The Republican Party is gearing up for 2016. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has all but officially declared his candidacy for president, and former Govs. Mike Huckabee (Ark.) and George Pataki (N.Y.) are waiting in the wings alongside Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.) and Ted Cruz (Texas). Then there's Texas Gov. Rick Perry, days away from vacating the governor's mansion after 14 years, giving him plenty of time to complete the groundwork for his own expected second run for the GOP nomination.
Perry will have to overcome the high-profile gaffes that helped sink his first presidential campaign, a late-entry effort in 2011. But plenty of GOP donors and primary voters will likely overlook his cringe-inducing "oops" moment and focus on his accomplishments as the longest-serving governor of Texas. Specifically, Perry and his backers will tout the "Texas Miracle." That is, of course, unless the Texas economy buckles under plunging oil prices.
First, the Texas Miracle: Between 2003 and 2013, Texas added 1.75 million jobs — a third of the net jobs created in the U.S. — enticed several large and innovative companies to relocate to the Lone Star State, and increased its population by 6 million. The newcomers have been disproportionately young and tech-savvy, helping Texas attain a median age of 34 (3.5 years younger than the national average). Its unemployment rate is 4.9 percent. For the past 12 year, Texas has led the nation in exports.
These accomplishments are real, regardless of how much they're directly attributable to Perry's vocal fealty to a model of low taxes, scant regulation, and what he calls "fair courts." And they are true regardless of the other side of the "miracle" — terrible traffic, a confusing and inconvenient panoply of toll roads, lagging water infrastructure, a sharp cut in education funding, ballooning tuition at state universities, and the nation's highest uninsured and workplace fatality rates.
"While growth was the ballyhooed golden child" of Perry's tenure, says Christy Hoppe at The Dallas Morning News, "the state's infrastructure and public education systems were its stepchildren, left to shoulder the brunt with hardly a nod to the increasing burden of a booming, changing population."
Regardless, the Texas Miracle won't be much of a boon to Perry if it appears in a few months to have been mostly a petrochemical mirage.
Oil prices have fallen by more than half in the past six months, with the benchmark West Texas Intermediate dropping below $50 a barrel on Monday, to its lowest level since the depth of the Great Recession in 2009. The last time oil dipped so sharply so quickly, in the 1980s, it caused a housing-and-banking calamity in Texas.
It's an open question how much the drop in oil prices will damage the Texas economy this time around. The Wall Street Journal has an entire article dedicated to that question, and the experts disagree. The Dallas Fed argues that Texas will weather the oil storm just fine, thanks to its diversified economy; economists at the private-sector J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. have a new report out predicting an oil-driven recession.
The Wall Street Journal has a handful of charts to explain how much of the Texas economy is dependent on oil, but this look at how unemployment in Texas versus the U.S. as a whole tracks the fortunes of oil prices might give Perry and his backers a bit of anticipatory heartburn:
Perry's presumptive 2016 candidacy won't rest entirely on the state of the Texas economy. His political skills are underrated nationwide, thanks in part to his verbal blunders, and he has other political assets that will appeal to conservatives, including tough anti-abortion laws under his belt and a famous disregard for President Obama.
On the other hand, Perry is heading to court to face two felony abuse-of-power charges he was unable to get dismissed on a technicality. And yes, he has to prove that "oops" slip was a painkiller-induced anomaly, not a harbinger of how he'd campaign as the GOP's national presidential standard bearer. The Texas Tribune created a valedictory highlight reel of Perry at his verbal best and worst for your enjoyment and edification:
Democrats and fellow Republicans dismiss Rick Perry at their peril. He slipped into the Texas governor's office through luck — a few votes in Florida or one Supreme Court justice could easily have kept George W. Bush in office in 2000 — but he won re-election three time largely on his own merits. Still, the Texas Miracle is Perry's most potent political asset, the only thing that makes him really stand out from the GOP pack. It's possible that if oil prices slump along in 2015, as predicted, Perry's luck will run out.