Is Rick Perry Too Much Like George W. Bush?

by Benjamin Domenech on 7:38 am June 22, 2011

Is Texas Gov. Rick Perry too much like George W. Bush to run for president? Aaron Blake at The Fix writes an insightful piece on the question, one that has been a topic of significant internal conversation in the Perry camp for some time, even before the recent decision process began concerning a 2012 run.

One reason Perry insiders will tell you that the governor’s plan was always for a 2016 run for the White House was a recognition of this challenge—presumably by that point, the last Texas president would be a more distant memory for voters, who could separate the two. The irony that Blake notes, which most observers outside of the Lone Star state haven’t, is that the advisers and political crew for both men are completely different. The Bush clan and the Perry clan have butted heads for years, a fact made all the more evident during Perry’s recent primary win over Kay Bailey Hutchison.

This fact is lost on many, even those within the Republican Party—in a conversation earlier this year with a well-connected New York Republican, he shared that he’d just assumed Perry was so successful at fundraising because “he’d inherited the Bush list”—which is just the opposite from the truth.

In practice, Perry has been far from a clone of Bush as governor. Ideologically, Perry’s rejected much of the “compassionate conservatism” ideal Bush pushed, and their management styles are completely different. But in voice and tone, the likeness between the two is immediately evident for people not from Texas (even if many of the Texans say “oh, they’re completely different”). That’s one reason why the Bush comparisons could turn out to be more of an on-camera problem than anything else.

Perry could potentially offset this through his skills on the campaign trail—he’s a heavy retail politics guy in a campaign that’s light on people with those skills. One thing I’ve personally noticed about Perry over the past several years is that he’s less like Bush in person, one on one, and sounds very little like him when not on stage. Yet some of those who’ve worked closely with Perry will tell you that it’s only when he’s tired that he starts sounding more like Bush—a factor which could come into play when he’s having to crisscross the nation with the permanent grind of a national campaign.

What’s interesting to me is that Perry would be a real departure from the nomination approach of Republican Party over the past two decades. As Mona Charen notes today, this is a party that over twenty-plus years chose George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, George W. Bush and John McCain as their standard bearers. Out of the four, only W. was not viewed internally as a lean-center type who’d paid his dues over years of service in Washington—and W. still had the Ivy League resume, the advisers inherited from his dad, the surrounding perceived elite of the party to mitigate his relative youth.

Perry, on the other hand, is a guy who has no such Ivy League resume or background. His surrounding advisers are well-respected people in Texas but little-known outside of it. Brooke Rollins, the charming head of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, is one of the most widely respected state think tank leaders on the right. Dave Carney, Perry’s political hand, is actually more calculating and cutthroat than anyone on the Bush team in 2000. One reason some D.C. insiders on the right may discount Perry’s policy chops is because they and their friends frankly haven’t paid attention to a lot of what he’s been doing—as opposed to the late nineties, when Marvin Olasky and others were beating the drum for W. If Perry gets in and is promptly endorsed by many in the Tea Party movement who’d been waiting for Sarah Palin—perhaps even Palin herself—it may well take someone like Jeb Bush being willing to bury the hatchet to change that perception among the elites.

Yet even without that resume, it’s hard to look at Perry without seeing someone who fits the zeitgeist of this election—the surging populism of the right, the need for someone with a proven knack for economic growth—it’s hard to find someone who matches up so well with what the conservative base is hungry for in a candidate. Rush Limbaugh was giddy as a schoolgirl the other day quoting Perry’s recent speech to the Republican Leadership Council—including the line “Our party cannot be all things to all people. We can’t. And our loudest opponents on the left are never going to like us, so let’s stop trying to curry favor with them,” which can be read as a strong rejection of Jon Huntsman and others. But the interesting thing is that much of that speech consisted of Perry’s standard stump remarks from his recent election. Perry’s been saying this stuff for a long time, and it’s only now that the national folks are paying attention.

As much as Perry matches up with what the primary electorate wants, though, the general election could be a far more difficult matter. Assume a map where President Obama is looking at starting with the same states he won in 2008. Perry probably plays well in New Mexico, Florida, North Carolina, Virginia and to some extent Nevada—all Blue/Purple states he could move Red. But that list alone doesn’t win the presidency. Perry’s still got to take two out of three of Iowa, Indiana, and Ohio. The difficulty is predicting how Perry would play in the Midwest, which is hard to game. Brash swagger doesn’t generally win there, and he’d have to overcome that with concentrated groundwork and perhaps even a regionally minded Vice Presidential pick (though Florida Senator Marco Rubio continues to make a great deal of sense for Perry as a way of maximizing his already robust Latino support).

Of course, Perry still hasn’t made his decision whether to run or not. But there’s one final point which has to be on his mind, and the mind of his advisors, which few in the press have noted. Perry has always been saddled by looking younger than he actually is, being dismissed as “governor good-hair” and the like. But he’s older now, and he would be 66 in 2016. Assuming he waited to run, and assuming Obama’s re-election, he may be facing a much more difficult field than he perhaps anticipated a few years ago—possibly one where he’d be the oldest guy in the room. Sure, he’d start fundraising in 2014 and blow the doors off the challengers, but it could be a different scenario by then on a number of counts.

When Perry took the Republican Governors Association job, assuming Haley Barbour and Mitch Daniels were running, many observers assumed that meant he was out for this cycle. But now the calculation has changed for him, and the nomination looks ripe for the taking. And if Perry waits, he may never fit the moment within the party as well as he does now.

Benjamin Domenech (bdomenech@heartland.org) is a research fellow at The Heartland Institute and co-host of Coffee & Markets.

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