Austin, Texas — In the fall of 2002, when Jeb Bush was running for reelection as governor of Florida, his older brother made several visits to the Sunshine State to campaign on his behalf. It was a dozen years ago, but a former aide to George W. Bush recalls the scene easily. Air Force One sat on the tarmac in Tampa. On board, the governor was sitting with presidential aides around a table in the plane’s conference room.
When the president walked in, his staffers stood. Jeb Bush stayed seated. “Little brother, most people stand up when I walk into a room,” Bush said, according to the aide. The room erupted in laughter. Jeb smiled awkwardly. “I can understand why you’re a little upset, baby brother,” the president continued, “because I just looked across the tarmac and my plane is a lot bigger than yours. And size matters, baby brother.”
Being George W. Bush’s baby brother can’t have been easy. As Rick Perry surely knows, being his lieutenant governor probably wasn’t a joyride, either. Now both Jeb Bush and Rick Perry have their sights set on the presidency. These dual runs would not only divide Texas’s donors and operatives, they would also once again pit Perry against the Bush clan.
Today Governor Perry delivers his farewell address to the Texas legislature. It’s a crucial transition point for him: When his term comes to an end next week, it will mark the first time in three decades that he has not held elected office. It will also be the first time that, as a free man, he can turn his attention full-time to a White House bid.
Perry likes to say that America loves second chances, and he is doing everything to ensure that his encore on the national stage bears little resemblance to his debut, which was marked by missteps and a lack of careful planning from beginning to end. He wasn’t prepared to talk about national issues; his team missed a deadline to qualify for the Virginia primary; and he was hopped up on medication from recent back surgery.
Where there was once chaos, now there is order. In Austin on Wednesday, in the nondescript offices serving as his nascent campaign headquarters, Perry was all focus, sequestered in a conference room, headphones in place, to practice his farewell speech.
All but two aides from his 2012 campaign are gone. In place is a new set of advisers, led by Jeff Miller, who moved from California to Texas in December 2012. For the past 23 months — yes, 23 months — Perry has been schooling himself on domestic and foreign policy. He has flown more than 100 of the country’s leading conservative scholars in international affairs, health care, energy, and economics to Austin. Several of them have come multiple times. And he has gotten tutorials from former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz. “I went to them,” Perry says.
Thursday’s speech will offer a preview of the Perry presidential platform. The gun-slinging wild guy who once raised the specter of secession now sounds more like a sober and experienced old hand, though the tea-party sensibilities that excite the party’s base are still there. He is the longest-serving governor in Texas history and has one of the strongest records in the country. Greg Abbott, the state’s newly elected Republican governor, will be handed “as dynamic an economy as any state in the nation,” Perry tells me.
Not lost on the audience, on Thursday or in the future, will be the fact that Texas’s economic success has occurred as the American economy remained sluggish for much of the Obama era. “I have been guided by a simple philosophy: that job creation, not higher taxation, is the best form of revenue generation,” Perry will say, according to a copy of his remarks obtained by National Review Online. Perry refused to raise taxes even in the face of revenue shortfalls. He cut spending instead.
The results: Over a thousand people a day have been moving to Texas, where the unemployment rate is under 5 percent. His economic reforms were “controversial among those who wrote opinion columns and hired swarms of lobbyists,” Perry will say. “But it wasn’t controversial for the trucker or the waitress, the farmer or the nurse, the quiet majority that feels over-billed and taxed to death.”#page#
Perry’s new focus hasn’t forced him to shed any personality, though. You can’t miss the contrast between him and the party’s recent nominees, Mitt Romney and John McCain. Perry has the gift of gab. He also possesses two qualities rare among politicians: He is candid and self-deprecating. It’s hard to imagine Mitt Romney making fun of himself for being wealthy and out of touch, or Rand Paul cracking jokes about his crazy father. But Rick Perry makes jokes about being stupid. He likes to say the race for the White House “is not an IQ test.” And he tells me about his elementary school in Paint Creek, Texas, a tiny town where his parents were cotton farmers. “There were 110 kids in the whole school, kindergarten through twelfth grade,” he says. He pauses and looks at me. “I graduated top ten in my class. Top ten.” He pauses again. “Albeit there were only 13 students.”
Perry does something else one rarely sees from members of the political class: He admits mistakes. At a June speech in San Francisco, of all places, he was asked whether he thought homosexuality could be treated with therapy. After saying he didn’t know, he continued, “I may have the genetic coding that I’m inclined to be an alcoholic, but I have the desire not to do that — and I look at the homosexual issue the same way.” After the predictable media firestorm ensued, he told a group of reporters, “I stepped in it.”
There’s a George W. Bush–like quality to Perry’s comfort with himself, and yet relations between the two camps have been icy for years. Members of the Bush camp were a crucial part of then–senator Kay Bailey Hutchison’s primary bid against Perry in 2010. She was the milquetoast moderate alternative to the fire-breathing Perry. Karl Rove advised her campaign, and former president George H. W. Bush, former vice president Dick Cheney, and a handful of George W. Bush–administration officials endorsed her bid.
Perry hadn’t exactly gone out of his way to endear himself to his former boss. In 2008, as budget hawks revolted over the Bush administration’s bank bailouts and profligate spending, Perry kicked Bush while he was down. In Iowa, on the stump for Rudy Giuliani, Perry let slip that Bush had “never, ever been a fiscal conservative.” He opposed Bush’s signature education reform, No Child Left Behind, because “the federal government has no business telling the states how to educate our children.”
But the division is as much cultural as it is ideological. George W. Bush is New Haven–born. He has Ivy League degrees and he vacations in Kennebunkport. Former Mexican president Vicente Fox called him a “windshield cowboy” — that is, a cowboy more comfortable behind the wheel of a Jeep than on top of a horse. Nobody would ever say that about Rick Perry, the son of tenant farmers who returned to work for his parents after college at Texas A&M. If the Bushes think Perry is a vulgar, primitive boob, he thinks they’re entitled Eastern elitists.
Perry flattened the Bushes in his 2010 primary. Whether he can do so on the national stage is another question. His farewell speech hints at his aspirations and his deep-seated belief that individuals have the right to rise.
“In Texas, it’s not where you come from that matters, it’s where you’re going,” Perry will say. Rick Perry knows where he wants to go. This time, he has a more deliberate plan to get there.
— Eliana Johnson is Washington editor of National Review.