour, Perry will be a guest on Monday on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. It’s time to get out and make some new frenemies.

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State government 2010 elections Bill White Griffin Perry Rick Perry