One of the more interesting and unlikely episodes of Rick Perry's long tenure as governor of Texas began in February of 2007, when Perry signed an executive order mandating that all girls receive a vaccination for HPV, a virus that causes cervical cancer, when they reach the sixth grade. There was an opt-out available for families who filled out a conscientious objector form, but that hardly placated the outraged state legislature, which quickly and emphatically overrode the order. At the time, Perry's former chief of staff Mike Toomey was a lobbyist for Merck, the sole manufacturer of the vaccine, and some critics assumed that Perry's uncharacteristic bout of big-government progressiveness could be chalked up to performing a solid for his old pal. But Perry insisted that he was motivated solely by his desire to save lives. Then and for years afterward, he insisted that he had done nothing wrong and had zero regrets.
As recently as last year, during yet another reelection campaign, Perry repeatedly defended his executive order. In a debate in January of 2010, he said he stood "proudly" by what he deemed his "pro-life position."
In interviews with the press throughout the campaign, Perry never wavered. Not in September:
“Let me tell you why it wasn’t a bad idea: Even though that was the result I was looking for, and that becoming the standard procedure for protecting young women against this very heinous deadly dreadful disease, it caused a national debate ... I knew I was going to take a political hit — at the end of the day, I did what was right from my perspective, and I did something that saved people’s lives and, you know, that’s a big deal.”
And not in October:
Perry makes no apologies. "It's about saving lives," Perry said. "It wasn't about people's or their children's sexual practices or what have you. It's was a reality. My wife's a nurse and she full well supported that."
Very suddenly over the weekend, though — coincidentally, just hours after announcing that he was running for president — Perry started to question the wisdom of his executive order for the first time ever:
His third question from the crowd was about an issue that his critics have touched on — his 2007 mandate for girls to get vaccinated against the cervical cancer-causing HPV virus.
“I signed an executive order that allowed for an opt-out, but the fact of the matter is I didn’t do my research well enough to understand that we needed to have a substantial conversation with our citizenry,” he said. “I hate cancer. Let me tell you, as a son who has a mother and father who are both cancer survivors.”
Perry said he’d invested government resources in cancer cures, adding, “I hate cancer. And this HPV, we were seeing young ladies die at the early age. What we should have done was a program that frankly should have allowed them to opt in, or some type of program like that, but here’s what I learned — when you get too far out in front of the parade they will let you know. And that’s exactly what our legislature did ...
Obviously, there's nothing new about a politician shifting ground to appease voters, or more specifically, about a GOP presidential candidate tacking right during the nomination fight. But Perry's newfound circumspection on the HPV issue — in addition to his increasingly rigid positions on abortion and gay marriage — is a reminder that, even as he rides into the campaign with enormous buzz and high expectations, he, like everyone else in the race, is bringing his baggage with him.