When NBC's Brian Williams asked Texas Governor Rick Perry on Wednesday night about his state's record on the death penalty—234 executions and counting—the crowd at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California broke into spontaneous applause. It was an instantly memorable moment in a debate with few of them:
By this point, it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise that conservatives, particularly those who wait in long lines to attend Republican primary debates at the Reagan library 14 months before the election, are big fans of the death penalty. Perry's 234 executions are a modern-day record for a governor, breaking the one held by his predecessor—George W. Bush. But on a night where Williams and his co-moderator, Politico's John Harris, were for the most part on their game, it was something of a missed opportunity to get the Texas Governor on the record about a story he's been reluctant to talk about: The execution of a man who was probably innocent, based on evidence that was proven to be false.
Williams asked Perry, "Have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent?" Perry was unequivocal: "No sir, I've never struggled with that at all. The state of Texas has a very thoughtful, a very clear process in place of which when someone commits the most heinous of crimes against our citizens, you kill one of our children, you kill a police officer, you're involved with another crime and you kill one of our citizens, you will face the ultimate justice in the state of Texas and that is you will be executed."
Williams followed up by asking Perry what he thought about the fact that his recitation of the death penalty statistic was an applause line.
"I think Americans understand justice. I think Americans are clearly, in the vast majority of cases, supportive of capital punishment. When you have committed heinous crimes against our citizens—and it's a state-by-state issue, but in the state of Texas, our citizens have made that decision, and they made it clear, and they don’t want you to commit those crimes against our citizens. And if you do, you will face the ultimate justice."
Perry knows his base, and he played to them perfectly with his answer. But there's no need for hypotheticals here.
Perry has been repeatedly presented with evidence that should have challenged these sweeping assertions—and he's repeatedly brushed them aside. When, in 2004, new advances in arson science seemed to prove that death row inmate Cameron Todd Willingham had not, in fact, murdered his three children via arson, Perry denied a stay of execution. And when the Texas Forensic Science Commission, after taking the unprecedented step of reexamining the case, seemed on the verge of posthumously exonerating Willingham, Perry took the also unprecedented step of replacing three members of the commission. Just like that. Last year, meanwhile, when Texas Monthly helped spring an innocent man, Anthony Graves, from death, Perry pointed to the case as proof that the system works. Which is true—if your definition of a functioning criminal justice system is one in which courts wrongly sentence an innocent man to death, only for an intrepid journalist to swoop in and, after countless hours of work, help secure his release.
On Saturday, not-yet-a-presidential-candidate Sarah Palin previewed an enticing line of attack against Texas Governor Rick Perry: "crony capitalism." Although she didn't mention the latest Republican frontrunner by name, Palin warned Iowa tea partiers that when candidates accept million-dollar donations, you should expect a few strings to be attached. On that front, the numbers seemingly speak for themselves. A full 20 percent of Rick Perry's $100 million fundraising tally as governor has come from Perry appointees, and on everything from toll roads to nuclear waste dumps to private prisons to lawsuit reform, Perry's policies have dovetailed neatly with the interests of his biggest donors.
Yet when NBC's Brian Williams gave Perry's rivals for the GOP nomination a chance to nail the governor at Wednesday night's debate, they all took a pass. The question was about Perry's controversial 2007 decision to mandate the HPV vaccine to innoculate adolescent girls against cervical cancer. Williams wanted to know if Perry made the right call. Reps. Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul both seized on the idea that the executive order was a decidedly Big Government move. Mitt Romney noted that, as Perry himself has said, it was a well-intentioned mistake that Perry would handle differently if he had a do-over.
What went unsaid by his rivals, though, was the full context: Perry's decision came at the end of a massive lobbying effort by the pharmaceutical giant Merck—an effort helmed in Austin by Perry's former chief of staff and longtime friend, Mike Toomey. (Toomey currently chairs a pro-Perry Super PAC with the stated goal of raising $55 million during the primary race to finance a shadow campaign for Perry.) On the day he signed the executive order, Perry received a $5,000 donation from Merck's political action committee, which came on the heels of a $6,000 donation during his reelection campaign. Even his supporters would agree that the HPV decision was an uncharacteristic one for the conservative governor; questions about Perry's motivations are natural.
Why did his opponents take a pass? It could just be that in 2012, GOP candidates—Palin excepted—know better than to bite the big business hand that feeds many of them.
