It now looks increasingly likely that Texas Governnor Rick Perry is going to run for president, and if he does, no story about him will be without its George W. Bush comparisons. Superficially, the similarities are striking. Perry succeeded Bush as Texas governor, spends a lot of time talking about how his home state is superior to all others, shares Bush's disdain for high-falutin' things like "knowledge" and "thinking before you open your mouth," and the two even look kind of alike. But there are important differences between them, and those differences pretty much exemplify the difference between the GOP of 2000 and the GOP of 2012.
It's easy to forget that when he ran, Bush was touted as "a different kind of Republican," with the hard edges smoothed down. He talked about education, he reached out to minorities, he was a "compassionate conservative." Perry, in contrast, has no problem with his hard edges. Take religion: While we remember Bush as an extremely religious president, when he ran, his outreach to the religious right was subtle and quiet, as an article in the Deseret News explains, with a quote from Shaun Casey, a professor of Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary:
"Bush's brilliance with the religious right was that he did everything behind closed doors. There were no photo-ops, there were no press releases saying I met reverend so and so today. Bush did everything through intermediaries, and so there was no public trail of him reaching out to the religious right. The irony is that here comes along Perry, the dollar-general-store version of Bush, and here he is meeting with these people in public and you start looking at the line up of the people he's cozying up to in public and all he is doing is setting himself up for trouble later on if by some miracle he actually wins the nomination ... Some of these guys are really beyond the fringe — folks who George Bush would have never been caught dead with within a hundred miles of."
That's a bit of an exaggeration -- it wasn't exactly a secret that Bush was courting religious leaders. But it's true that he would never have appeared at a sectarian event like Perry's ginormous pray-in "The Response," which takes place on August 6. And while Bush wasn't shy about his affection for Jesus, he actually did make an effort to show respect to those of other faiths. Just one example: In the single most awesome quote in a presidency full of them, Bush said, "I can't imagine somebody like Osama bin Laden understanding the joy of Hanukkah." Indeed.
The Texas Monthly's Paul Burke has written a helpful guide to Perry for those of us who have not been watching him on a daily basis for the last decade. Here's an excerpt:
Don't assume that because Bush and Perry served together in the Capitol, or because they’re both Republican Texans who wear boots, the two men have a lot in common. They don't. As governor, Bush positioned himself as "a uniter, not a divider," championing education as one of his main priorities. Perry has been the opposite kind of chief executive: dismissive of Democrats and fond of political maneuvers that put the heat on moderates within his own party. And in the legislative session that just wrapped up, he presided over a budget that cut $4 billion from public schools. The cultural differences are striking too. Perry, the son of a Big Country cotton farmer, is at ease with a populist tea party message; W., the scion of a political dynasty, always seemed more comfortable with the country club set. They have followed starkly different paths. When W. began his political career, he had a famous name, access to his father’s huge national fund-raising base, and the backing of the establishment wing of the Republican party. As a late arrival in the Republican ranks, Perry had no fund-raising base and little name identification. He had no choice but to gravitate to the conservative wing of the GOP, where he could prove up his conservative bona fides.
Perhaps most important, Burke notes, "Perry is a hard man. He is the kind of politician who would rather be feared than loved—or respected. And he has gotten his wish."
The George W. Bush of 2000 probably couldn't get the nomination of today's Republican Party. All his talk of how he had worked with Democrats in the Texas Legislature and how he wanted to end Washington's partisan rancor would have gotten him branded a squish who couldn't be trusted. You can argue that Bush fooled the country into thinking he was more moderate than he actually was (I'd agree). But after a few months on the trail, nobody is going to think Rick Perry is a uniter. And that's why he has a pretty good shot of being the Republican nominee.