Rick Perry’s Great Gambit

Gov. Perry won an impressive victory last fall in part by pointing out the multi-billion dollar state budget surplus he’d achieved while so many other states were struggling.  Unfortunately within a week after the election he had to start acknowledging the second-worst budget deficit in the country, far larger per-capita than California’s.  I hate it when that happens.

Half of the shortfall comes from Perry’s 2006 tax cuts, which former GOP Comptroller Strayhorn called “the largest hot check in Texas history.” That gap has been filled in previous years by drawing down savings and federal contributions, but the well has run dry.

Since Texas’s government does very little to start with it’s going to be tough to fix the problem with spending cuts.  And since Jesus hates people who raise taxes, the only options are terrible options.  A lesser politician might feel the need to backtrack on his black and white rhetoric and start looking for ways to raise revenue to protect basic services, but that kind of thinking is for losers.  Rick Perry has his eyes on a new job in Washington and he has a plan.

Perry has lined up a golden scapegoat to rescue him from this dilemma.  It won’t be easy and the risks are astronomical, but he is trying to execute a move that will set the blame for his upcoming failure on Medicaid.  It’s cynical, it’s low, and it’s patently deceptive, but if some dark part of you loves the craft of politics, you have to appreciate this incredibly audacious plan.

How do you blame the deficit on someone else when you’ve been Governor for twelve years?  Stand aside, rookie and take notes.

At the same time that news of the state’s $25 billion deficit emerged, Legislators started making statements about Texas withdrawing from Medicaid.  Notice the symmetry?  In the public mind the twin issues were framed: Deficit and Medicaid, deficit is connected to Medicaid, deficit = Medicaid.  Beautiful.

But there’s a nasty threat in this gambit – what if the new cadre of Tea Party nutjobs in the Lege takes this idea seriously?  What if they actually try to take the state out from under the Medicaid umbrella?  The GOP supermajority in the Legislature complicates the gambit.  For the first time ever, Texas Republicans could do what they claim they want.  In principle they could withdraw from Medicaid and substitute their own plan.  So why not just do that?

Perry isn’t stupid.  He knows how many of the Bible-cuddling Fundamentalists in the core of his base are dependent on our godless, Communist, social welfare system even if so many of those same constituents are unaware of it themselves.  Actually yanking the Medicaid rug would risk creating the political equivalent of a singularity.  It would demonstrate to people all up and down the white, suburban evangelical bloc just why we need these demonic welfare programs.  The Bush-era Fundamentalist coalition would suddenly implode in a fantastic burst of unwelcome insight.

How many gay-fearing, Southern Baptist Republicans are going to continue to tow the Party line when they suddenly have to foot the bill for Mom’s nursing home (about $2500 a month minimum, if you’re wondering).

Perry has said that Texas can do a “better job” of delivering this vital service that preserves a rickety floor on human misery for our least-fortunate citizens.  But that’s just talk.  He knows that there are two things Texas’ state and local governments do better than anyone else – laying down freeways (God, how I miss access roads), and building high school football stadiums.  That’s it.  More likely, Texas’ version of Medicaid will look a lot like its versions of schools (apart from football), environmental protection, urban planning, prisons, indigent defense, child-protection, psychiatric care, juvenile justice, libraries, parks…should I keep going?

So, the effort to pull out of Medicaid is engineered to fail, but with a GOP majority, how does Perry make that happen?  Well, you start by pulling back from the idea immediately and suggesting that evil feds have tied the state’s hands.  If the dimmer bulbs on the far right somehow don’t get the memo and try to follow through on this fantasy, Perry has an ace in the hole.  He could get bailed out by…wait for it…Barack Obama.

The final line of defense and ultimate super-bonus scapegoat in this scenario is none other than our President.  See the beauty?  Even if he fails to rein in the Lege and they try to push a real Medicaid rollback, he can probably find a way to get it rejected by the feds.  Can you hear the angels singing?

Then the narrative going into the 2012 election is that Perry is a martyr who stood up to the Communist federal government and lost – this time.  If he plays this carefully he won’t wake up middle America to what its government really provides, he won’t have to do the hard work of figuring out how to fund Medicaid, and whatever revenue measures become necessary in this session won’t be his fault.  They were caused by a black-liberal-extremist President.

But this is a very dangerous gambit.  It’s one thing to see the atheistic social safety net condemned on some idiot entertainer’s blackboard.  It’s quite another thing to watch it melt away beneath you.  If we want to preserve the useful myth that my tax money is merely taken from me and “re-distributed” to lazy Blacks and Mexicans, then we better back off this line in a hot hurry.

Governor Perry has an opportunity to win political martyrdom with a carefully staged failure.  Perry’s Gambit might work this time, but as a Party we won’t get away with this sort of political chicken over entitlements forever.  Eventually we will accidentally get what we’re asking for and the base will wake up.

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