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August 18, 2014 9:52 AM Smoke and Fire in Austin

By Ed Kilgore

When I first heard of the indictments of Rick Perry issued by an Austin grand jury on Friday, I wasn’t really impressed. Threatening to send a governor to the hoosegow for exercising line-item appropriations veto powers, and/or threatening to exercise them if someone doesn’t do what you want (in this case, that Travis Country district attorney Rosemary Lehmberg resign). I wasn’t outraged like Jonathan Chait, since a conviction seems very improbable, and indeed, the indictments themselves a maneuver much like Perry’s.

But having watched how the story was going down on local TV here in Iowa, where Perry’s viability for a second presidential run will likely be determined, I’n not so sure. His image on the screen with the word “INDICTED” underneath has some real destructive power, even when counteracted by police dashcam video footage of Lehmberg flunking a field sobriety test (her DUI was the ostensible reason for Perry’s threats).

Perry’s big decision now is whether to continue to brush off the indictments until, presumably, they go away, or instead play the martyr while going after Lehmberg with hammer and tongs. The longer people talk about this issue, however, the more they’ll eventually focus on the underlying ethical problems of the Perry administration as a motive for shutting down the state Public Integrity Unit that operates out of the Travis D.A.’s office. Alec MacGillis has quite the roundup of those problems in his piece on the saga today. He figures a Perry presidential candidacy couldn’t survive much scrutiny of his cronyism:

In making his righteous demand for Lehmberg’s resignation and then revoking the funding for the Public Integrity Unit when she refused to quit, Perry was undermining one of the few entities in the state with the ability to expose the taxpayer-funded web of influence and favor-peddling that he has constructed. He may well avoid conviction on the charges that have now been brought against him a result of that maneuver, and who knows, may still be resume his post-2012 comeback and mount a second run for president. But if he does so, we will as a result of this case have a clearer sense of who Rick Perry is than we did last time around, and what questions need to be asked about him.

If, as I suggested recently, Perry’s 2016 strategy is to become a universally acceptable conservative fallback candidate, “questions” are the last thing he needs; intimations that ethical lapses might at any minute produce headlines could be a real buzzkill for donors and activists. So I’d say he needs to get “INDICTED” from beneath his television image asap. Even if that’s all smoke, there’s fire below.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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