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Meet Rick Perry: Another George Bush?

Jun 21, 2011

By Ashley Cruseturner 

 
 
By Ashley Cruseturner
 
As the idea of a potential “Rick Perry for President” campaign gains altitude, a question keeps emerging: 
 
Is Rick Perry hamstrung by the echo of his immediate predecessor, former President George W. Bush, who left the Oval Office just thirty months ago with an approval rating in the mid-20s?  Is Rick Perry merely George Bush Redux?
 
A Tale of the Tape.
 
George W. Bush was born in New Haven, Connecticut.  His grandfather was a United States senator.  His father migrated to the Lone Star State to make a fortune in the oil business and then entered national politics via Texas.  In due course, the elder Bush held positions as United States Ambassador to China, Republican National Committee Chair, Vice President, and, eventually, the 41st President of the United States.  
 
Rick Perry, a fifth-generation Texan, was born in a little town in West Texas called Paint Creek.  His father was a rancher and active in local politics to the extent that he was a longtime Haskell County commissioner and school board member.  
 
George W. Bush attended public schools in Midland before he left West Texas for a prestigious college preparatory boarding school in Andover, Massachusetts.  After Andover, Bush graduated from Yale and took an MBA from Harvard.  
 
Rick Perry graduated from Paint Creek High School in 1968 and attended Texas A&M University, a place so Texas and so traditional that the history of the state and the institution often seem interchangeable.  
 
An aside: if elected president, Perry would be only the third chief executive in more than a century to enter office with a degree from a public university; if elected, he would be the first president ever to graduate from a land grant college. 
 
George W. Bush served in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam Era—but saw no active service.  Rick Perry, after graduation, served in the United States Air Force as an active-duty pilot in the tactical air wing from 1972-1977.  
 
George Bush was born a Republican and, after running unsuccessfully for Congress in his early thirties, reentered politics by winning the governorship of Texas in 1994, which provided a platform for his successful run for president in 2000.  
 
Rick Perry entered politics winning a seat in the Texas House of Representatives as a Democrat in 1984 (where he served for three terms).  He switched his party affiliation at the age of 39 and won statewide election as a Republican three times before ascending to the governor’s mansion in 2001.  After winning elective office nine times in Texas over the past twenty-five years, the national stage finally beckons.  
 
The nature of the Texas governorship is by design an uncommonly weak executive position.  You will remember this point from the presidential campaign of 2000.  Attempting to make the best of this potential liability, candidate George W. Bush showcased his relationship with the exceedingly powerful Democratic Lt. Governor as a model for cooperation and bipartisan achievement.  
 
For good or ill, through the use of the line item veto and the power of persuasion, Perry has clearly held the reins of Texas politics for the past decade.  
 
There is scant evidence that Rick Perry and George W. Bush even like one another.  Bush intimates (including his parents) supported the Republican primary challenge to Perry in the last gubernatorial contest. More importantly, once past the very obvious surface similarities, the two men do not have a lot in common as people or politicians. But the differences go way beyond kinship, background, or style.  The philosophical chasm between the two men perhaps offers the starkest contrast.  
 
Raised on a ranch in West Texas in the middle of the American century, Perry, the former Eagle Scout, harkens back to a moment in history seemingly lost forever.  Even as Bush entered the world an heir to Eastern Republicanism, Rick Perry was born a “Southern Democrat.”  These are two distinctive strains of American political thought, pulled together temporarily in a marriage of convenience during the Age of Reagan, but with vastly different roots that go back to the antebellum period.
 
While George W. Bush exists as the epitome of what many disgruntled activists on the right have labeled “big-government conservatism,” Rick Perry stands rock solid in his small-government principles and unshakeable devotion to Tenth-Amendment federalism.
 

Many pundits and voters may never get past the comparable accents and geography.  Often enough, in politics, reality is trumped by perception.  But, upon closer inspection, emphasizing the similarities in these two former Texas governors falls well short of penetrating analysis. 

________

Ashley Cruseturner teaches American history at McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas. 

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