A Texas duel in 2016?

Texas Gov. Rick Perry talks with Dick Dale, left, and his wife Margurite, right, of Algona, Iowa, during a meeting with local party activists, Saturday, July 19, 2014, in Algona, Iowa.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry talks with Dick Dale, left, and his wife Margurite, right, of Algona, Iowa, during a meeting with local party activists, Saturday, July 19, 2014, in Algona, Iowa.

The Associated Press reports: “The prospect of a two-Texan presidential tilt is dominating political conversation in the state, even outshining a fiercely contested governor’s race — and starting to get noticed nationally. {Texas Gov. Rick} Perry’s preparations have long been obvious, while {Texas Senator Ted} Cruz is working to raise his profile beyond just the far-right base and insert himself into the presidential conversation.”

That face-off was not the one the media – devoid of interest in the substance of foreign policy — had been predicting. They of course fancied a contest for the hearts of the right between Cruz and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). That is becoming less likely with each passing day as the implications of Rand Paul’s foreign policy extremism and downright confusion about key national security issues sinks in for Republican voters. In that regard President Obama is Rand Paul’s worst enemy; Obama’s presidency has become a cautionary tale of the consequences of an inert foreign policy and a novice commander in chief.

It is not merely Rand Paul’s flaws that have shaken up the fight for the base. Perry has emerged as a formidable candidate and, not coincidentally, as an informed hawk. The Perry vs. Cruz face off is in many ways a more interesting ne since both are tea party favorites, both have excoriated Obama’s foreign policy, both are champions of Second Amendment Rights, both are loved by social conservatives and both are known as ardent foes of federal overreach.

But there are differences, to be sure. Cruz led (with Paul and Florida Senator Marco Rubio in tow) the government shutdown; Perry was publicly critical. Cruz is an ardent foe of just about every immigration reform plan. Perry, who has run an inclusive administration, has been open to reform and some path to legalization — but only after the border is secure. He grabbed center stage in dogging the president on the latest border crisis.

The biggest difference between the two Texans is in life experience. Perry, 64, was born in Paint Creek Texas, and was raised in exceptionally modest circumstances. He has fourteen years as governor of the most economically successful state during the last decade. He also spent five years in the Air Force, according to his bio, “flying C-130 tactical airlift aircraft in the U.S., Europe and the Middle East.” He has spoken fondly about his experiences with the Israeli Air Force.

And finally there is a stark difference in personality. Cruz took delight in offending his colleagues and drawing their wrath. Even his admirers concede he is brash, if not arrogant. (He famously tried to lecture Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) on guns and got slapped down.) His leadership in the shutdown was perhaps his defining moment, an act of defiance that, he later conceded, did not have an end game for winning the standoff. (He said that it was “important to fight.”) He delights in opponents’ revulsion to his tactics and is arguably the Republican that non-Republicans hate the most.

Cruz, 44, was born in Canada (but he’s a U.S. citizen!), the son of a Cuban refugee who came to the U.S. penniless. He is in his freshman term as a Senator, and if he runs will have had exactly the same length of service that President Obama had before running for the presidency in 2008. Cruz, with a undergraduate degree from Princeton and a Harvard Law degree, previously served as Solicitor General of Texas and won numerous cases before the Supreme Court. Prior to that he held a series of mid-level jobs in the Bush administration and practiced law.

Perry then has a long record of executive accomplishment, while Cruz must refute the notion he is the conservative Barack Obama, rhetorically sophisticated but unprepared for the presidency. The difference in their life experience is reflected in their different approach to politics. Cruz is articulate, but often abstract in his appeal. He’s largely described his goals in terms of opposition to Obama, a natural role for a senator in the opposition party. Perry too has battled the feds on everything from environmental regulations to Obamacare. Perry however has spent a career doing nitty gritty governance. While not always pragmatist — he’s far too conservative for that — he can be practical, as evidenced by his opposition to the shutdown, and more inclined to focus on results (e.g. businesses lured to Texas, jobs, growth) than view issues through a purely theoretical lens.

There is no better example of the difference than on immigration. As his predecessor in the governorship did, Perry has run an inclusive administration, repeatedly carried a good chunk of the Hispanic vote and allowed children brought to Texas illegally and who have lived there for at least three years to receive residential status for state universities, to the criticism of the “self-deportation” advocates. A contributor to the right-wing Red State blog praised the latter: “This program makes a difference by offering these kids a helping hand to a quality education they may not receive otherwise. It does not destroy the ability of other Texans to get into school. In the end, it doesn’t even make a significant impact on the budgets of these colleges and universities.”

From Perry’s perspective the federal government needs to do its job and enforce the border, but as a governor he must deal with the consequences and look to the economic and social needs of his state. Cruz doesn’t have that experience and has been a prominent voice in favor of sending illegals home; he doesn’t have the burden to deal with communities integrated into the life of the country or the social and economic costs of an underground economy. He therefore propounds on the “rule of law” and opposes reform that would accept that large numbers of illegal immigrants are here to stay. (Cruz however has been careful not to criticize Texas’s tuition law as a “magnet” for illegal immigrants.)

Perry is no shrinking violet, but he’s had to get along with Democrats and, in the wake of his 2012 failed campaign, now displays a remarkable humility in the place of Texas swagger. One-on-one he is soft-spoken and down to earth. He is a gregarious fellow (who once was a Texas A&M University yell leader). If Cruz still comes across as a Ivy Leaguer, Perry relishes the role as the boy from rural Texas. Cruz is the GOP’s Obama, if you will, while Perry is its Bill Clinton. As a past winner in a diverse state he may also strike voters as the more electable of the pair.

It’s not clear which the GOP electorate will prefer. The anger against the Obama administration is palpable and Cruz gives voice to that burning resentment. But the country is also in dire straits — beset by foreign threats, tangled in gridlock, weighted down by a dearth of job-creation and perplexed by intractable problems (poor education, high poverty). Perry offers the promise that he can do for the country what he did in Texas. It should be a fascinating duel.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.

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