- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 24, 2011

The former governors in the GOP presidential field tout their political accomplishments as proof they can lead the nation out of the economic doldrums, but when it comes to actual job numbers, the trio doesn’t hold a candle to Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has emerged in recent polls as a strong conservative alternative to Mitt Romney.

On Mr. Perry’s watch, which stretches back to December 2000 when he took the reins from then-President-elect George W. Bush, the Lone Star State has enjoyed a 11 percent increase in overall employment, adding more than 1 million jobs, according to an analysis by The Washington Times of seasonally adjusted employment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In the same period of time, the country shed more than 1 percent of its workforce, or roughly 1.5 million jobs.

Compared with his potential GOP rivals, the governor who comes closest to matching Mr. Perry’s record on jobs is Jon Huntsman Jr. During his four-plus years leading Utah, Mr. Huntsman presided over a 4.8 percent spike in jobs, while employment plummeted nationwide by 1.9 percent.

Former New Mexico Gov. Gary E. Johnson, meanwhile, governed over a more dramatic 13.7 percent increase in overall job growth, though the record mirrored the strong 12 percent employment growth nationwide from 1995 to 2003.

Mr. Romney and Tim Pawlenty have shakier records on job creation.

During his 2003 to 2007 tenure in Massachusetts, Mr. Romney, the GOP front-runner at the moment, saw the state’s overall job growth increase by roughly 1.2 percent, while national employment grew by more than 5 percent.

Minnesota, meanwhile, lost almost 1 percent of its workforce, about 22,000 jobs, under Mr. Pawlenty, slightly worse than the national employment picture, which essentially remained flat.

It’s tricky determining just how big a role each of the governors played in creating jobs in their respective states, thanks to established political cultures and regional economic differences. Plus, Mr. Perry, Mr. Pawlenty and Mr. Huntsman governed during the recession, while Mr. Romney and Mr. Johnson did not.

Still, their records on jobs represent a key part of their argument as to why they’re best equipped to get people back to work and to oust President Obama in the 2012 election.

“What you want if you are running for president is a compelling narrative that says that you can be effective, and if you have job creation on your resume, it just helps you build that narrative,” said John Feehery, a GOP strategist.

Pia M. Orrenius, senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, said Mr. Perry benefits from Texas’ booming energy sector, near-record oil prices and the fact that the state didn’t get walloped by the housing crises, which partially can be credited to the relatively conservative lending practices of the state’s banks. She said the state’s strongest employment sectors have been in professional and business services, health and energy.

“Those also are some of the largest sectors,” she said. “So, the fact that they are growing 5 percent, 6 percent or 7 percent in Texas since 2009 — that’s a lot of jobs.”

Texas’ success story clashes with the ugly national narrative that threatens Mr. Obama’s hopes of securing a second term.

When Mr. Obama entered office in 2009, he inherited a struggling economy that had shed 3.6 million jobs in the final year of the Bush presidency.

Since then, the bleeding has slowed, but not stopped, with an additional 2.5 million jobs going down the drain — a fact that Mr. Perry and the GOP White House hopefuls have pounced on, chastising the administration for predicting that the $830 billion taxpayer-funded economic stimulus package that Congress passed in 2009 would keep the unemployment rate below 8 percent. It currently stands at 9.2 percent.

Speaking at a Republican leadership conference in New Orleans last month, Mr. Perry said the liberal policies and regulations pushed by the Obama administration have stunted job growth, while the conservative, small-government policies adopted in Texas have generated “unmatched job creation.”

“We keep adding jobs, while others are losing them left and right,” Mr. Perry said.

Mr. Romney, meanwhile, has blamed Mr. Obama’s policies for shuttering a metal-manufacturing plant in Pennsylvania and for vacant shops at a California strip mall — though local leaders have questioned the charges.

“Instead of focusing on getting people back to work, he focused on a liberal agenda that did not work,” Mr. Romney said last week in California’s San Fernando Valley, just north of Los Angeles. “What I’d do is spend all my time getting people back to work.”

The Romney camp also has highlighted that the Bay State’s unemployment fell from 5.6 percent to 4.7 percent during his governorship, putting him on much firmer ground against the rest of the GOP field and Mr. Perry. While unemployment in Texas has jumped from 4.6 percent to 8 percent with Mr. Perry as governor, the state has added a whopping 5 million people in the past 10 years, increasing the size of the workforce and playing a role in driving up the unemployment rate.

Alan D. Viard, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy, said that job growth tends to be a better barometer of economic health than the unemployment rate. He warned, however, that trying to pin the blame or credit for a state’s jobs performance on a particular governor is an inexact art.

“The policies of governors only have a partial influence over how their economies do — especially over the short-term, which includes the typical term of a governor’s time on office,” Mr. Viard said. “A state could be doing well no matter what policies a governor is pursuing, while another state could be hit hard by just overall development in the national economy that they happen to be sensitive to, even if the governor is doing a great job.”

But he also acknowledge that in elections, politics often simplifies economic realities. “Of course, anybody who has a good economic record is going to run on that, and who can blame them?” he said.

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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