Utah's Deseret News, which is owned by the LDS Church, has a story out analyzing Rep. Michele Bachmann's views on Mormons, given that she's competing against two of them (Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman) in the race for the GOP presidential nomination. The short answer here is that the Minnesota congresswoman has never actually said much about Mormonism—but the same can't be said for her pastor:
Although Merritt praised the LDS Church's emphasis on family and missionary service, he suggested the Mormon faith is "untrue" and "diluted."
"I very respectfully push back and I say (to Mormons) you have taken something extra and added it to (God's word) to make all of it untrue," Merritt said. "Think of it this way: what does your car need to run properly? It needs pure, refined petroleum — it needs gasoline. And what happens when you dilute the gasoline with something like water? The car doesn't run. I think that's a good analogy for what our Mormon friends have done with God's word. … The whole thing is diluted, and honestly it just doesn't work."
We went down this path once before, with the to-do over Bachmann's old Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, which taught that the Catholic Church was the Antichrist. Never mind that Catholics (a core constituency in Bachmann's St. Cloud district) didn't actually seem to care, and that Catholics and Lutherans have been on pretty good terms since the 30 Years War ended in 1648. It should not come as much of a surprise that Bachmann's pastor believes that another, substantially different faith, is wrong in important ways. If he thought the LDS Church was spot-on, he would have converted by now; that's kind of the point.
There are plenty of issues where Bachmann's religious views conflict with (or inform) her approach to public policy: education, abortion, marriage, and national security, just to name a few. This isn't one of them.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry signed off on massive cuts to fire-fighting services in 2011.
Wildfires are burning across central Texas right now, the product of an historic drought and high winds from Tropical Storm Lee. An estimated 3.6 million acres have been scorched since November, with the flames approaching the city limits of Austin; damage is expected to exceed $5 billion. In the macro-sense, this is climate change-caused problem, with Texas' climate set to become dryer and dryer over the ensuing decades, making extended droughts the new norm. But it's also a crisis of emergency management. Although Texas Governor Rick Perry has called his state "a model for the nation in disaster preparedness and response," he has taken steps over the last year that would dramatically change that.
Specifically, as Raw Story notes, Perry's most recent budget slashed spending for volunteer fire departments—who handle much of the fire-fighting duties in rural areas—by 75 percent, from $30 million to $7 million. The cuts meant that cash-strapped municipalities would then be forced to either pick up the slack funding-wise, or deal with reduced services and put off upgrading outdated equipment. As Reuters noted in May, volunteer fire-fighters "are first responders to roughly 90 percent of wildfires in Texas."
The Washington Post today frames Texas' fires as an opportunity for Perry—who is currently leading the GOP presidential field—to demonstrate his leadership skills during a crisis. Optics are fine, hands-on management is well and good, but the policy matters here: Texas' climate is going to become increasingly vulnerable to drought and fire, while its governor insists that climate change doesn't exist, and cuts funding for the agency tasked with responding to it. Perry and Texas Republicans contend that tough choices were necessary to close the state's budget gap—but the decision to close that gap by cuts rather than revenue increases was itself a choice, and the priorities on what and how much to cut were choices as well.
Update: Over at The Economist, Erica Greider has some more thoughts:
Obviously Mr Perry didn't cause the fires. But over the past year, the hallmarks of his response to the drought have been calls for prayer and for federal emergency assistance. The first measure doesn't hurt, I suppose, but I'm not aware of any data that supports its efficacy, and prayer is not a good substitute for, say, a more prudent policy about water management, which has long been known to be a looming challenge in Texas and the southwest.
The new super PAC backing Rick Perry has drawn up plans to spend $55 million as part of an ambitious campaign strategy aimed at blowing away the Texas governor's rivals in early primary states and securing him the Republican nomination by next spring, according to internal committee documents obtained by NBC News.
The documents underscore the central role that such super PACs — or super political action committees unconstrained by any limits on how much they can collect from wealthy donors and corporations — will play in the 2012 presidential election.
They also show that the strategists behind the new Perry super PAC, led by a longtime Perry confidant and backed with infusions of cash from major Perry donors, are preparing to mount a full service political operation — complete with TV advertising, direct mail and social media outreach.
Super PACs can accept unlimited contributions but most disclose donor information and cannot coordinate in any way with candidates. In the post-Citizens United climate, super PACs have become the hottest new accessory for presidential candidates, and all of the serious GOP contenders have at least one. Make Us Great Again was organized by Mike Toomey, Perry's former chief of staff, who has remained close with the governor as a lobbyist in Austin and contributed generously to his most recent re-election bid.