NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP) — Many people assume Texas Gov. Rick Perry is a carbon copy of George W. Bush. Well, he isn’t. Those who either love or despise former President Bush need to understand that Perry should be neither accepted nor rejected based on their opinion of Bush. Indeed, as the nation heads with full force into the 2012 election cycle, many of Perry’s opponents in and out of the news media will try to tear down the Texas governor as “Bush, continued.” To do so would be neither honest nor fair to either man.
As a sixth-generation Texan of similar age and life experiences, perhaps I can explain some differences between the two. Of course, it will be up to voters to decide whether these differences make a difference.
THE SAME, ONLY DIFFERENT
Bush moved to Texas as a toddler and eagerly embraced the Texas ethos. Texans love people who move to the state and embrace its “Don’t Mess With Texas” creed. They smile when they see bumper stickers proclaiming, “I wasn’t born here, but I got here as fast as I could.”
Perry, however, is the son of tenant farmers from the West Texas hamlet of Paint Creek, outside Abilene. Texas is his DNA. Perry has often said that while they did not have much financially, his family was rich in the things that mattered. He attended Texas A&M when it was permeated by an all-male, all-military culture, which Perry embraced, becoming a “yell leader” (A&M’s version of a cheerleader on steroids).
Bush, by contrast, was raised by wealthy New Englanders, summered in Maine and attended Yale and Harvard. In this case, parentage made more than just a stark economic difference.
In many ways, I have lived between George W.’s and Rick Perry’s worlds. Like Perry, I was raised in modest circumstances. Like Bush, I went to an Ivy League school (Princeton). Like Perry, I had a Texan father, and like Bush, a New England mother. My father imparted to me the sheer sense of “anything is possible” that is the Texas heritage, but my Bostonian mother reminded me that biggest is not always best and loudest is not always wisest — Texas with perspective, a rare gift. All three of us had fathers who were World War II combat veterans. Their dads were pilots, my dad a Navy chief. We are all proud of our fathers’ patriotic service.
In 2010, Newsweek featured Perry with a revelatory cover photo. Perry’s boots were adorned with what Texans call “the first Texas flag.” What that flag says about Texans of the Bush-Perry era is instructive. In 1835, Mexico demanded that rebellious Texas settlers return a cannon it had lent them to ward off hostile Indians. The Texans responded by drawing a replica of the cannon on a bed sheet and writing under it, “COME AND TAKE IT.” Mexico did not get the cannon back. That Texas folklore was a significant part of every young Texan’s upbringing. That Perry would put that flag on his boots tells us more about him than anything in Newsweek. This “Don’t Mess with Texas” mindset is embraced by both men, but Perry, the Aggie, had neither Bush’s parents nor Yale or Harvard to tone it down.
It is clear to those who know former President George W. Bush that he has great respect and affection for the average man and tremendous appreciation for those who have risen through the meritocracy from humble beginnings. However, as one of those “up from the ranks” individuals, I don’t believe George W. Bush or any such son of privilege can as fully identify with the average family that lives from paycheck to paycheck as Perry can. Bush loves and appreciates them, Perry is them.
Their different backgrounds make them different men. Perry is less subtle. While both are men of genuine faith, Perry (life-long evangelical) is going to be more overtly Christian in his faith statements than the former president, who became a Methodist but was raised by New England Episcopalians. Perry is more conservative than Bush. He would be the most conservative president since Calvin Coolidge both fiscally and in foreign policy. He would be less interventionist in the latter and far more frugal than “compassionate” in the former. Perry also has a well-deserved reputation in Texas as being a less-forgiving political opponent than Bush. If you cross Perry, he will get even.
It would be a mistake to underestimate the appeal of this candidate’s conservative populism. Perry has never lost an election and while he would be offended if you called him an intellectual, Perry is far more shrewd than people assume. His brain trust in his past election, where he defeated the George H.W. Bush-backed establishment candidate, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, included a group of Ivy League brainiacs on the cutting edge of campaign and election research.
The USA is not Texas, but large chunks are similar. Perry’s appeal increases the farther you go from either the east or left coast. Large numbers of Americans are moving to Texas. Enough people moved in the past decade to give the state four new congressional seats. The question for Rick Perry and GOP primary voters: Does America want to be more like his pro-business, pro-growth Texas? If the answer is “yes,” Perry is the “down to his bone marrow” Texan who is eager to lead them in that direction. However, George W. Bush he isn’t.
If Perry is the Republican nominee, what presidential debates those will be. The contrast could not be more stark. In one corner the whippet-thin, fastidious, ultra-urbane, somehow detached Siamese cat that is President Obama. Across from him the muscular, Marlboro man, Rottweiler that is Gov. Perry. Wow! The debate moderators will need striped shirts, whistles and yellow flags to throw during those debates.
Richard Land is president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Commission. A version of this column first appeared in USA Today.