The conventional wisdom (the collective hunch of D.C. insiders that is usually wrong) is that a recently resurfaced letter from Texas Gov. Rick Perry (then the Texas agriculture commissioner) to then-First Lady Hillary Clinton in 1993, praising her health-reform efforts and pleading for rural special interests is no big deal. Perry a liberal — how absurd?! But the letter, his reaction to it and two other letters he has written on major issues tell us a great deal, raising the issue as to whether he is an ideological conservative or simply a classic Southern Democrat.

The letter was written in April 1993. The entire conservative movement was mobilizing against HillaryCare, understanding this was a an effort to nationalize health care. Perry’s response to the letter came in an interview with Sean Hannity and in a statement by his campaign guru David Carney. Carney said of Perry’s letter: “He praised her efforts in trying to tackle the issue and urged her not to overlook rural Americans. The letter was at the onset of her efforts before she proposed anything. No one could have imagined the horrible monstrosity she cooked up, in fact not to be outdone until ObamaCare years later.” No one could have imagined it?! That’s absurd; the entire Republican Party knew what they we in for.

Moreover, Perry is the guy who says the federal government shouldn’t be doing this sort of thing and should leave health care, education and even Social Security to the states. He is the one who instructs the states to “begin to make the hard choice and to quit blindly accepting money from Washington” (p. 176). How does this jibe with his praise for Hillary’s commandeering of health care and efforts to grab enough of the pork for his rural constituents? It doesn’t.

Let’s look at another letter. In 2001 he wrote to the editor of the Dallas Morning News: “I take strong issue with a news report in the Dallas Morning News mischaracterizing my position on amnesty for undocumented immigrants from Mexico. The truth is, I am intrigued and open to the Bush administration’s amnesty proposal. Most Texans would agree that it’s better to have legal, taxpaying immigrants from Mexico working in the United States than illegal immigrants living in fear of the law and afraid to access basic services.” Again, was he not aware of the immigration position, one now characterized as “amnesty” by conservatives, of his good friend (as he refers to him) George W. Bush? Here, too, conservatives (to their folly, in my opinion, and to their credit to most Republicans) wanted no part of comprehensive immigration schemes. But Perry was all ears.

There is one more letter, this one concerning the federal bailouts following the financial meltdown in 2008. The Austin American-Statesman’s PolitiFact:

On the morning of Oct. 1, 2008, the Republican Governors Association and Democratic Governors Association publicized a letter signed by their respective chairmen — Perry and [then West Virginia Gov. Joe] Manchin — described by the groups as urging passage of an economic recovery package.

The three-paragraph letter states: “We strongly urge Congress to leave partisanship at the door and pass an economic recovery package... If Congress does not act soon, the situation will grow appreciably worse.”

The letter doesn’t explicitly endorse the plan then before the Senate. But no other plan was in play that day amid national fears of an economic collapse. And The Associated Press cast the governors’ letter as part of a frantic national push for the $700 billion bailout of Wall Street sought by President Bush.

That was before Perry issued a contradictory-sounding second statement later in the day, partly headlined: “On Protecting Taxpayers.”

“In a free market economy,” Perry said, “government should not be in the business of using taxpayer dollars to bail out corporate America.”

Asked to clarify at the time what Perry wanted the Senate to do, his spokeswoman, Allison Castle, demurred. “The senators have to make their own decisions,” Castle said.

Again, Perry certainly must have realized if not intended that his letter would be taken as a thumbs’ up for the bailout, one that conservatives including the Tea Party now rail about and which Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) opposed.

How to explain these three letters? Perry will answer himself, but it probably isn’t a good idea to say he was bamboozled by Clinton, Bush and Bernanke.

One coherent theory is that he is missing the “issues thing.” He isn’t very enamored of or engaged in policy fights; his goal is to maximize political advantage for himself. It’s the pork-barrel politics of the Tom Delay Republicans who talked a good game but ultimately were about getting elected and reelected. Ideology is for professors or true-believing Tea Partyers like Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.); Perry is about Texas.

Another explanation is that he is a classic Southern Democrat from the 1980s. His social views are conservative, but he thrives on pork. He’s not neither in favor of free markets, nor is he anti-business; in fact, he’s very cozy with big-money donors. There is a philosophy of sorts here, an instinctive populism. But it’s not one that would, as the Tea Partyers demand, go after special interests with abandon, get cronyism out of government or insist politicians adhere to strict ethical standards on conflicts of interest.

Perry’s book “Fed Up!” was certainly meant to give him street cred with the Tea Party. He is a shrewd politician and could easily recognize the benefits of a Tea Party stamp of approval. (That shrewdness, by the way, makes his claim of ignorance about HillaryCare all the more unbelievable.) But in practice he has been at best an inconsistent adherent to Tea Party principles.

For his opponents in the race the problem is to present an alternative, a brainier and more sincere promoter of conservative ideals. Is there such a figure in the race? Or could one still emerge? Stay tuned.