Rick Perry, Twice Burned

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Rick Perry’s campaign thought it had conjured up the perfect photo-op for the anti-government crowd yesterday. So much for thinking. On the anniversary of the $700 billion federal “economic recovery plan,” Perry’s old pal Grover Norquist, the nation’s leading anti-tax bully, was in Austin for a press conference where Perry would become the seventh governor to sign a big, camera-ready, entirely symbolic “Taxpayer Protection Pledge.” Perry’s campaign has loudly and repeatedly denounced Sen. “Kay Bailout” Hutchison for supporting that first “stimulus” plan. But the name-calling lost a bit of oomph this week when a letter Perry wrote with West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin (a Democrat, for goodness sakes!) resurfaced. The letter urged Congress to—er—pass a stimulus package. Though he didn’t endorse a specific plan, the letter makes Perry’s charges against Hutchison seem more than a little hypocritical, even by usual standards. Hutchison, whose campaign appears to be sharpening its elbows, also trumped the governor by signing Norquist’s anti-tax pledge and faxing it to his group, Americans for Tax Reform, before Perry had a chance to assemble the cameras and sign it himself. The Norquist and Perry show went on, in a small conference room at the Four Seasons in Austin. Norquist, who’s previously talked up Perry as prime presidential beef, had noticeably faint praise for the governor: “Rick Perry’s been a leader in comparison to other governors,” he told the assembled reporters and small-government zealots.Once the pledge-signing was over, Perry took reporters’ questions—and a minor fiasco got worse. We hadn’t come to question Perry about the impending fiscal disaster in Texas brought on by his tax-cutting mania; we’d come to ask about his cynical move, earlier this week, to replace three members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission.

The commission had been scheduled to meet today to hear a report from arson expert Craig Beyler. The report adds to already-considerable evidence that Texas likely executed an innocent man, Cameron Todd Willingham, who was convicted of setting a fire that killed his three children in 1991. (See Dave Mann’s excellent post on the issue here and my current editorial about Perry here.)

Perry’s cynical shake-up of the commission means that any ultimate admission that Texas executed an innocent man will almost certainly—and very conveniently—delayed until after the gubernatorial primary next March. The commission had planned to issue its findings early next year. In his only previous public comments on Beyler’s findings, Perry had told The Dallas Morning News that even if Willingham didn’t set the fire that killed his children, he still—somehow—murdered them. Hence, the logical first question: “Governor, you made it clear that you’re certain that Willingham killed his children. If it wasn’t arson that killed his kids, how did he kill his kids?” Perry’s response came straight from the Political Contortion 101 textbook: “I think to be making statements of fact as I think I just heard you say that it was not arson, until the state has gone back through this issue and looked at it appropriately, is inappropriate. With the information that we have at hand today, without any new commission work etcetra, they’e gonna take a look at any new information anybody has. But I think to make a statement now that it wasn’t arson is a little premature.” Perry, of course, had asserted as fact that Willingham was guilty of murder, regardless of whether he set the fire. Asked about the questionable timing of his shake-up of the commission, Perry had no better answers. It was “normal protocol,” he said, merely an extension of his commitment to “give Texans the opportunity to serve.” He went on: “I think if you go back and look you’d probably find that the majority of the time we’re asking people to serve on different boards and different agencies, move them around, what have you.”

Sure, right. When even conservative blogger Paul Burka is calling your actions a “Cover-Up,” it’s pretty clear that you’ve been burned. Twice.

Expect Perry to steer clear of reporters for a while. But don’t expect the furor over his latest act of political sabotage to die down any time soon. The state apparently executed an innocent man on the governor’s watch. Perry may be determined not to pay a political price for that, but he already is. Even anti-tax photo ops aren’t safe terrain anymore.