06.22.11

Rick Perry’s Bush Echo

Perry’s similarities to fellow conservative, limited-government enthusiast, and Texas governor George W. Bush could become a political liability in a 2012 White House run, writes Daniel Stone.

It's not terribly hard for Rick Perry to imagine a path from the Austin statehouse to the White House, mostly because it’s been done before.

And that might be Perry’s problem.

In a fluid and fickle 2012 Republican field, the Texas governor is actively considering jumping into the race. But to many voters he may look like a reincarnation of his predecessor, George W. Bush

The similarities between the two men can be striking, all the way down to the cowboy boots. Both were reelected at least once to the governorship, have been considered darlings of the religious right, and have pushed similar themes of limited government and robust national defense. And then there’s the personal: the Texas twang, the way they both drop their g’s, the penchant for hunting. Both have even been known to pronounce the word nuclear in the same Southern way (nuke-yuh-ler).

“I mean look, they both like to go out on a quail hunt and drink a beer, wear their boots and go to the ball games,” says Democratic Sen. John Whitmire, who's been in the Texas statehouse since 1972. “Nice family guys, strong wives, smart but certainly not rocket scientists. I bet neither one of them made outstanding grades. They’re certainly not world travelers. And probably not the most well-read guys in the world. There are some similarities, but I'm not sure how much I would make of them.”

Beyond the common culture, there’s some overlap with electoral strategy as well. Karl Rove, the often controversial senior adviser to Bush, ran Perry’s 1990 campaign for a seat on the Texas Agriculture Commission. Bush’s team slighted Perry last year when it supported Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison to replace Perry as governor, but when Hutchison lost in the primary, Rove swung his support, and advice, to Perry’s camp.

perry-bush-problem-stone
Martin H. Simon / Corbis (left); Bob Daemmrich / Corbis

Such overlap could steepen Perry’s hurdle in the race for the nomination. President Obama’s election was widely attributed, at least in part, to be a referendum on Bush, who left office with an approval rating near 30 percent. A Fox News poll earlier this year found the appetite for another president in 2012 with ties to Bush was surprisingly low; President Obama would beat Bush’s brother, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, by more than 20 points.

Perry has said repeatedly over the past two weeks that he hasn’t made up his mind about running, but the need to raise substantial sums could force a decision soon.

His would-be campaign has studied the similarities between the past and present governors and considered the potential costs. But his inner circle believes the comparison is overblown.

Conceivably, it would be something that would come up much more forcefully if he got the nomination.”

“Listen, they’re both from Texas, they’re both governors,” says Mark Miner, a spokesman for Perry. “There are of course going to be comparisons. But when you look at who Governor Perry is and what he stands for, he’s his own person.”

To be sure, the two Texans have key differences as well. Bush came from Ivy League roots and worked in a lucrative family business. Perry had a more modest start, from the tiny dot of Paint Creek, Texas. Perry started his career as a Democrat before switching sides in 1989.

Lately they haven’t looked so similar either. Perry has fashioned himself an aggressively conservative lawmaker, having courted valuable Tea Party support with biting criticism of Obama’s economic policy. No one would brand him a compassionate conservative, the term that Bush coined in his first race for the White House. In 2009, Perry made waves by flirting with the notion of Texas seceding from the union—an idea that several state lawmakers say would never have flown with the more moderate Bush while he was governor.

Yet the mere perception of similarity can often matter more to voters than comparisons of substance.

“The press would make something of it, but I don’t know if there would be any echoes within the Republican Party,” says Stephen Hess, an analyst at the Brookings Institution. "Conceivably, it would be something that would come up much more forcefully if he got the nomination.”