Nobody really knows what Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) plans to do once he leaves the governor's mansion next year. After decades working for the state of Texas, he's a millionaire — so he could retire, or sit on corporate boards, or take up painting. But because of his recent visits to Iowa and South Carolina, not to mention Israel and Britain, his new political action committee, some Washington-bashing TV ads, even his fashionable new eyewear, many people expect he is gearing up for another run at the White House.
His ill-fated 2012 run is most remembered for one loopy, cringe-worthy November 2011 debate performance — the one where Perry forgot one of the three federal departments he was proposing to eliminate ("oops"). But when he bounded into the GOP primaries in August 2011, there was a reason he was the great conservative hope, the expected mainstream GOP alternative to Mitt Romney.
Unlike much of the country, Texas was doing pretty well economically, apparently validating the GOP's low-tax, low-service model of governance. And unlike Romney, Perry was cool with the Tea Party faction. If he'd entered the race a little sooner, and not been on painkillers during one crucial debate, it's not outlandish to imagine he would have been the Republican nominee. "The press over-bought Perry in 2012 and I think they are underselling now," Romney strategist Stuart Stevens told TIME in July 2013.
It's confusing, then, that Perry just took a big half-step toward embracing marijuana. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Thursday, Perry said he wants to decriminalize pot in Texas. He also backed individual states' right to legalize marijuana — though his spokeswoman quickly clarified that Perry himself is staunchly opposed to legalizing the drug in Texas.
"What I can do as the governor of the second largest state in the nation is to implement policies that start us toward a decriminalization and keeps people from going to prison and destroying their lives, and that’s what we’ve done over the last decade," Perry told the wealthy and powerful gathered in the Swiss resort town. That was news to Texans.
Perry specifically mentioned "drug courts," which offer drug rehabilitation and supervision in lieu of jail time — and which Democratic lawmakers pushed through in Texas in 2001. There are still more than 15,000 people incarcerated in Texas for drug possession, according to Ana Yañez-Correa of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, who adds that Perry has softened his views on punishing drug possession over his years as governor.
America has also shifted its views on marijuana, pretty sharply, over the past few years. But going soft on pot isn't popular among the type of people Perry will need to win the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.
Let's look at the polls: An October 2013 Gallup poll found that 58 percent of Americans support legalizing marijuana, a number that drops to 35 percent when you look at just Republicans. Similarly, in an April 2013 Pew poll that found 52 percent support for legalizing weed, only 37 percent of GOP voters (29 percent of conservative Republicans) and 33 percent of voter 65 and older were on board. In a January poll from CNN/ORC International, 55 percent backed legalizing pot, but only 36 percent of Republicans and 48 percent of voters in the South agreed.
Maybe Perry's talk of easing up on the war on pot will appeal to the younger, libertarian-leaning Republicans who formed the backbone of the Ron Paul Revolution — but they already have a candidate, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), and Perry is hardly libertarian on social issues. As GOP strategist Ford O'Connell says at U.S. News, "the growing 'conser-tarian' movement... will find much to like, although some to dislike, in Perry's agenda."
More to the point, look at who voted in the 2012 GOP primaries: Old (white) people, mostly. "In 12 of the 16 states where exit polls have been conducted," said National Journal's Ron Brownstein in March 2012, "voters over 50 cast at least 60 percent of the GOP primary votes; in the other four, they represented at least 55 percent of the vote." In Florida and Nevada, more than 70 percent of the GOP primary electorate was AARP-eligible.
It's true that a majority of Americans now appear to back legalizing marijuana, but Perry can't try to win their vote until he gets through the Republican primary. And even if he does win the nomination, he still needs older voters to back him in large numbers: In 2012, Romney won 52 percent of voters ages 50 to 64 and 56 percent of the 65-and-over demographic. These are the only cohorts that don't support marijuana legalization.
"There is no possible public good that can be derived from passing laws that legalize marijuana use, and Republicans should say so," counsels GOP strategist Ed Rogers at The Washington Post.
Republicans need to be clear on where they stand on this issue. We shouldn’t think up reasons to do the wrong thing to try to look hip or appeal to reckless youth. If the Democrats think they have found an issue for 2014, let them be the ones to promise more pot to the population. And spare me the talk about personal freedom being at stake here. You aren’t more free if you are a pothead, and freedom isn’t measured by marijuana consumption. [Washington Post]
Perry is on the don't-legalize side of the fence, for now. But if he wants to get a shot at beating Hillary Clinton — or whomever the Democrats nominate in 2016 — he'll have to be careful about flirting too noticeably with America's new pot-tolerant majority.