JONATHAN CHAIT AUGUST 3, 2011
Alexander Burns and Maggie Haberman have a story for Politico about Rick Perry's limitations as a general election candidate. It's a really excellent piece on its own terms, but at the same time, it's a bit of a parody of a Politico story in that it takes a vital moral question, drains it of all its moral significance, and presents it in purely electoral terms. The thesis of the piece is that Perry appeals to very conservative white southerners, but not to anybody else, making him a questionable choice to head the Republican ticket. The piece bears out that thesis pretty well. In the middle it includes a glancing reference to one episode of Perry's gubernatorial tenure:
Perry would also have to answer for parts of his record that have either never been fully scrutinized in Texas, or that might be far more problematic before a national audience.
Veterans of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s unsuccessful 2010 primary challenge to Perry recalled being stunned at the way attacks bounced off the governor in a strongly conservative state gripped by tea party fever. Multiple former Hutchison advisers recalled asking a focus group about the charge that Perry may have presided over the execution of an innocent man – Cameron Todd Willingham – and got this response from a primary voter: “It takes balls to execute an innocent man.”
The Willingham case is just one episode in Perry’s gubernatorial tenure that could be revived against him in the very different context of a national race, potentially compromising him in a general election.
If you're not familiar with this episode, David Grann wrote about in for the New Yorker in 2009 in what may be the single greatest piece of journalism I have ever read in my life. (I am biased, as David is a friend and former colleague.) The upshot is that Perry is essentially an accessory to murder. He executed an innocent man, displaying zero interest in the man's innocence. When a commission subsequently investigated the episode, Perry fired its members.
It is telling that the political culture that has nurtured Perry is so morally demented that demonstrating that he blithely executed an innocent man is not a political liability. This probably does have some electoral ramifications worth exploring. But I also couldn't read that piece without imagining a Politico story about Hitler. ("Opposition researchers are combing through Mein Kampf, which could become grist for devastating attack ads, especially in the crucial Florida primary.")