Rick Perry's Texas Fantasyland

Rick Perry's Texas is a job-makin', low-taxin' oasis of economic growth. It's also a fantasy.

Stanford calls that lousy governing. But he says it can also be "a great way to do a campaign." He says Perry's style—grand gestures, few details—is the right kind of theater for an election.

"You surprise everyone. Everyone's looking at you. You own an idea." That's just how Perry rolls, Stanford suggests. "He likes surprising people with big ideas."

On the campaign trail, Perry still has the gestures and body language of the handsome country bumpkin who was elected a yell leader at Texas A&M in 1970. A&M, newly coed, was still more military academy than college when Perry, a poor ranch boy from a flyspeck town 180 miles west of Dallas, showed up in 1968 wearing shirts, pants, and underwear sewn by his seamstress mother.

Zuma Press
Weinstein: Perry has been “a good steward of Texas values.”
Zuma Press
Weinstein: Perry has been “a good steward of Texas values.”

Yell leaders then, as now, were more like orchestra conductors than cheerleaders, directing the A&M bleachers at football games in "army yells" communicated by coded hand signals. It's an elective post, a popularity contest that garners twice the voter turnout as the school's election for student-body president.

Watch Perry's appearance on The Daily Show from last November, and you'll see him wrest the audience away from host Jon Stewart at key moments, with sly grins sidelong to the peanut gallery and, yes, even a hand signal or two. The man does know crowds.

"What he has more than anything else is street smarts," says Colbert, the education consultant and former legislator. "What he has is an ability to be able to judge people for what it is that's important to them. How can I make them my friend? In all sorts of ways, that's a very, very important skill to have, and if you happen to be in politics, it's one of the most vital skills you can have."

He's particularly adept at picking up on and hooking into important underlying themes in public sentiment long before other politicians get a clue, Colbert says.

"He sees it. He runs in front of it, and regardless of whatever his underlying stuff may be, he will do what he needs to do to stay on top of that wave rather than have the wave roll over him and crush him," Colbert says. "He's a good surfer."

That's exactly what Stanford says he saw Perry do to Kay Bailey Hutchison when he beat her in the 2010 Republican primary. In April of that year, when country-club Bush Republicans were still looking down their noses at the Tea Party, Perry spotted what Stanford calls "the simple campaign algebra" and ran with it.

"He's down by a couple dozen points against this really popular lady," Stanford remembers. "He figures his only chance really is to say she's Washington. And then suddenly the pitchfork crowd comes up and says, 'We hate Washington.'"

Stanford says Perry's quick response was: "'Oh cool, here's my army. I shall lead them.'"

"Before any politician in the country was willing to talk to the Tea Party," he says, "he spoke to three of their rallies in one day. He was the only guy in the country. He saw the train coming down the tracks that he knew he'd have to take."

To these personal gifts, another important asset must be added: a campaign staff so brilliant it's already being studied by political scientists across the country. In his book excerpt "Rick Perry and His Eggheads," journalist Sasha Issenberg explains how the Perry gubernatorial campaign in 2010 allied with a team of political scientists from Yale, the University of Texas at Austin, and the University of Maryland.

And then there's the pure weirdness of Texas and Perry's ability to exploit it. Stanford says Perry has whipped a succession of candidates who might have been smarter than he was about the world because Perry was smarter than they were about Texas.

"Rick Perry always knew that to be Texas governor, first in the voters' eyes, you had to be Texas," Stanford says. "He did an ad campaign, 'I'm proud of Texas, how about you?' If you're attacking Rick Perry, you're attacking Texas. He always sets it up that way."

Perhaps the last question, then, is whether being proud of Texas can get Perry elected president.

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