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Family Feud

Rick Perry versus the Bush machine.

Sep 19, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 01 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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At last week’s Republican debate at the Reagan Library, a long-simmering Texas political feud made its grand entrance onto the national stage. Politico’s John Harris asked GOP presidential frontrunner and Texas governor Rick Perry about his former political adviser Karl Rove’s recent statement that Perry’s views on Social Security were “toxic.”

Photos of Rick Perry and George W. Bush


“Karl has been over the top for a long time in some of his remarks, so I’m not responsible for Karl any more,” Perry fired back, later adding, “We’re not trying to pick fights here.”

This wasn’t the first shot that Rove has taken at Perry in recent weeks. When Perry said Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke would be “almost treasonous” for inflating the money supply ahead of the election, Rove went on television and unhelpfully offered his opinion that this was “not, again, a presidential statement.”

The two powerful Texas Repub-licans have a relationship that goes back over 20 years, long predating Rove’s ascension to the White House with Perry’s predecessor as governor, George W. Bush. To this day, Rove takes credit for persuading Perry to switch parties in 1989 and run for agriculture commissioner as a Republican the following year. It’s not surprising that two fiercely competitive political figures would have had their share of disagreements in all that time.

“There’s no question that there’s tension between Bush world and Perry world. The idea that there isn’t is ludicrous to anybody that has been in the middle of Texas politics,” says Texas Tribune editor in chief Evan Smith, referring to the two main camps in the Texas GOP. 

But getting anyone actually involved in Texas politics to talk about that tension—especially to a Washington reporter—would violate the first rule of the Perry-Bush fight club. Reached by phone, veteran Texas newspaperman and Texas Monthly contributor R.G. Ratcliffe immediately volunteers, “Let me guess—nobody would talk to you, huh?”

Another Texas political observer flatly states, “I think everybody is in fear of Perry or Rove.” This person declined to be named.

“We have written and others have written about the Bush-Perry stuff, and mostly just speculated, because nobody will talk about it on the record,” Smith says. “We’ve all talked to people off the record or on background. Nobody will talk about exactly what’s at work here—Is it rivalry? Is it jealousy? Is it a simple difference of ideology?”

Ardent Perry booster and Texas state senator Dan Patrick dismisses the tension as “a problem that no one in Texas sees” and “more media hype than reality.” But that is definitely a minority view.

In the end, Smith says that explaining the relationship boils down to interpreting “widely accepted lore.” And in Texas politics there’s enough lore to compile a volume that would put Bulfinch’s to shame.

The trouble is that lore isn’t always dependable. “Everyone who’s been around Texas politics can point to some great story demonstrating the vast fight between the two camps, when in fact sometimes those stories are just stories,” says Michael Quinn Sullivan of the influential grassroots group Empower Texans.

Here are a few of the stories freely offered:

The 1998 campaign: In Texas, the governor and lieutenant governor are elected separately, and in 1998, Bush ran for governor (as the incumbent) and Perry for lieutenant governor. It was already plain that Bush and Rove had designs on the 2000 presidential election, and Rove was pursuing an electoral strategy that would maximize Bush’s margin of victory in the governor’s race so as to demonstrate his broad appeal. Accordingly, Rove was working to mobilize Bush supporters—even if they also supported the Democrat in the lieutenant governor’s race.

The trouble was that Perry’s opponent, John Sharp, was a formidable candidate, and the race between the two of them was close. Rove’s get-out-the-vote calls to supporters of Bush and Sharp would make the race even closer.

“Rove claimed that he had polling showing that Perry was up by 14 points so this wasn’t going to hurt,” recounts Ratcliffe. “[Perry strategist Dave] Carney … had polling showing that Perry was neck and neck with Sharp at best and probably losing by a couple of points, and they got into a big argument with Rove over whether he would continue to make the get-out-the-vote calls to Sharp supporters.”

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