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Rick Perry has the best story to tell of any GOP contender

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Nobody seems to be taking Rick Perry very seriously in 2016 because he proved to be such a poor candidate during the 2012 Republican primary debates. Those inclined to write him off may well be right. But he does have at least one big thing going for him — far and away the best and most coherent story of any candidate in the field about why his record in office should make you think he could deliver the kind of prosperity the voters crave.

When liberals want to make conservative governance look bad, they'll point to Mississippi or, these days, maybe Kansas. When conservatives want to make liberal governance look bad, they'll point to Detroit. Liberals would prefer to highlight someplace more like Massachusetts — a state where, yes, taxes are high but in exchange the public services are genuinely good and the citizens are, on the whole, quite prosperous. Texas — especially during the Rick Perry years — is the conservative version of that, a place where conservative policy ideas really have led to the kind of rapid economic growth Republicans like to brag about.

Rick Perry's favorite chart

Here is a comparison of in-state job growth during various governors' terms compared with the national average at the same time. You can see that Perry's time in office largely corresponded with a not-so-hot spell of job creation for the United States of America, but that he nonetheless has the strongest record of in-state job creation of anyone in the sample.

The only one who even comes close is Jeb Bush, and his state's economy collapsed immediately after he left office, under the weight of the housing bubble that inflated his figures.

Perry's 14 years in office, by contrast, included stints before, during, and after the Great Recession. His job creation record is the record of a big state weathering a national — indeed, global — economic calamity and doing a pretty good job of it. The Republican field is crowded, but Perry has the opportunity to stand out with a fairly unusual story of success.

What's behind the Texas Miracle?

I was working for ThinkProgress at the time Perry kicked off his campaign, so I got to see the kind of "Texas Miracle" debunkings that liberals were working on before Perry's campaign imploded. It mostly consisted of very bright people coming up with not-so-persuasive arguments.

  • It was all about oil: Factually, this just doesn't hold up very well. Oil extraction is a big business in Texas, but the state is far too large for a single industry to power its entire economy.
  • Yeah, but the jobs are low-paid: There are a lot of low-wage workers in Texas. But the people who have those jobs evidently think they're better than no job at all. And Rick Perry's Texas generated a lot of jobs.
  • It's really just population growth: This is true. Texas's unemployment rate did get pretty high during the recession. Job growth was so robust because the state's labor force was growing so rapidly. But this is really a point in Perry's favor. People were voting with their feet — in droves — to move to Texas.
  • It's just warm weather: Again, it is true that there is a marked tendency for warmer states to grow faster than colder ones. Scott Walker can't change the fact that Wisconsin is just a little cold and remote. But California has better weather than Texas, and its population and workforce aren't growing nearly as fast.

Obviously, you can't lay the credit (or blame) for a state's economic success or failure at the shoes of a single person. But Perry is a leading member of a larger Texas conservative movement that has been politically dominant in the state for a long time and has clearly shaped the situation in important ways. Due to Perry's long tenure in office, Texas public policy very much reflects his values — a light regulatory touch, low taxes, and spending that's focused on infrastructure rather than social assistance. And it's more or less achieved what it's supposed to achieve: rapid job growth.

Texas is a pretty nice place

The Texas population growth story underscores the fact that the state is, broadly speaking, a pretty nice place to live.

Its infrastructure is not decaying. Indeed, despite lower taxes the major roads in Texas are far nicer than those in the northeast. The airports are functional. Dallas and Houston are both building out their rail transit systems. African-American and Latino kids do better in school in Texas than they do in the average state. The University of Texas is an extremely well-regarded public university. And if a coastal liberal starts rolling his eyes at the idea of Texas being a nice place to live, just ask him about Austin — a city that is very much subjected to the same conservative governance as the rest of the state.

Now, of course it's also true that it's probably a mistake to attribute Texas's fast-growing economy to just any old item on the conservative policy agenda. The warm climate and fossil fuel endowments really are playing a major role. But people wouldn't be moving there unless the basic mix of taxes and public services were appealing to at least some large number of people. And Texas has something in droves that successful liberal states like California and Massachusetts don't have — affordable housing.

Due to the state's relative lack of NIMBY rules, it is easy to build new houses in the suburbs of its great cities, and almost as easy to build infill developments closer to the city centers. As a result, while the Bay Area's technology boom has created a secondary boom in house prices, in Texas economic growth has lead to a boom in house-building while prices stay moderate.

What's true is that Texas is not such a nice place for poor people. Texas's poverty rate is high, and the state spends very little on its social safety net.

And one could go on in that vein. State law in Texas is genuinely very conservative. Things liberals care about — from job safety regulations to health care for low-income families — get short shrift in Texas. But this is true of any number of states. What makes Texas interesting is that it's a state where conservative governance really does deliver the goods in terms of growth, job creation, and effective delivery of basic services.

The competition is weak

Another factor that makes Rick Perry's Texas narrative compelling is that his rivals have weak stories to tell. Scott Walker's war on union power in Wisconsin is something Republicans embrace as a matter of principle. But it hasn't unleashed any "Wisconsin Miracle" he can brag about. Jeb Bush governed through a housing bubble that ended in tears. Marco Rubio seems to impress almost every room he walks into, but he hasn't really done much of anything except serve as a frontman for an immigration bill he ended up disowning. Ted Cruz's big achievement is grandstanding.

None of this necessarily matters. Barack Obama rode a light résumé into a landslide win in 2008; Bill Clinton's Arkansas was nobody's idea of America's best state. Republicans have a bunch of well-qualified candidates in 2016, and if the conditions are right any of them could beat Hillary Clinton. But if they're looking for someone who can point to a concrete example of a place where light regulation and stingy public assistance has accompanied genuinely impressive economic growth, then Rick Perry's Texas is the place to look.

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