Rick Perry is under indictment. For a guy trying to put together a comeback bid for the White House in 2016, that’s obviously not the greatest news. Late in the evening on Friday, a Texas grand jury indicted its governor on charges that he abused his authority and attempted to coerce a public servant. The news exploded on Twitter with a mixture of confusion, Schadenfreude and obvious jokes.
Then people actually read through the indictment and got a grasp of the circumstances surrounding it. The whole story revolves around Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, one of the few Democrats to hold a position of real power in Perry’s government, and her 2013 arrest for driving drunk. After she was taken in, Lehmberg berated her arresting officers and made some poorly concealed threats against them. And it was all caught on videotape. She ended up pleading guilty and served a couple of weeks in prison.
Perry saw the opportunity to evict Lehmberg and replace her with an ally, so he threatened to veto funding for the Public Integrity Unit (which investigates ethics violations in the government and is under the Travis County DA’s control) if Lehmberg didn’t resign. Lehmberg refused, so Perry followed through in his threat and vetoed the funding. The coercion and abuse of authority charges derive from Perry’s veto threat. It was undoubtedly a cynical and arguably scummy use of the governor’s power, but did it rise to the level of a crime?
Let’s look at a few opinions from political observers:
“Legal training of any kind seems unnecessary to grasp its flimsiness.”
“The indictment announced Friday of Texas Republican Gov. Rick Perry may sound explosive, but it looks very weak on paper.”
“The basis for the indictment is exceptionally weak, and reflects a disturbing trend towards criminalizing garden-variety political actions.”
“The special prosecutor bringing these charges may need to overcome a significant constitutional obstacle.”
“It is not going to be easy for prosecutors to convince a trial jury that a governor wielding his veto power in even the rawest, most ad hominem form, as Perry did here, amounts to a crime.”
Who are these five pundits downplaying the case against Texas’ Republican governor? In order: New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait, MSNBC host Ari Melber, political scientist and American Prospect contributor Scott Lemieux, the Center for American Progress’ Ian Millhiser, and the New Republic’s Alec MacGillis. Five guys who work/write for big-name liberal publications or organizations. This, friends, is the Hack Gap in action.
The Hack Gap is defined as the relative lack of left-leaning pundits and media types who will abandon principle in order to move the political ball forward. “Conservatives outscore us considerably in the number of bloggers/pundits/columnists/talking heads who are willing to cheerfully say whatever it takes to advance the party line, no matter how ridiculous it is,” Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum wrote of the Hack Gap back in 2012. The Hack Gap can be viewed different ways, depending on the context. In a vacuum, it’s a good thing, insomuch as faithfulness to one’s principles is viewed as a positive quality. And when real moments for political accountability arise, like the Veterans Affairs scandal, depriving a politician of his or her political cover can help speed the process along. In the context of a political campaign, the Hack Gap can be viewed as a negative – you want everyone on the same boat rowing in the same direction.
Consider the liberal reaction to the legal acrobatics underway in Texas and compare that to the conservative reaction to the D.C. Circuit Court panel’s ruling in the Halbig case. In case you’ve forgotten, two Republican-appointed judges on the three-judge panel invalidated the Affordable Care Act’s subsidies for people who purchased health insurance through the federal exchanges. Their argument was based on an exotic bit of legal reasoning that disregarded the obvious intent of the law in favor of an absurdly narrow interpretation of one small part of the statute.
Up and down the line, from right-wing magazines to think tanks to Fox News to talk radio, all the organs of the conservative movement were praising the legal wisdom of the decision and obvious illegality of the Affordable Care Act’s subsidies. Even as reporters began digging through the decision and finding obvious errors of logic and instances of the Halbig plaintiffs contradicting themselves on their own argument, conservatives kept the faith. It got to be that conservative pundits were rewriting the political history of the ACA and arguing that everyone involved in writing and analyzing and covering the bill simply failed to notice this critically important question of intent that they now hope will undermine the entire law. Some left-leaning writers have devoted a lot of time to explaining this phenomenon, like Brian Beutler and Jonathan Chait, who used a certain sitcom episode as a devastatingly effective Halbig analogy (*cough* *ahem* timestamp).
All this to say that the conservatives fell in line to advance their political goals, and got busy tearing down everything they once believed in order to build a rickety support structure for the Halbig case. There are, of course, partisans on the left who are milking the Perry indictment for all it’s worth, but there’s nowhere near the unanimity of opinion.
There are differences between the two examples, to be sure. Obamacare represents a substantial threat to conservatives, so they have every motive to get behind the Halbig plaintiffs and not worry too much about how they look inventing a whole new back story for a law they hate. Perry is a long shot for president and generally regarded as a boob, so there’s no real incentive for liberals to unite against him or worry about giving him political cover. But the difference in reaction is no less striking. The Hack Gap, for better or worse, is very real.