Texas Gov. Rick Perry, like most of the other the GOP presidential hopefuls, says his campaign is about undoing the decisions of President Obama. But Perry also presents a stark alternative to the last Republican to occupy the White House, his fellow Texan George W. Bush.
In his writings and speeches before he entered the race, Perry shared the view, widely held among conservatives, that Bush’s government spending habits in office were a betrayal of the GOP’s core fiscal principles. But Perry went further, dismissing “compassionate conservatism,” the central tenet of Bush’s domestic policy, as just more overreach by the federal government.
Even more than former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the other top-tier candidate, Perry presents GOP voters sharper outlines of the choice facing the party in 2012: how much to embrace the anti-government views of the tea party movement and how much to discard the brand of conservatism espoused by Bush, who presided over the last successful reinvention of the party at the presidential level.
Perry, who closely allied himself with Bush earlier in his career, was a supporter of Bush’s tax cuts and praised his leadership on national security issues. But he has been critical of Bush’s fiscal stewardship and his attempts to court the political middle by taking on issues such as education, immigration and Medicare. He has said that “this big-government binge [in Obama’s tenure] began under the administration of George W. Bush.”
Bush rankled conservatives with remarks such as this 2003 comment: “We have a responsibility that when somebody hurts, government has got to move.”
Perry has dismissed that idea.
“The branding of compassionate conservatism meant that the GOP was sending the wrong signal, that conservatism alone wasn’t sufficient or worse yet, was somehow flawed and had to be re-branded,” Perry wrote in his 2010 book “Fed Up.”
A Perry victory would cement the Republican Party’s shift away from Bush’s approach to a more libertarian, anti-government GOP. This is cause for worry among some in the party, particularly those with ties to Bush.
While not addressing Perry specifically, Mark McKinnon, who was a top aide in both of Bush’s presidential campaigns, cautioned that his party would have trouble winning if it moved too far right.
"I think George Bush won crucial independent voters with his message of compassionate conservatism,” McKinnon said. “I worry that today’s Republican firebrand version of conservatism is dragging the party so far right that it will repel independent voters.”
Tony Fratto, who was one of Bush’s press advisers, also refused to criticize Perry directly, but he said, “I hope the direction that the Republican candidates take isn’t to walk away from improving education achievement in this country, because it may be our most critical economic issue long-term.” (Perry’s record on education has stirred controversy; he says he has tried to overhaul the Texas college system to make it more efficient, but critics say he has underfunded K-12 schools.)
Bush and, later, Obama sought to increase federal efforts to make sure schools are effective. Perry has attacked No Child Left Behind as a power grab from the federal government and refused to accept funding from an Obama program called “Race to the Top” that offers states more money in exchange for adopting tighter federal standards. (Former Florida governor Jeb Bush has praised the program.)
While Bush had alienated many conservatives by the end of his presidency, Perry was among his earliest critics.
“A lot of conservatives came to question if President Bush was a fiscal conservative, and [Perry] was one of the first to say that,” said Matt Latimer, a former White House speechwriter for Bush who later wrote a book critical of some of the president’s decisions.
Perry’s aides say that his campaign will be about job creation more than any other issue and that his 2010 book is not a “campaign manifesto.” At the same time, Ray Sullivan, Perry’s communications director, said there was “no change” in Perry’s criticisms of Bush.
A Perry Preview?
His record as governor, his writings and his speeches indicate that as president Perry would seek to drastically reduce the level of federal government involvement in the workings of the states and the lives of individuals, dumping policies that tie federal aid to mandates from Washington. His vision, he said, is to make the federal government as “inconsequential” as possible.
Writing about the former president last year, Perry was both critical and supportive.
“I do think George is basically a conservative man who believes in God, in the greatness of America, in the protection of life, and in protecting our nation from our enemies,” Perry wrote in the fall. “That’s a pretty good record if you ask me. But he also seemed unwilling to fight spendthrift congressional Republicans for the sake of his larger goals. In other words, he turned a blind eye to undisciplined domestic spending.”
Former Bush aides, who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly about one of the party’s leading candidates, privately criticize Perry as an ingrate; they say his rise to prominence was almost entirely the result of support he got from George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush during his 1998 campaign for lieutenant governor. Perry’s team cast some of Bush’s advisers as Republican operatives out of touch with the new GOP.
As a practical matter, the ideological split helps explain a political one. Many of Bush’s former advisers remain on the political scene, including some who returned to Texas after working in Washington. And they have not embraced Perry.
In 2010, when Perry was running for reelection as governor, former president George H.W. Bush, former vice president Richard B. Cheney and other Bush allies backed Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) in a GOP primary, although they emphasized their close ties with Hutchison instead of criticizing Perry.
Perry’s criticisms of the Bush record could help him woo conservatives in early-voting states such as Iowa and South Carolina where grass-roots activists turned away from Bush at the end of his presidency, particularly angered at his decision to bail out a struggling Wall Street.
But this fissure could complicate Perry’s candidacy in one important way, creating a distance between him and perhaps the most important person in Republican politics: Karl Rove.
Rove — who was Bush’s top adviser in the White House and is now a leading figure in an informal group of conservative organizations that played a major role in the GOP winning the House last year — recruited Perry into the Republican Party in 1990 and was a close adviser early in Perry’s career.
But Rove was a key strategist in Bush’s attempt to redefine the Republican Party and does not look favorably on all of Perry’s moves to distance himself from Bush.
“Sounding like he is being dismissive of the former president is not smart,” Rove said on Fox this month.