Texas Gov. Rick Perry, currently a GOP front-runner for next year's presidential nomination, left the campaign trail in South Carolina to return to Texas to command what's become an epic battle against dozens of major runaway wildfires.
Since December, some 21,000 Texas wildfires have burned 3.6 million acres and claimed more than 1,500 structures, including nearly 1,000 over Labor Day alone as a 14-mile-wide fire burned across Bastrop County, 25 miles east of Austin. The fire instantly became the most destructive in the state's history as it joined dozens of other major conflagrations cutting across over 100,000 acres in bone dry central Texas.
While the Texas wildfires provide an opportunity for the only sitting governor in the presidential race to display his leadership bona fides, the disaster is also leaving Governor Perry open to charges of hypocrisy from the tea party movement. Some small-government advocates are asking why Perry, a states' rights proponent and critic of federal power, is berating the Obama administration for dragging its heels in sending federal taxpayer money and resources to Texas.
In the short run, Perry's ditching the campaign for the emergency command in Austin could help him contrast himself with other candidates, including Obama. But at some point, the campaign may have to explain the philosophical contradictions between Perry's ideological view of federal power and his more practical willingness to rely on federal largess to solve the state's fire problem.
"If I was running the Perry campaign, I would let other people sort the [disaster-aid argument] out later on down the line," says Andrew Taylor, a political scientist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. "For a sitting governor running for president, it's always safe to err on the side of just doing your job, looking like you're busy, and caring for people. When it comes to serving your state in an emergency, politics goes out the window."
As far back as April, Perry jousted with the White House over federal disaster declarations for an earlier bout of Texas wildfires that destroyed 170 homes across the state. After first denying the application, the Obama administration quietly approved a partial federal disaster declaration on July 1 after an appeal from Perry.
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.
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."