There are many fair grounds on which to criticize Rick Perry's performance as governor of Texas: his rejection of federal funding for Medicaid expansion and his grandstanding deployment of the state's National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border, to name just two. But the list does not include the charges newly levied against him by an Austin grand jury.
It's true that the case revolves around bare-knuckled tactics by Perry (R). Last year, he threatened to veto $7.5 million in funding for the prosecutorial unit in Austin that investigates public corruption, unless that unit's boss, an elected Democratic district attorney, resigned. That was bound to be controversial, given that the office was looking into the purported diversion of state cancer research funds to Perry's political allies -- and that Perry would appoint a successor.
However, the governor acted only after the Travis County district attorney, Rosemary Lehmberg, was caught on video committing a pretty spectacular drunk driving offense that eventually cost her 45 days in jail. Many people would find it reasonable to pursue the ouster of such a person from such a position. When Lehmberg refused to go, Perry carried out his veto.
What everyone should recognize is that this particular kerfuffle fell within the bounds of partisan politics, which, as the saying goes, ain't beanbag. The grand jury, however, would criminalize Perry's conduct by twisting the pertinent statutes into a pair of pretzels.
The indictment contends that vetoing funding for Lehmberg's unit violated a Texas "abuse of official capacity" law against the knowing "misuse" of government funds with intent to "harm another." Even more implausibly, the indictment characterizes the mere threat of a veto as "coercion of a public servant," even though the relevant law pretty clearly wasn't intended to cover a governor's exercise of his constitutional powers.
By the weird logic of the indictment, Perry would have been in the clear if he had simply vetoed the funding without threatening to do so first.
Of course, public servants should be held to a higher standard. But criminal prosecution is not always the appropriate remedy for dubious or despicable behavior by those in power, especially not where the relevant law is not clearly applicable.
Political abuses call for political accountability, which is why we have media exposure, elections and impeachment. Perry is not a candidate for re-election; his term ends in a few months.
Perhaps some of those in Texas who back his indictment hope to derail his reported plans for another run at the presidency in 2016. If so, they are going about it the wrong way.