The George W. Bush-Rick Perry Rivalry: Texas Tension or Cowboy Lore?

Two governors with a Texas drawl and eyes on the White House.  George W. Bush went from his job in Austin, Texas to be the 43rd President. Rick Perry, Bush’s successor, has his eyes on doing the same.

The comparisons between the two men come naturally, but don’t tell their whole story. Bush was the “compassionate conservative” whose presidency came to be defined by the War on Terror. Perry is the former Democrat now courting the Tea Party.

Those differences were on display on “Good Morning America” when George Stephanopoulos asked Karl Rove, Bush’s top political adviser, about Perry’s chances.

Rove didn’t hold back, calling some of Perry’s views, particularly on Social Security, “toxic” to his chances.

“They are going to have to find a way to deal with these things,” Rove told Stephanopoulos.  “They are toxic in a general election environment and they are also toxic in a Republican primary. I mean if you say Social Security is a failure and ought to be replaced by a state level program then people are going to say, ‘What do you mean by that and make a judgment based on your answer to it, so each candidate has strengths, each candidate also has challenges. This for Gov. Perry is his challenge. Now he’s got some formidable strengths, but this is his biggest challenge.”

Rove and Perry have had a long relationship and despite at least one compliment in Wednesday’s comments they renewed the spotlight on a decades  old rivalry between Rove and the George W. Bush camp and the Perry team with simmering resentments in both camps, but is it a full-blown feud or an overblown tall Texas tale?

The relationship of the two big politicians from the Lone Star state depends very much on who you ask.

Some friends and advisers of Bush and Perry say it’s overblown, while others stress the two have never liked each other. While some say there’s no feud at all between the principals and instead say the two camps are the ones that decades later are still angry over old arguments.

And the two did speak before Perry got into the race.

Later Wednesday morning, Rove even tried to beat back stories of a rivalry telling Fox and Friends, “All I’ve seen between the two men is graciousness… they’re very close.”

Jeb Bush has even weighed in on the “feud”  saying on Fox News that he had “never heard anybody in my family say anything but good things about Rick Perry.”

Bush was asked if there is any lingering tension between Karl Rove—also known as “Bush’s Brain—and the 2012 juggernaut.

“Maybe with Karl,” Bush answered. “Not with my brother, with my dad, not with me at all. I admire him.”

Either way, it helps Perry to be distinct from the last Texas governor who was president and left office with low approval ratings. And distinct they are despite similar careers, ambitions, and a knack of pairing suits with cowboy boots.

There have been obvious divisions:  Perry’s criticism of Bush’s No Child Left Behind to National Review in April. Vice President Dick Cheney and other former Bush aides including Karl Rove and Karen Hughes also all backed Perry’s gubernatorial opponent in his 2010 primary, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. And there was Perry’s criticism of Bush in Iowa in 2007 while he was stumping for Rudy Giuliani.

Perry was speaking to a group of Iowa Republicans, referring to Bush’s tenure as governor, and said, “’95, ’97, ’99, George Bush was spending money. George has never, ever been a fiscal conservative.”

Members of the Bush camp from the Austin days will tell you the Bush team never saw Perry as smart or serious and the Perry camp saw Bush and his Northeast roots as a faux-Texan.

That of course is watering down a long relationship into superlatives. Ross Ramsey is the editor of the Texas Tribune and a longtime observer of both camps.

“One of them is political royalty, one of them is a political serf. They are from different parts of the Republican party,” Ramsey said. “It’s the traditional establishment Republican against the sort of non-traditional. It’s like corporate vs. entrepreneurial in some ways…they have a completely different set of experiences and it turns out they are completely different candidates and completely different governors.”

Ross added that they also governed the state at very different times. Despite being known for his partisanship during his presidency, Bush had a bipartisan legislature and actually worked with Democrats. Perry had a Republican legislature and to get things done he really didn’t have to work with Democrats like Bush did.

“Some of this is differences between the two, some of this is differences in their circumstances as governors and some of it is pop psychology,” Ramsey said. “I think their emphasis in what they think is important and what they talk about is different. I think their supporters overlap certainly, but are somewhat different and I don’t think a Perry president or even a Perry candidacy would be a remake of a Bush candidacy or presidency.”

Matthew Dowd, a former Bush senior strategist for both presidential elections and an ABC News analyst, said the two were never chummy, adding that Bush had a better relationship with his previous Democratic Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, whom Dowd also worked for, than he did with Perry.

