Usually when a prominent governor and presidential contender is indicted, it is Christmas come early for the opposing party.
Not so for Democrats and the indictment of Rick Perry (R).
A grand jury on Friday indicted the Texas governor on charges that he abused the power of his office by vetoing funding for an agency whose leader he had called on to resign.
The headlines alone would seem to torpedo Perry's chances of redeeming his 2012 presidential campaign flop in 2016.
But by the morning after the indictment, President Obama's political adviser, David Axelrod, was joining Republicans in raising doubts about the validity of the charge.
Unless he was demonstrably trying to scrap the ethics unit for other than his stated reason, Perry indictment seems pretty sketchy.— David Axelrod (@davidaxelrod) August 16, 2014
Hours later, liberal writer Jonathan Chait piled on at New York magazine, writing in a headline that the indictment of Perry was "unbelievably ridiculous."
They say a prosecutor could get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich, and this always seemed like hyperbole, until Friday night a Texas grand jury announced an indictment of governor Rick Perry. The “crime” for which Perry faces a sentence of 5 to 99 years in prison is vetoing funding for a state agency. The conventions of reporting — which treat the fact of an indictment as the primary news, and its merit as a secondary analytic question — make it difficult for people reading the news to grasp just how farfetched this indictment is."
The crux of Axelrod and Chait's argument is that charging Perry with abuse of power, in this case, represents a particularly extreme example of criminalizing, in Chait's words, "an ordinary political dispute." The veto power for a governor or president is as close to absolute as any executive authority, and Perry had explicitly threatened to veto funding for the state's public corruption unity after its director, Travis County district attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, was arrested for drunk driving and refused his calls to resign.
Yet despite the skepticism from Axelrod, Chait and others on the left, Democratic Party officials weren't going to let the golden political gift of a criminal indictment slip away.
A rising Democratic star in Texas, Rep. Joaquin Castro, called on Perry to resign.
For the sake of Texas, Governor Perry should resign following his indictment on two criminal felony counts involving abuse of office.— Joaquin Castro (@JoaquinCastrotx) August 15, 2014
Axelrod's colleague at the upper echelon of the Obama campaign, Jim Messina, reveled in the indictment on Twitter.
Here's to suddenly loving the Texas legal process: Rick Perry indicted.— Jim Messina (@Messina2012) August 15, 2014
And on Monday, the Democratic National Committee tried to reclaim the Perry storyline from the skeptics in its ranks. In a memo to reporters, chief DNC spokesman Mo Elleithee listed three reasons "Why the Perry indictment matters."
Countering G.O.P. claims, he said the investigation was not "a partisan witch hunt" and that Perry's threat against the public integrity unit was "more than hardball politics." Yet even Elleithee seemed to acknowledge that the case against the governor was not a slam dunk.
Perry’s actions are much more than just hardball politics and there are many more questions to be answered. Was it illegal? Well a grand jury of Perry’s peers thought so but we’ll see.
Does it merit further investigation? Absolutely.
It’s been nearly a century since a Texas governor has been indicted and this one will get his day in court. But until then, this deserves a serious look."
While Democrats try to get on the same page, Perry is battling the charges aggressively. He told Sean Hannity on Monday that he'd fight "with everything I have," and he hired Ben Ginsberg, an attorney who handled the 2000 recount for George W. Bush, to represent him.
Beyond the specifics of Perry's case, Democrats have a more substantive reason to be wary of seizing on the charges of abuse of power. President Obama has embarked on his own expansive interpretation of executive authority in recent months in the face of congressional gridlock, and House Republicans are now planning to sue him for overstepping the constitutional bounds of his office.
If Democrats want to attack Perry for abusing power in Texas, they may have to confront more questions about Obama's actions in the White House.