The GOP’s new weapon

George W Bush only pretended to be a good ol’ Texas cowboy. Rick Perry, governor of Texas and most r

Texas Governor Rick Perry's arrival one recent Monday at the Iowa State Fair indicated that the race to challenge Barack Obama for the presidency - an increasingly tempting prospect - had finally begun. Until Perry entered the race, it had been defined and led by the former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who had conducted his campaign largely by hiding out between fundraising events, and had been able to convince neither Republicans nor Democrats that he's burning to lead a counter-revolution. His serious rivals had tended to fade, like Governor Tim Pawlenty or Jon Huntsman; and his strongest challenge came from Michele Bachmann, representative for Minnesota, a symbolic conservative firebrand who has stumbled on such details of policy and political fundamentals as showing up to events.

Perry, the longest-serving governor in state history, is a serious contender. He has a true conservative record that dates back to his days advocating pesticide use as agriculture commissioner of Texas, deep wells of money at hand, and retail political skills that put reporters following him in mind of Bill Clinton. And he is a dream to cover. At the state fair, he kissed babies and ate a pork chop on a stick, the local delicacy, moving from rigid cowboy pose to pose, an act that seemed to be dictated as much by recent back surgery as by machismo, but worked.

Concealed weapon

He answered question after question from swarming reporters. I asked him about his suggestion in an interview last year that he would replace social security with a system of state pensions - a stand that in ordinary times could cost him the White House - and he gamely repeated that he'd consider it.

Perry almost always plays to type, a type defined by the sympathetic Twitter parody @rickperryfacts: "Rick Perry can kill two stones with one bird . . . Rick Perry sleeps with his pillow under his gun . . . The Roman empire didn't fall, Rick Perry tripped it . . . Rick Perry's brisket is so good, he has been banned from all BBQ competitions . . . Atheists believe in Rick Perry."

He is a leading advocate for the right to carry concealed weapons, and as his own stories often feature him shooting something - a favourite one tells of him shooting a coyote while out for a job - I asked him if he was armed that day at the fair. Putting an arm around my shoulder, he responded: "That's why they call it concealed."

That night in Cedar Rapids, a reporter asked him about the Federal Reserve, our central bank. "If this guy prints more money between now and the election, I don't know what y'all would do to him in Iowa, but we would treat him pretty ugly down in Texas," Perry said. "I mean, printing more money to play politics at this particular time in American history is almost treacherous, or treasonous, in my opinion."

He may have scandalised Wall Street, but the answer played well in Cedar Rapids. By the end of the weekend, Obama's supporters - unable to fear the Republican field despite the president's woes - had woken up. Perry is straightforwardly terrifying, a gift to Obama.

Perry is a familiar figure to liberals. He was George W Bush's lieutenant governor, but you sometimes get the impression that Bush learned his shtick from Perry, not vice versa. Indeed, he is more or less what Europeans and American liberals imagined when they foamed at the mouth about Bush. While the 43rd president cultivated a Texas affect to balance out his roots in dynasty, Perry is the real deal.

Raised in a tiny farming town without a single stoplight, Perry got marks at agricultural college that weren't good enough to qualify for veterinary studies. He left with a degree in animal husbandry, and a specialty in football cheerleading that won him Texas A&M's coveted post of "Yell Leader".

His 2010 policy manifesto, Fed Up, speaks to the id of a branch of the Republican Party that's more interested in rolling back the federal government than in experimenting with federal policy. There's much in it to please conservatives - but also a great deal to worry those who would like to beat Obama next November.


On matters of policy, Perry is probably to the right of any Republican nominee since Barry Goldwater's disastrous 1964 campaign. In Fed Up, he wrote that the passage of social security in 1935 required "violently tossing aside any respect for our founding principles" and suggested that federal banking, environmental and labour regulations are all unconstitutional. His staff have been forced to pull back from his jesting threats that Texas could secede from the Union. There was a reason Bush rebranded his version of small-government Texan politics "compassionate conservatism", but Perry hasn't put any sort of veneer on his views.

These stands will not trouble most Republican primary voters, but their implications may. They are targets for an Obama advertising campaign because their implications - abolishing social security, first of all - are so extreme. Merged with Perry's swagger, they could drive away key swing voters - women in the suburbs of big cities such as Philadelphia. The White House has signalled that Obama would rather run against Perry than Romney; some analysts speculate that it might even help him with early attacks on the former Massachusetts governor.

The former National Review editor William Buckley often promised to support the most conservative candidate who was electable. It's a rule Republicans have taken to heart, and Perry's chances will depend on how confident Republicans are that dissatisfaction with Obama will trump independents' concerns about Perry's style and substance. On 23 August the president reached his lowest point ever in Gallup's daily tracking polls, with approval ratings of 38 per cent. If numbers like that persist, Republican voters may just go with the cowboy.

Ben Smith writes for

This article first appeared in the 29 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Gold

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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution