A Texas-sized quandary for Rick Perry

The buzz surrounding a presidential bid by Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) is growing, but it’s another Texas governor who is back in the spotlight — George W. Bush.

Bush and Perry don’t just share geographic origins; they also bear the distinctive fruits of the state they served in — their Texas accents, their physic al mannerisms and their cocksure approach to politics.

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There are such striking surface similarities that, as in the case of twins or competitive siblings, their very familiarity might breed rivalry. As Bush’s successor as governor, Perry had to distinguish himself as a politician in his own right, and appearing to be a Bush acolyte couldn’t have helped.

Now Perry once again faces the obvious comparison as he weighs a run for the presidency. His success might depend on how well he can differentiate himself from the Bush brand.

And that leads to one other characteristic the two men seem to share: mutual dislike. Both Texas and Washington have long buzzed about a feud between the two, even though few within the Bush or Perry camps will publicly acknowledge it.

Proof positive, some pundits say, comes from the 2010 gubernatorial primary between Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and Perry. 

Hutchison’s aim was to knock off the sitting governor, and usually, efforts to unseat incumbents aren’t appreciated within the party. But a number of prominent Republicans close to Bush liked the idea so much that they broke the unwritten rule and backed Hutchison.

Two advisers in Bush’s presidential administration, Karl Rove and Karen Hughes, served as informal advisers to Hutchison’s campaign. Bush’s former secretary of Education, Margaret Spellings, also advised Hutchison, while  former secretary of state for President George H.W. Bush — James Baker — outright endorsed her.

But Hutchison’s two biggest scores were Vice President Cheney and President George. H.W. Bush, who came to the senator’s aid.

As Cheney descended on Texas for a Hutchison fundraiser, Perry spokesman Mark Miner responded with a blistering statement: “It’s not surprising, considering they both worked together in Washington for so long. The Washington establishment usually sticks together.”

In fact, the Perry team could not have minded too much. The governor ran an anti-Washington campaign — one that included opposition to bailouts like the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), which was passed during George W. Bush’s presidency. Perry also provoked considerable angst within his party by using members from Texas’s Republican delegation as punching bags in his race for reelection.

“Let’s be frank: Washington Republicans got us in the mess,” he said in a fundraising letter that sparked some angry congressmen to call for a closed-door meeting with Perry.

But Perry’s anti-Washington rhetoric worked, and after trailing by more than 20 percent in early polling, he ended up winning by more than 20 percent in the primary. 

It was clear the Bush brand didn’t help Hutchison, as Texas stood with Perry.

So why did the Bush brand line up so staunchly with Hutchison? You can trace one possibility to 2008, when Perry launched an extended critique of Bush’s administration, brusquely attacking him for his record on spending as both governor and president.

“Let me tell you something,” Perry said at the time, according to the Austin American-Statesman, “George Bush was never a fiscal conservative. … Wasn’t when he was in Texas. ... I mean, ’95, ’97, ’99, George Bush was spending money.” 

Perry even mocked the president’s rhetoric, saying “we made an error with that phrase ‘compassionate conservative’ ” — a reference to a catchphrase from the former president’s 2000 presidential campaign.

Perry’s most recent allusion to the Bush legacy was vaguer, but raised eyebrows around Texas. After Osama bin Laden was killed, credit was handed generously to both President Obama’s and Bush’s administrations for their roles. But Perry failed to mention either in a formal statement.

It turns out that the omission wasn’t a mistake, but rather an intentional oversight. Perry’s explanation? You don’t thank the president for the work of his subordinates.

“I didn’t say, ‘Way to go’ to the president of Texas A&M when the women won the national championship of basketball,” he said.

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Similarly, on the bin Laden raid, “I appropriately said, ‘Thank you,’ to the participants that really mattered — the young men and women who put their lives on the line every day,” Perry said during a May photo-op.

For those familiar with the Texas political scene, it was another sign that Perry viewed his predecessor with something less than respect.

But former Bush adviser Mark McKinnon dismisses the idea that the two are involved in some Texas-sized feud, saying the alleged rift is “way overblown” and existed mostly at the staff level “long ago and far away.”

“Succeeding governors always have their own people and want to carve their own legacy. There is natural conflict and dynamic tension, but nothing unusual,” he said.

Either way, it’s an issue Perry will have to deal with if he decides to become a contender for the Republican nomination. 

Bush left office as one of the most unpopular presidents in history, with an approval rating of 22 percent, according to a CBS News/New York Times poll.

And Perry just might have to fight off comparisons to the predecessor he has tried to distance himself from if he wants to follow Bush to the White House.

Heinze, the founder of GOP12.com, is a member of staff at The Hill.