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.”
“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.”
Complicating things, the Perry campaign wanted to run a negative ad against Sharp. “Depending on who you talk to, you get a different version of the ad. One of them was attacking Sharp on a plan he had for overhauling the state’s business tax, and they were going to call it an ‘income tax,’ ” Ratcliffe says. “And it was so similar to a plan that Bush [had once endorsed that] there was some fear this would come back to haunt Bush in the presidential campaign as, ‘Oh, he proposed an income tax in Texas.’ ”
Rove is then alleged to have threatened the Perry campaign that if they went negative on Sharp, he would withhold further use of the endorsement ad that Perry had received from George H.W. Bush, which was proving effective. Perry didn’t go negative and eked out a too-close-for-comfort victory by 68,000 votes.
Bush’s legacy: In 2007, as improbable as it seems, Perry was stumping for Rudy Giuliani in Iowa and told the crowd, “George [W. Bush] has never, ever been a fiscal conservative.” That might be a defensible statement to many Republicans, but it appears to have been taken as a major affront in Bush world.
“I think the Bush people consider that an extraordinary breach of etiquette from someone whose career was at least in part made by George W. Bush’s embrace of him,” says Smith, “and by Bush’s departure for the White House,” which promoted Perry from lieutenant governor to governor. Ratcliffe thinks the incident created more tension between Rove and Perry than the squabble in the ’98 election. This was seen as a personal attack, and the dispute over election strategy as just a “consultant fight.”
Further, Rove likely encouraged Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison to mount a primary challenge to Perry last year. “It’s hard to look at who endorsed Kay and not draw conclusions,” Smith says. “You had Karl, you had Karen [Hughes], you had H.W. Bush, you had Baker. You have pretty much every consequential figure in Bush world—with the exception of Joe Allbaugh—supporting Kay. You want to call that a coincidence?”
Proxy wars: To some extent, Perry and Bush really just embody the divide in the broader GOP between grassroots conservatives and the more moderate political establishment. Fairly or unfairly, these differences get projected onto Bush and Perry as personal characteristics.
There are obvious contrasts. Perry was the son of rural tenant farmers, while Bush was born into a wealthy political dynasty. “Certainly there are style differences, there are approach differences, there are background differences. You can go on and on and on,” Sullivan says. “These differences mean that everyone thinks there must be conflict, conflict must exist.”
But Sullivan insists the differences mean little to Texas voters. “[There are] great staunch supporters of Hutchison in the gubernatorial primary who are now sporting ‘Perry for President’ bumper stickers on their cars,” he said.
The reality is that many of the contrasts between Bush and Perry could also be explained away by circumstance. Bush had to work with a Democratic legislature when he was governor so was naturally more conciliatory. Perry, on the other hand, enjoyed a GOP supermajority in the last state legislative session, and the era of Pelosi and Obama has GOP voters wanting sharp-elbowed, rather than compassionate, conservatism.
Still, to the extent there is a class divide in Texas politics, neither camp is above exploiting perceptions when it’s useful. “One thing to understand is that it’s really Dallas versus the rest of the state. Over the last decade, if you went to Fort Worth or Houston or Midland you would find Republicans like Rick Perry. But if you went to Dallas they would say he was a hick and a bumbler and was an embarrassment to the Republican party. Dallas is kind of a blue-blood Republican town,” Ratcliffe says.
During the 2010 primary fight against Hutchison, Perry strategist Dave Carney described her and those behind her campaign as “country-club Republicans” to some effect. Smith thinks Rove took that personally. “If you know anything about Karl Rove, he is many things, but I’m not sure a ‘country-club Republican’ is one of them,” he says.
Despite this, Jeb Bush told Fox News last month he’s “never heard anybody in my family say anything but good things about Rick Perry.” But he did allow that there might be tension “maybe with Karl.” For his part, Rove dismissed that idea on The O’Reilly Factor as recently as the night before the Reagan Library debate when Perry dismissed Rove’s criticisms as “over the top.”
Assuming, then, the existence of a Bush/Rove/Perry feud, the question becomes whether this will have an effect on a Perry candidacy.
For starters, the feud may actually help Perry. Democrats will have a hard time portraying Rick Perry as the second coming of Dubya if he’s being regularly jabbed by the man affectionately described as “Bush’s Brain.” (And don’t discount the possibility that Rove the evil genius knows he’s doing Perry a favor by helping draw a sharp contrast between him and the former president early and often.)
Still, like most internecine political disputes, this one may come down to a single concern: money. “There’s probably 100 to 150 extraordinarily rich and extraordinarily conservative Texans,” Ratcliffe says. Access to that many wealthy donors is a unique advantage for a presidential candidate from Texas. “[Housing magnate] Bob Perry [no relation] typically drops anywhere from $4-6 million just in a Texas election,” Ratcliffe says. “It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Bob Perry dropped $10 million into a Rick Perry super-PAC.”
Of course, Bob Perry also gave $7 million to Rove’s super-PAC, American Crossroads, just last year. If Rove really had it out for Perry, he could possibly prevent Perry from securing the “Bush money” in Texas and elsewhere.
But so far that doesn’t appear to be happening, and Rove shrugged off the suggestion it would on The O’Reilly Factor. “He’s got to have his people call the Bush people,” said Rove. “Perry’s just now into the race, and he needs to pick up the phone and start dialing those people—and he is.”
Ultimately, Smith thinks that any disputes with Rove won’t affect a Perry candidacy. “The enthusiasm for Governor Perry in Texas will be sufficient that he’ll not only win Texas, but he’ll win it by a great margin, and he’ll have no shortage of money raised,” Smith says.
Ratcliffe agrees. “I suspect that if the smoke clears and Perry’s the Republican nominee, Rove will fall right in line helping him out.”
Until then, it may seem improbable to have Perry and Rove on the same political page. But if Perry does become the nominee, there’s a whole new chapter in the book of Texas political lore just waiting to be written.
Mark Hemingway is online editor at The Weekly Standard.