Even more than former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the other top-tier candidate, Perry presents GOP voters sharper outlines of the choice facing the party in 2012: how much to embrace the anti-government views of the tea party movement and how much to discard the brand of conservatism espoused by Bush, who presided over the last successful reinvention of the party at the presidential level.
Perry, who closely allied himself with Bush earlier in his career, was a supporter of Bush’s tax cuts and praised his leadership on national security issues. But he has been critical of Bush’s fiscal stewardship and his attempts to court the political middle by taking on issues such as education, immigration and Medicare. He has said that “this big-government binge [in Obama’s tenure] began under the administration of George W. Bush.”
Bush rankled conservatives with remarks such as this 2003 comment: “We have a responsibility that when somebody hurts, government has got to move.”
Perry has dismissed that idea.
“The branding of compassionate conservatism meant that the GOP was sending the wrong signal, that conservatism alone wasn’t sufficient or worse yet, was somehow flawed and had to be re-branded,” Perry wrote in his 2010 book “Fed Up.”
A Perry victory would cement the Republican Party’s shift away from Bush’s approach to a more libertarian, anti-government GOP. This is cause for worry among some in the party, particularly those with ties to Bush.
While not addressing Perry specifically, Mark McKinnon, who was a top aide in both of Bush’s presidential campaigns, cautioned that his party would have trouble winning if it moved too far right.
“I think George Bush won crucial independent voters with his message of compassionate conservatism,” McKinnon said. “I worry that today’s Republican firebrand version of conservatism is dragging the party so far right that it will repel independent voters.”
Tony Fratto, who was one of Bush’s press advisers, also refused to criticize Perry directly, but he said, “I hope the direction that the Republican candidates take isn’t to walk away from improving education achievement in this country, because it may be our most critical economic issue long-term.” (Perry’s record on education has stirred controversy; he says he has tried to overhaul the Texas college system to make it more efficient, but critics say he has underfunded K-12 schools.)