Is Rick Perry Channeling Phil Gramm – - or Clayton Williams?

Yipee ki yay… Mo-fo. Rick Perry is in!

He’s FED UP! and he’s come out swinging. He’s attacking Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, Social Security and Medicare, anyone who is anti-business or anti-Jesus, and now – - Ben Bernanke.

The national press loves to fall in love, and Perry had a nice 72-hour honeymoon before his shoot-from-the-lip style, which works in Amarillo, Abilene and around Austin, backfired with Bernanke. Bigtime.

Comparisons with George W. Bush from pundits who want to sound like they know Texas politics were inevitable, but everyone in Texas knew they were never worth much. Bush is an Ivy Leaguer whose grandfather was a senator from Connecticut. Perry is a genuine Texas Aggie from genuinely small-town Texas.

If you want to understand Perry, you have to understand Texas A&M. The macho swagger of that school is really the essence of who Perry is. Perry comes from my part of Texas, and I’ve known him for 25 years. I covered the Texas House during his time as a state lawmaker, and in those days we all saw the Aggie mystique play out two distinct ways in two Texas political legends: Phil Gramm and Clayton Williams.

Gramm, who recruited Perry to the GOP, was Perry’s economics professor. Always the opportunist, Gramm leaped last week at the chance to endorse Perry, who barely passed his class (principles of economics) with a D, according to those pesky college transcripts.

Perry learned more than supply-side economics from Gramm, who was about the toughest and meanest campaigner Texas had in his day. Gramm was an unabashed conservative whose strong suit was red meat for the base. He was known for ideas that could be outside even the conservative mainstream, and he never backed down. In fact, when challenged, Gramm habitually would “double down” – - surprise you by embracing something you might expect him to downplay or qualify. It’s a political trick Perry adopted and has used effectively in Texas.

Gramm was never loved; he was feared. Perry didn’t start out that way, but some time in the mid90s, he changed. In fact, during the past decade, Perry has grown tougher, meaner, more extreme and prouder of his provincialism than Gramm ever was.

He’s talked about ending Social Security and Medicare… ending the practice of teaching evolution in Texas schools… ending the 16th and 17th Amendments to the Constitution… and he’s hinted that Texans might want to end their connection to the United States.

How does a governor who hints publicly that his state could secede from The Union get away with accusing the Federal Reserve chairman of treason for executing legal authority over monetary policy?

He doesn’t. It’s a profoundly ignorant statement that brings us to Williams, the other Aggie who cast a shadow over Perry’s formative political years. (I covered the 1990 Texas governor’s race, where a string of revelations and gaffes by Williams drained an unprecedented campaign budget, erased a seemingly insurmountable lead and handed Ann Richards the governor’s mansion.)

Williams bragged that as an undergraduate at Texas A&M he frequented brothels, including the famous LaGrange Chicken Ranch. He urged Hispanics to support him because he met his wife at a Mexican restaurant. He refused to shake Richards’ hand after a rare joint appearance and quipped that Richards, a recovering alcoholic, “must be drinking again” when her campaign released a poll showing she was closing the gap. He even joked with reporters that Texans deal with bad weather the way they deal with rape: “If it’s inevitable, just relax and enjoy it.”

Williams was trying to ride the Texas cowboy mystique into the governor’s mansion, and he almost succeeded. No single gaffe or jaw-dropping revelation cost him the race. It was the synergy. Sometime in the fall of 1990, it all hit a tipping point, and things Williams had offered with that cowboy bravado began to turn on him.

By election day, a race that began as John Wayne vs. Lucille Ball ended as Barbara Stanwick vs. Gabby Hayes.

Perry was giving Gramm-style red meat to the base a few days ago with coded talk about the American military not respecting Obama. He was offering it again with his suggestion that Obama doesn’t really love the United States. Refusing to tell a reporter if he was carrying a concealed handgun – that is why it’s called concealed, he said – was the type of finesse Perry is known for.

The Bernanke remark was pure Williams. It’s a one-day story for now, but reporters don’t forget things like that. It’s on the recall key. It’s part of the profile for this campaign. It’s the anchor for the beginning of a pattern. And if you don’t believe there is such thing as “gaffe patrol,” ask Williams.

Like Williams, Perry is running largely on style, the Texas A&M macho cowboy swagger. He wants the base to see him as the guy most eager to take it to Obama, and saying outrageous things – the constant blunt impolitic more than any single issue – appears to be the political sword Perry has chosen to live or to die by.

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About Joe Cutbirth

Joe Cutbirth is a journalist, media critic and visiting professor at the University of Virginia. He writes for Huffingtonpost.com and was an analyst for ABC News Now during the 2008 presidential election. He is a former political reporter for the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram and communications director for the Texas Democratic Party. He studied and taught news writing and reporting at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, and lectured at New York University and the New School on the phenomenon of late-night comedy as political news. He twitters sparingly as jcutbirth, lives online at joecutbirth.com and asks his epitaph read: He was a Longhorn and a Democrat.