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Texas wildfires: Is Rick Perry being hypocritical asking for federal aid?

Texas wildfires are forcing Gov. Rick Perry to walk a philosophical tightrope. A strong advocate for a smaller federal government, he's chiding the Obama administration for not helping more during the Texas wildfires.

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This week, the administration gave seven local disaster declarations to specific Texas counties, but Perry criticized the federal government for not making bulldozers at Fort Hood available to firefighters in nearby Bastrop County. This after the Republican-led Texas Legislature cut volunteer fire department "assistance grants" for equipment like bulldozers by 75 percent this summer to help balance the state budget. In Texas, volunteer firefighters do 80 percent of the wildland firefighting.

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Perry's jibes at the federal government not only raise ideological questions but also could risk casting him as a churlish leader, some say.

"In this context, where he's just done himself proud by leaving the campaign behind and returning to the state, to then pivot and turn to kind of a partisan attack, I don't think serves his interests very well," says Bruce Buchanan, a political scientist at the University of Texas in Austin. "This is where you look for a politician who might be president to begin to take it to the next level a little bit."

The rising costs of the Texas wildfires are raising the stakes for a looming political debate over the federalization of disaster aid. The Federal Emergency Management Agency does not have the money to fully cover the costs of hurricane Irene, and Perry has joined other Republicans in demanding offsetting budget cuts for any increases in federal disaster aid. But the Los Angeles Times points out: "They have yet to make that argument in Texas."

To be sure, the historic Texas wildfires, judging by the extent of damages, certainly qualify for federal disaster help, and it's Texas' lawful prerogative to request and claim such funds.

One defense Perry can use is the "unilateral disarmament argument," says Professor Taylor, at North Carolina State. "In other words, why should we go without federal aid when no one else does?"

But as Perry dispatched the elite Texas Task Force 1 team to look for survivors in the Bastrop Complex fire, the wildfire threat – and its potential to boost or harm the Perry presidential campaign – remained high.

"There are parts of Perry's positions that are personally authentic and not mere political spin," says Professor Buchanan. "He has a commitment to states' rights and he's a fundamentalist Christian, but he's also a seasoned politician and a hardball one who is not above overstating his case to score points. The problem is, he's not chosen the best moment to make partisan points."

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