AUSTIN, Texas – Texas Gov. Rick Perry appears to have given new life to the state’s two decades-old tourism promotion – Texas: It’s like a whole other country.
The empathy Perry showed last week to those spitting-mad-at-Washington secessionists had newscaster Geraldo Rivera calling him “grossly irresponsible” and ripe for impeachment, while former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay said Perry was being a righteous governor “standing up for the sovereignty of his state.”
What is certain is that Perry has struck a chord. And it is aimed at Texas’ ultimate mythology – that because it began as a country, by gum, it could go it alone again.
A poll of 500 Texans released Friday showed that 31 percent believe (incorrectly) the state retains the right to form an independent country. And another 18 percent said, given the opportunity, they would vote for Texas to secede.
The fact is, the treaty under which Texas joined the Union provides that it could be divided into five separate states. But it is not empowered to leave the union, a question that the Civil War seems to have settled once and for all.
Perry has expressed bewilderment that his statements drew so much attention. And he did not, as some national media reports said, advocate secession. He did, however, assert Texas’ right to leave the U.S., and he expressed sympathy for those so frustrated with the federal government’s taxes, spending and mandates that they feel secession is an option.
Either way, he tapped into a go-it-alone mentality that has served Texas politicians well before.
No doubt, Perry is playing to his conservative base. Democrats, and quietly some Republicans, believe the frenzy Perry is whipping up is irresponsible.
“Real leaders work to solve problems, but when Rick Perry fans the flames of frustration like a right-wing talk show host, he becomes part of the problem,” said state Democratic Party Chairman Boyd Richie.
Richie and others said that Perry is playing to a narrow base of inflamed Republican voters while preparing to run against U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in the 2010 Republican governor’s primary.
“Clearly, he’s playing their song,” said political consultant Bill Miller. “And he was tone-perfect actually, for that group.”
Matt Mackowiak, a Republican consultant and former spokesman for Hutchison, said Perry gets the Texas folklore.
“We are an independent group. But the secession talk, Perry is just really trying to be a little bit too clever on this,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a good long-term strategy.”
University of Texas LBJ School professor Sherri Greenberg, a former state representative, said Texas over the years has become much more diverse, and there is no broad Texas mindset that believes in fierce independence anymore.
But Perry’s message does target a subset of voters, “people who have deep roots here … who say, ‘We believe in states’ rights, self-determination and we don’t like taxes,’ ” she said. Some of them might have even bought into the idea that Texas could return to an independent nation state – “maybe they think they heard it somewhere,” she said.
Perry in his comments last week after a “tea party” in Austin seemed to be among them. “Texas is a unique place. When we came into the Union in 1845, one of the issues was that we would be able to leave if we decided to do that,” he said.
Political consultant Miller said that when it comes to the GOP base, “there’s no downside for him” in playing that theme. “He can ride that horse all day long.”