‘If Jeb Bush’s name were Jeb Smith, he’d be the next president of the United States,” says Texas governor Rick Perry, and then there’s a long pause in the conversation to let pass the unspoken corollary: “And if Rick Perry were the governor of Florida . . . ”
People constantly ask Governor Perry if he’s thinking about running for president. In fact, they ask him if he’s thinking about running for president so often that by now he almost certainly must be thinking about running for president, even if he wasn’t thinking about it before. He plays down that sort of thing (except when he doesn’t) and protests that he’s got plenty to keep him busy in Austin. And he is busy: He’s hip-deep in a ferocious fight to balance the state budget without instituting new taxes or liquidating the state’s rainy-day fund. He has a long list of parochial Texas action-items on his gubernatorial to-do list, like pushing down the cost of a bachelor’s degree from a state university to $10,000 and keeping his bespoke boot heel on the neck of the trial lawyers. But he’s also very busy in his campaign to renew — or reinvent — American federalism, taking an extraordinarily robust view of states’ sovereignty and an extraordinarily restrictive view of the “enumerated powers” listed in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution. He’s written a book about the subject, Fed Up!, which is an order of magnitude more crotchety and idiosyncratic than your average raising-my-national-profile book. (He also published a very personal and occasionally hot-tempered defense of the Boy Scouts, On My Honor, lambasting the feminists and organized homosexuality in a way that suggests he’s not much interested in a Mitch Daniels–style truce on the social issues.)
Lots of conservatives have been in fights over public displays of the Ten Commandments, but Governor Perry is more interested in the Tenth Amendment: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Reestablishing the sovereignty of the states — and rescuing the language of states’ rights from its segregationist connotations — is a pretty good job for a high-profile governor.
Or for a president.
Speaking of presidents: Rick Perry has a complicated relationship with the Bushes, which is to say that he’s hesitant to criticize them and they hate his guts. W. stayed well away from Perry’s gubernatorial-primary melee against Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, whose oatmeal-mushy Republicanism has a distinctly Bushian savor to it. But the mark of W. was all over the campaign against Perry. Former president George H. W. Bush endorsed Senator Hutchison, an unusual step for the habitually reserved retiree, who usually stays well removed from the dirty business of vote-grubbing, surveying the groundlings from the heights of his eminence. Bush père was joined in his support by former vice president Dick Cheney, who offered an endorsement and called Hutchison “the real deal.” Hutchison was further fortified by the Bush clan’s in-house Machiavelli, former secretary of state James Baker, who led the Florida recount fight in 2000 and remains their go-to fixer. W. mouthpiece Karen Hughes came out of the political woodwork to support the insurgency, along with W.’s secretary of education Margaret Spellings. Karl Rove advised Team Hutchison. The gang was all there: All this in a primary challenge to unseat an incumbent Republican governor with one of the most conservative — and most successful — records to be found: Que paso, Bushes?
Part of that was payback. Perry, generally circumlocutious on the subject of W., gave himself a little time off the leash during the 2008 Republican presidential primaries. Often caricatured as yet another snake-handling southern social conservative, Governor Perry backed thrice-married dress-wearing pro-choice lapsed Catholic Rudy Giuliani, on the theory that Rudy would be a badass commander-in-chief abroad and a reliable constitutionalist at home. Politics being politics, the Texan and the New Yorker met up in Iowa, where more than a few Hawkeye conservatives were already getting restive about out-of-control federal spending on the Republicans’ watch. Governor Perry let loose the observation that “George” — and the Bushies hate it when Perry calls him “George” in public — “has never been a fiscal conservative.” Never? “Wasn’t when he was in Texas . . . ’95, ’97, ’99, George Bush was spending money.” He also criticized Bush as being limp on immigration.
The truth hurts, but there’s more to the Bush-Perry friction than that. One longtime observer of Lone Star politics described the Bushes’ disdain of Perry as “visceral,” and it is not too terribly hard to see why. The guy that NPR executives and the New York Times and your average Subaru-driving Whole Foods shopper were afraid George W. Bush was? Rick Perry is that guy. George W. Bush was Midland by way of Kennebunkport. Rick Perry’s people are cotton farmers from Paint Creek, a West Texas town so tiny and remote that my Texan traveling-salesman father looked at me skeptically and suggested I had the name wrong when I asked him whether he knew where it was. (Governor Perry confesses that one of the politiciany things he’s done in office is insisting that the Texas highway atlas include Paint Creek, making him the hometown boy who literally put the town on the map.) Bush is a Yalie, Perry is an Aggie. Bush served in the Texas Air National Guard, and Perry was a captain in the U.S. Air Force, flying C-130s in the Middle East. Bush has a gentleman’s ranch, Perry has the red meat. The irony is that Perry, a tea-party favorite, personifies the hawkish new fiscal conservatism that has allowed the GOP to find its way out from under George W. Bush’s shadow, but he himself remains in the shade of that politically poisonous penumbra.