Bush v. Perry
What the reelection campaigns of George W. Bush in 1998 and Rick Perry in 2010 say about presidential politics—and the state of the Republican party.
We haven’t heard much from George W. Bush in the nearly two years since his presidential term ended. In the weeks ahead, however, he will once again be making headlines. The forty-third president will begin a new phase of his public life when his memoir, Decision Points, is published on November 9. Meanwhile, congressional Republicans and Democrats continue the ten-year fight over the fate of the tax cuts passed during his first term and which party is to blame for the country’s ills during that decade.
If the polls are correct, Bush’s reemergence will occur exactly one week after Rick Perry, the man who succeeded Bush as governor, in December 2000, will win a historic third full term. Perry too has a book on the way, one that bears some relation to Bush’s. Whereas Decision Points will mark the beginning of Bush’s defense of his presidency and his attempts to expand executive powers during wartime, Perry will publish Fed Up, a manifesto against an overreaching federal government. But they may soon share something else in common: the experience of running for president.
Many people in Texas expect Perry to mount a national campaign in 2012, and that means his current race for reelection provides a preview of his strategy, just as Bush’s gubernatorial run in 1998 did for him. But the campaigns couldn’t feel more different. In 1998 the result was a foregone conclusion. Bush was regarded as a certain winner over Garry Mauro, the long-tenured but little-known state land commissioner. The only suspense in the race was whether Bush would go on to run for president in 2000. Bush worked to burnish his bipartisan credentials and reached out to groups traditionally overlooked by the party. Perry, on the other hand, is facing a tougher race in 2010; he has tacked far to the right on most issues and has spent his time solidifying his base.
To look back at the Bush years in Texas is to realize how much the Republican party has changed since 1995. In fact, he would not recognize it if he were running today. Hardly anyone in Texas except political junkies and the media paid much attention to the election of 1998. The transition from Bush to Perry was a turning point, the moment at which Texas completed its evolution into an indelibly red state and plunged into the politics of ideology, where it has remained mired ever since. During the Bush governorship, the Texas Republican party was primarily an establishment party, dominated by conservatives in the Houston and Dallas business communities. The Democratic party grew increasingly irrelevant and has remained so to this day.
Bush’s biggest political problem as governor was not Democrats; the leadership triumvirate of Bush and Democrats Bob Bullock and Pete Laney got along famously. Instead, he faced a hardy minority of insurgent social conservatives, led by then-GOP chairman Tom Pauken, who had written a book called The Thirty Years War, about his clash with the mainstream wing of the party. At the 1996 Republican state convention, in San Antonio, Pauken had the votes to prevent Bush from being named chairman of the Texas delegation to the national convention, a traditional prerogative of the governor. Pauken won instead, and a face-saving compromise allowed Bush to be named honorary chairman. I recall Bush’s message maven, Karen Hughes, telling me about the incident. “It’s my party, and I’ll cry if I want to,” she said.
In the end Bush was able to straddle the two factions in the party because he was a celebrity, the son of a president and, it increasingly became evident, a potential president himself. As a rural Democratic legislator who had switched parties and was positioned on the bottom rung of the Republican ladder, Perry did not have the same flexibility. He found a safe harbor in embracing the ideology of the base and has never wavered. As Bush was cruising to victory on election night in 1998, Perry was fighting for his political life as the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor. The stakes were enormous. If Perry could defeat Democrat John Sharp, the state comptroller, he would be first in the line of succession to a man who had a good chance to become the next president of the United States. If he lost, his political career would be over. Perry won a narrow victory, 50.04 percent to 48.19 percent. The governor’s race was higher-
profile, but the lieutenant governor’s race has had a more profound influence on state politics.
Since then he has supported some of the establishment Republicans’ initiatives, notably accountability in education, but he has also gone along with legislative restraints on the ability of school districts to raise money. If a partisan issue arose, he jumped all over it, as when he championed Tom DeLay’s proposal for a mid-census congressional redistricting in 2003 and the Republican effort to pass a voter ID bill in 2009.