“I think many people believe Karl went around telling everybody he created Rick Perry. There was people around Perry, including Perry, who first of all they knew it wasn’t true and…I think all of those folks including Perry thought Karl overplayed his role,” Dowd said. “Perry is much more of a populist Republican, where he is firebrand and speaks in that passion and Bush and Karl are much more establishment Republicans.”

Dowd added that Perry’s attachment to the social conservative movement is something—despite Bush being an evangelical Christian—the Bush camp didn’t align themselves with as Perry has.

“Also he’s (Perry) been much more in tune with the rise of the social conservatives than Bush was. Karl’s probably areligious. Karl is not that type of Republican. Karl only does the social conservative stuff if he thinks it will have political effect. Bush and Karl are nowhere near linked to the social conservative rise as Perry was and is,” Dowd said.

As for Perry’s longtime adviser, Dave Carney, he says the idea of any lingering resentment is just not true.

“There is no issue with the Perrys and the Bushes,” Carney said. “There is no animosity on my part with Karl. There is no feud going on. It is a figment of urban myth. I don’t know where it started. I don’t know why it continues. It’s a non-factor.”

Carney added that the conversation doesn’t put “one person back to work…Voters don’t care, obviously the Bushes don’t care, the Perrys don’t care, I don’t care,” Carney said.

Carney says he doesn’t know where it started, but friends in both camps in Austin say it reaches back to the late 1980s when Karl Rove and Perry friend and consultant David Weeks went to Perry to convince him to change parties, from Democrat to Republican.

The state was becoming more conservative and Rove wanted him in the same camp. Rove had initially approached Weeks and convinced him and then they went to Perry. Then in 1989, Weeks convinced Perry to run for Agriculture Commissioner (instead of leaving state government and becoming a lobbyist), a difficult race that he ended up winning thanks to help from Rove and Weeks.

Fast forward to 1998 and that’s when things got a little prickly. Perry was in a tight race for Lt. Gov. against his close friend Democrat John Sharp and Bush was running for re-election and also preparing for a White House run, with Rove’s help. Since they had Washington in their sites, Bush and Rove wanted to win with broad support they could point to on the presidential campaign trail. They wanted Perry to win, but they knew having Sharp voters also supporting Bush could help Bush out on the 2000 stump.

Carney began his long consultant relationship with Perry during this race. Rove brought him on while he focused on Bush’s re-election. Perry’s pollster said the race was tightening and Carney, Weeks, and Perry decided to make sure it didn’t get any closer they would run an attack ad against Sharp. Rove found out and was not happy. He called Weeks at home asking if he had an attack ad ready to go and stressed their pollster had Perry up 9 or 10 points and they didn’t need to use it. Rove threatened to pull another ad featuring a Perry endorsement from George Herbert Walker Bush, George W. Bush, and Perry. Rove wanted that broad support for the White House run and he knew a negative ad would not help.  The Perry gang figured they needed that endorsement more and agreed to pull the commercial.

On election night 1989, the Bush team sailed to victory with close to 69 percent of the vote. Perry eked in with less than a 2 point difference and Perry’s team was not happy about it. According to sources in both camps, the Perry team blamed the Bush camp for not letting them air the ad and realized they should have gone with their gut. As they left the Austin Convention Center that night the two teams ran into each other and Carney was steamed, telling Rove he owed their team an apology for the incorrect polling.

But, this was over ten years ago and Texas tales can become tall over the years. Is it possible there is still anger?

A Perry friend said he thinks the feud is “overblown,” and that both camps are “all friends,” but added that they do “wish Karl hadn’t been so quick” to criticize Perry’s comments when he called the actions of the Federal Reserve “almost treasonous.” Rove was quick to point out it was “unpresidential.”

The same friend, who didn’t want to be identified, does think Rove is “nervous about losing control over the Bush legacy because the last president was Bush so everything is sort of based on what Bush did and Perry comes in with the Perry people, Perry doctrine, and Perry philosophy. It all of a sudden makes him a little less relevant and there may be some truth to that.”

Of course differences between Bush and Perry can only help Perry.

His friend conceded, “I don’t think it hurts us to have a conflict because one thing that is a problem is that we are too much like Bush.”

A friend of Rove who stressed that any talk of an organized attempt to tear Perry down is crazy said Rove “likes to have an enemy or two around. He kind of feeds off of it.”

And in explaining why the feud isn’t much of one, especially with the principals, Perry’s friend said the two would go to baseball games together when Bush was the owner of the Texas Rangers.

“Bush was a good ol’ boy. He just happened to be the good ol’ boy of a former president and the grandson of a former senator of Connecticut and he went to Yale.”