Rick Perry didn’t beat Bill White on Tuesday because he was more ruthless, raised more money or looked better on television. He didn’t win because conservative voters in Texas vastly outnumber liberals or because Texas’ economy has created more jobs than the rest of the country. And he didn’t win when he tried to hand President Barack Obama a letter or when he shot the coyote with a laser-sighted pistol while jogging with his daughter’s puppy.
He won re-election because of what he did on April 15, 2009.
Few remember that at the time U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison was considered a near lock to beat him. She was stomping the incumbent in the polls by as many as 25 points thanks to her stratospheric approval ratings, and Perry looked like he was headed for the woodshed.
The incumbent began to turn it around when, despite accepting $17 billion in federal stimulus money to balance the state budget, he made a great show of rejecting $556 million in federal stimulus money to bail out the state’s unemployment trust fund.
This was all about posturing for the 2010 Republican primary. Unlike the southward-facing Goddess of Liberty atop the Texas Capitol, Perry turned toward Washington, wagging a hypocritical middle finger like an ineffectual toy sword.
Because he was sniffing around the anti-Washington message, he realized sooner than any other major Republican politician what a boon the Tea Party movement could be for him. So on April 15, 2009, when 1,000 Tax Day Tea Parties took place nationwide, Perry went to three of them in Texas after he had gone on Fox News in the morning to compare the Tea Party rallies to the battle of the Alamo.
"It is a very powerful moment, I think, in American history," he said.
Later he donned a camouflage ball cap and railed against Washington to the assembled throngs, saying, “Washington needs to hear us loud and clear. Cut the spending, cut the taxes, shrink the government. And reread the Constitution."
Then, in a genius stroke, he linked the anti-Washington rhetoric to Texas mythology, quoting Sam Houston, who said, "Texas has yet to learn submission to any oppression."
That, right there, is how he won the election, by positioning himself as the defender of Texas against Washington oppression. Remember, this was a day in which very few major Republican politicians thought showing up at the rallies would be appropriate, and for good reason. Hutchison certainly stayed away, and she probably thanked her lucky stars when she heard that U.S. Sen. John Cornyn was booed lustily at the Austin event because of his vote for the bank bailout.
Even Perry drew what the Austin American-Statesman called “scattered boos” from toll-road opponents, but his anti-Washington grandstanding cast him as a worthy leader of this jihad, a role he embraced after the rally when asked by a reporter about his reaction to the pro-secession signage at the Austin rally.
"There's a lot of different scenarios," Perry said. "We've got a great union. There's absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that. But Texas is a very unique place, and we're a pretty independent lot to boot."
My standards for a good Texas governor have fallen a bit since Ann Richards, and I’d like to think that I’d demand a Texas governor who’s steadfast in defending the Union, but I’d settle for one who knows that you can’t modify “unique.”
His understanding of Texas history was as ignorant as his command of basic grammar. He covered his secession statement by claiming that Texas’ constitution allows it to withdraw from the Union if it felt like it. Pesky constitutional scholars pointed out that Texas would instead be allowed to split up into five separate states, not secede from the United States, but by that time Perry had done his damage.
You win elections by looking around corners, and on April 15, 2009, Rick Perry saw that the unruly mobs assembling around the country could become a powerful constituency against Texas’ most popular politician, Hutchison, as well as the Democrats’ most popular leader, Obama. By grabbing the anti-Washington mantel for himself before everyone else realized what was going on, Perry assured himself of re-election against Bill White last Tuesday.