I had two initial responses to the outrageous indictment of Texas Governor Rick Perry. One was to feel the same outrage about the criminalization of politics that John Steele Gordon discussed yesterday. The other was to assume that the prospect of this prosecution, no matter how unfair it would prove to be, would derail his hopes for another run at the presidency. However, I might have been wrong about my second reaction and the reason for that re-evaluation speaks volumes about how dysfunctional our political system has become.
First, let’s not mince words about the egregious nature of the indictment and what it means about how out-of-control prosecutors can derail democracy. It should be remembered that what happened here was that a Democratic prosecutor who had disgraced her office with a drunk driving violation and abusive behavior toward police refused to resign. Perry used a threat of a veto of her budget to try to force that resignation. The special prosecutor in the case alleges that using that threat — something that was obviously in the service of the public good — was an illegal abuse of power. That is absurd and you have to be a hardcore Democratic partisan to think that it is even remotely reasonable for a prosecutor to treat a public policy dispute — especially one in which the governor was clearly on the side of ethics — as a criminal matter.
But in a normal political atmosphere, any criminal indictment, no matter how ill-considered and fated to be eventually overturned, is generally enough to kill a political career. But in Perry’s case that might not be so.
We are now at a point in our political history where it is understood that trials such as the one to which Perry may be subjected are merely politics by other means rather than a third rail event that disqualifies the defendant no matter the eventual legal outcome. In the past, politicians who were victimized by prosecutorial overreach were left at the end of the process asking where they could go to get their good names back even if they had retained their freedom. The correct assumption was that any judicial process even one that led to acquittal or vindication through convictions being thrown out on appeal was ultimately disqualifying even when innocence was eventually established.
But something has changed in American politics and Perry’s decision to go on with planned appearances in New Hampshire in spite of his difficulties illustrates the altered atmosphere.
As this Politico story indicates, we’re now at the point where much of the public understands that partisanship and the criminalization of politics has gotten out of hand. With many prominent Democrats, including former Obama advisor David Axelrod, acknowledging that the indictment of Perry is something of a farce, the opprobrium that normally attaches to any object of prosecution is starting to wear off.
Just as importantly, the willingness of prosecutors to inject themselves into the political process in this manner is not only seen as illegitimate but it may also enhance Perry’s appeal among Republicans. Rather than causing him to be viewed as a leper because of the indictment, it may well make conservatives see him as a folk hero or at least a victim, which in our contemporary culture may just as good if not better for the purpose of enchancing popularity.
Lest anyone think this is a reaction confined only to the right, there are already some examples of the same thing happening on the left. Historically, African-Americans have tended to rally around one of their own when they came under attack from prosecutors. The ability of Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. to win re-election in the 1960s despite being thrown out of the House of Representatives by other Democrats illustrates this trend. More recently, the news that Philadelphia Mayor John Street was being investigated by the Bush administration Justice Department on corruption charges in 2003 turned a tight re-election race into a landslide for the incumbent as black Philadelphians treated the probe as proof of bad faith on the part of Republicans, not of Street’s questionable conduct in office. Now it appears the right seems to feel the same way about such investigations of their leaders though, to be fair, those cases were far more substantive than the tissue of insinuations lodged against Perry.
If we are now at the point where no one trusts prosecutions of politicians this is a terrible development because it shows how badly split we are becoming as a nation. With some on the left willing to countenance this kind of judicial smearing of a conservative, it’s only understandable that Republicans won’t hold it against Perry. Indeed, it may well enhance his standing and, like the massive over-reaction against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker from left-wingers who resisted his reform efforts that led to a recall election, the Travis County prosecutors may have made Perry into a right-wing folk hero. I still think Perry is unlikely to become a first tier primary candidate in 2016, let alone the GOP nominee, but this indictment may prove to be a badge of honor that will cause many Republicans to put aside their memories of his “oops” moments in 2012.
However, the long-term impact of this development may do more to harm the cause of public ethics than to help or hurt Perry’s already dubious chances of winning the presidency. Holding public officials accountable for genuine corruption and abuse of power — such as the willingness of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to quash an ethics commission probe when it hit too close to home and involved some of his supporters — is essential to the survival of democracy. By abusing the judicial process in this manner, Texas prosecutors have undermined the rule of law as well as exacerbated an already perilous political divide.