What Kind of Cowboy Is Texas Gov. Rick Perry?

He has the big hat, the boots, and the twang, all reminiscent of George W. Bush. Will that keep him from winning a presidential race?perry fullll.jpg
Conservatives love their cowboys. The airport in Orange County, Calif. is named for John Wayne. Once a Hollywood cowboy, Ronald Reagan was derided by his critics with the label but embraced it to great political effect. A generation later, George W. Bush brought cowboy wear back to D.C.

Can it survive him?

Texas Gov. Rick Perry's political future may hinge on the answer. On a visceral level, are typical voters going to respond favorably to his Texas cowboy image? Or is it now sullied by its association with profligate spending, poor rhetorical skills, and a cocksure entry into an imprudent war? And if Perry runs, how is he going to talk about the last Lone Star State president?

Kevin D. Williamson, resident fiscal hawk at National Review, hinted at possible answers in a recent profile. "Rick Perry has a complicated relationship with the Bushes," Williamson wrote, "which is to say that he's hesitant to criticize them and they hate his guts." The Bush family tried to oust him from the Austin statehouse by backing Kay Bailey Hutchinson when she mounted a primary challenge.

Why?

One longtime observer of Lone Star politics described the Bushes' disdain of Perry as "visceral," and it is not too terribly hard to see why. The guy that NPR executives and the New York Times and your average Subaru-driving Whole Foods shopper were afraid George W. Bush was? Rick Perry is that guy. George W. Bush was Midland by way of Kennebunkport. Rick Perry's people are cotton farmers from Paint Creek, a West Texas town so tiny and remote that my Texan traveling-salesman father looked at me skeptically and suggested I had the name wrong when I asked him whether he knew where it was.

Bush is a Yalie, Perry is an Aggie. Bush served in the Texas Air National Guard, and Perry was a captain in the U.S. Air Force, flying C-130s in the Middle East. Bush has a gentleman's ranch, Perry has the red meat. The irony is that Perry, a tea-party favorite, personifies the hawkish new fiscal conservatism that has allowed the GOP to find its way out from under George W. Bush's shadow, but he himself remains in the shade of that politically poisonous penumbra.

Since Gov. Perry is a credible fiscal hawk, it's difficult to imagine that GOP primary voters are worried he'll repeat compassionate conservatism. Indeed, his mostly one-sided feud with the Bushes was fueled partly by his 2008 claim that then-President George. W. Bush was never a fiscal conservative.

But the best way for Perry to diffuse problems his cowboy image might cause him -- whether among GOP primary voters divided on foreign policy, or a war weary general electorate -- is to deliberately play against type. "The great majority of American politicians see the Middle East through the prism of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Perry saw it from the cockpit of a C-130 and left the Air Force with the rank of captain," Williamson wrote. "And, almost as important, he doesn't make a big deal out of his military service. He's been pretty tight-lipped on his foreign-policy views, but there is good reason to hope that his commitment to limited government and balanced budgets might put a damper on the Republican party's more adventuresome foreign-policy tendencies."

Isn't it pretty to think so? But Perry supported Rudy Giuliani in 2008 "on the theory that Rudy would be a bad-ass commander-in-chief abroad and a reliable constitutionalist at home," in Williamson's words. Strange to back Giuliani if what you want is a less adventuresome foreign policy, isn't it? Oh well, never mind that. If Perry wants to be a fiscal hawk who ends ill-conceived foreign wars, he can be -- especially now that Obama has given all his opponents an opportunity to skewer him for an illegal and strategically questionable war in Libya. It's a message Perry can deliver more easily than Jon Huntsman in a GOP primary. Maybe only a cowboy can not launch foreign military adventures.

Or maybe not.

Maybe Gov. Perry is doomed for the irrational reason that, when you listen to him speak -- ignoring the content, and paying attention to speech patters and accent only -- he can't help but remind you of someone else.



See what I mean?

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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