Twelve years ago a Texas Republican strode into the presidential arena as an immediate contender. He seemed to be a man of middling intellect at best, yet well equipped with conservative ideology, religious piety, powerful ambition and corporate money, not to mention a certain kind of swagger. Whatever most voters knew of his record as governor of the Lone Star state was what he wanted them to hear, and he escaped the kind of scrutiny (and mockery) applied to his Democratic opponent in the mainstream media.
By the time America learned the truth about George W. Bush, around the beginning of his second term, he had done more damage to this country than any president in the last hundred years.
Now a similar scenario may be playing out as Rick Perry, who succeeded Bush in Austin, opens his campaign for the White House. The question that Perry cannot escape is whether Americans are sufficiently angry to forget the Bush debacle and elect another right-wing Texan. The question that those covering his campaign should not escape is whether they will delve beneath Perry’s image-making and self-promotion to reveal the realities of his record and character – or whether they will repeat the disastrously superficial coverage that marked the 2000 presidential campaign.
There is very little in the descriptions of Perry to be found in mainstream media today that should displease him. By most accounts he has overseen an era of economic growth and increasing employment in Texas, thanks to his penchant for low taxes and minimal regulation. On closer examination, the Texas built by Perry (and Bush and a Republican-dominated legislature) is scarcely a “miracle.” And although Perry has misused his office to posture and preach as a religious figure, it is hardly a paradise of Christian charity either.
It is instead the state with one of the worst levels of family poverty in the nation. It is the state with the largest percentage of families lacking health insurance, and the largest percentage of children in that perilous condition. It is the state where the refusal to regulate industry has led to some of the worst air and water pollution in the nation. And it is a state where government regularly loots funding set aside for poor families (and paid by middle-class families) in order to keep taxes low for millionaires. It is a state where no matter how much wealth is accumulated by the rich, there is never enough to adequately fund Medicaid and WIC, the health and nutrition programs that are supposed to protect the poor (whom Jesus was said to favor).
The specific achievements of Texas during the Perry years surely deserve to be noted by the national press corps. He likes to boast about the “unmatched job creation” that his state has enjoyed in recent years, although the unemployment rate remains around 8 percent. And at least some press accounts have noted that those most of those jobs must not pay very well, since the state has the lowest median income and the highest proportion of minimum-wage jobs in the country.
Yet Texas has troubles that go well beyond its employment statistics.
In education, for instance, where Bush was said to have accomplished great reforms as governor, Texas now lags the nation in Scholatic Aptitude Test scores, ranking 45th overall. It ranks dead last in the percentage of the 25-plus population with a high school diploma, which may account for all those minimum-wage jobs, and seventh from the bottom in its high school graduation rate. Of course, that dismal record could reflect the fact that under Perry, Texas is sixth from the bottom in state and local expenditures per pupil in public schools, and not appreciably better in the percentage of total state revenue spent on elementary and second schools. The result is that Texas schools are highly dependent on federal aid, ranking number three in the percentage of education spending that comes directly from Washington.
All those minimum wage jobs naturally mean that there are a lot of Texans – especially children – living in poverty. The state ranks fourth in the nation for the percentage of children living in poverty. It ranks first in the number of children without health insurance; first in the total percentage of its population that lacks health insurance; and first in the percentage of non-elderly citizens without insurance. Nor does the Perry administration do much to help its citizens cope with this lack of health protection, since Texas ranks 49th in the percentage of low-income families covered by Medicaid, and 49th in per capita state spending on Medicaid.
There is much more data on the Texas miracle, and scores of stories to be written about the underside of Texas politics in the Perry era – including his penchant for giving away hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to subsidize businesses, while simultaneously running up enormous state debt and “balancing” the state budget with accounting gimmicks – all because he refused to raise taxes but wanted to keep spending to accommodate business interests.
In that respect, the Perry record in Austin is not so different from the Bush record in Washington – both administrations driving up the public debt by refusing to increase taxes on those who could best afford to pay. Nobody knows what kind of foreign policy he will pursue (probably including Perry himself), but just wait until he gets his hands on the Pentagon.