With the outcome of the 1998 governor’s race not in doubt, Karl Rove made the decision to press for a victory that would be noticed nationwide: Bush would carry El Paso County. “No Republican gubernatorial candidate has ever won El Paso,” the El Paso Times said of Rove’s strategy. “A Bush win in El Paso would show his crossover appeal to Democrats and Hispanic voters and fortify his status as a front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination in two years.” Rove guaranteed “an all-out effort,” with multiple campaign stops and a hefty budget. Adair Margo, a prominent local gallery owner who was a close friend of the Bush family’s, was county coordinator for the campaign. She got her maid to organize “Housekeepers for Bush.” Every bit of that effort was necessary. Bush carried the county by only 657 votes, winning 50.01 percent of the total. (The general election in 2000 was a different story. The Al Gore–Joe Lieberman ticket carried the county 83,848 to 57,574.)
How times have changed. Could any Republican gubernatorial candidate in any red state, Rick Perry and Texas included, aggressively court Hispanic voters without alienating his base? I doubt it. Passions are too inflamed over illegal immigration, voter ID, and the Arizona immigration law. Look at California: GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman named former Republican governor Pete Wilson, the chief proponent of that state’s 1994 anti-immigrant Proposition 187, as her campaign chairman.
Now, twelve years after Bush’s 1998 reelection campaign, Perry is positioning himself for a possible presidential run. His great opportunity is the next legislative session, when the Legislature will be facing a budget shortfall that could amount to as much as $18 billion. For him, there is no better way to establish his national credentials than to slash spending to the bone without a tax increase. The moment is perfect. He will get support, not resistance, from members of his own party, who are as eager to wield the ax as he is. The Democrats don’t matter.
The long-lasting consequences of the 1998 lieutenant governor’s race are that, in his ten years as governor, Perry has pushed the Texas Republican party far to the right. It is teeming with tea partiers and Tom Paukens. (Pauken himself is chairman of the Texas Workforce Commission in the Perry administration.) In her futile primary battle against Perry, Kay Bailey Hutchison was blindsided by the total loyalty for Perry of the Republican women’s groups that had always been her base. Perry is taking positions that are far out of the mainstream, as when he backed a resolution in the Texas Legislature affirming Texas’s sovereignty under the Tenth Amendment (as if it were in doubt). He has famously hinted that Texas might have to leave the Union someday. He has the support of Republican enforcer organizations—the Texas Public Policy Foundation, Empower Texans, Americans for Prosperity, and Texans for Lawsuit Reform. When the time came to pick a new state party chairman, he supported Cathie Adams, the president of the Texas Eagle Forum and a heroine to the base.
During Bush’s three legislative sessions as governor, he was what he said he was: a uniter, not a divider; a compassionate conservative. The Capitol worked like a well-tuned machine. Democrats sponsored a number of Bush’s bills. Bush rarely vetoed a bill or an appropriation. When the entire leadership team became Republican in 2003—Perry, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, and Speaker Tom Craddick—everything changed. The Republican leaders didn’t get along. As for Democrats in the Legislature, those in the House were completely frozen out. A favored few in the Senate were given key positions.
If Perry survives his race against White as expected and goes on to have a successful legislative session, he will have a difficult decision to make about how he should run for president in 2012. He has two choices. One is to assume that Barack Obama will be so unpopular that any Republican good enough to win his party’s nomination will beat him. In that scenario, all Perry has to do is play the same game he has been playing all along: Be the most conservative candidate in the field, never stray from the base and its ideology, and win the nomination and the presidency. The other possibility is that, in a national election, he will realize that he has to attract some Democrats and independents, and he will look for ways to broaden his appeal. If he takes that course, it will be the first time.
But two years is an eternity in politics—an eternity during which Republicans are likely to be in charge of at least one house of Congress. They are going to be under intense scrutiny to live up to the promises they made, and if they fail—as they did in 2006 and 2008—the public is not going to be in a forgiving mood. If that scenario comes to pass, then a candidate who insists on strict observance of conservative orthodoxy has no place to go and nothing to offer independents. Perry has led a charmed life in politics so far, always sailing with the wind of the dominant party. But the winds don’t always blow in the same direction. He doesn’t have to take my word for it. He only has to ask George W. Bush.