Rick Perry’s campaign trail bluster on Monday – when he suggested, among other things, that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke would commit treason if he continued to pump money into the economy -- led to fierce blowback on Tuesday from several key Republican figures, many of them with ties to former President George W. Bush. And that’s raising concern among some in the Republican establishment that the Texas governor, for all his conservative bona fides, could struggle in a general election.
The governor made a trio of controversial statements while campaigning in Iowa. Perry, who served in the Air Force, suggested that the country’s troops preferred a president who had served in the armed services, the Washington Post reported. He also declined to say President Obama loved America, telling reporters that they would have to ask the president that question.
But the controversy that simmered most of Tuesday –- and drew widespread ire -- is Perry’s suggestion that Bernanke would commit treason if he decides to add more money into the country’s economy. If Bernanke traveled to Texas, Perry said, things could “get ugly” for him.
Condemnation came swiftly, even from Republicans. "Gov. Perry's comments about Chmn. Bernanke are inappropriate and unpresidential,” former Treasury Department official Tony Fratto, who worked under Bush, said in a Monday night tweet. Former Bush speechwriter Peter Wehner and GOP political consultant Alex Castellanos also were critical.
But he sharpest criticism came from none other than Bush’s “architect,” Karl Rove, who blasted Perry’s comments as “unpresidential.”
"It's his first time on the national stage, and it was a very unfortunate comment,” said Rove, speaking Tuesday on Fox News. “You don't accuse the chairman of the Federal Reserve of being a traitor to his country and being guilty of treason and suggesting that we treat him pretty ugly in Texas -- that's not, again, a presidential statement."
"It's not smart politics, either,” Rove said. “Governor Perry is going to have to fight the impression that he's a cowboy from Texas. This simply added to it."
Bush and Perry -- and their strategists -- have never been especially close. While the former president tried to be a moderate when he was Texas' governor, Perry has moved further to the right.
Perry made a dramatic impact on the Republican presidential primary even before announcing on Saturday, sweeping into the race with a message aimed squarely at social, fiscal, and activist conservatives. His broad conservative coalition has already made him front-runner Mitt Romney’s most formidable challenger.
But doubts have accompanied Perry’s rise, focusing on the governor’s potential weakness in a general election because he follows in the footsteps of the deeply unpopular Bush. Ill-advised rhetoric could only deepen those concerns, which have stemmed mainly from the party’s establishment, most of whom have united behind Romney’s candidacy.
Perry, however, seems unwilling to back down.
“Look, I’m just passionate about the issue,” Perry said Tuesday, according to the New York Times, “and we stand by what we said.”
That might seem stubborn to some, but it also could be part of a calculated strategy that considers the issue as only a passing controversy and aims to maintain the candidate's appeal as a plain-speaking politician. Given that Perry has to distinguish himself in a primary that features several other strong conservatives, tough talk about the Obama administration isn't a liability.
Several GOP political consultants suggested in interviews that although Perry perhaps needs to tweak his message somewhat, this week’s controversy shouldn’t lead to a course correction for a campaign that has a genuine shot at capturing the nomination.
“I think that the Perry campaign needs to find their calibration on the national stage – it just needs to recalibrate slightly,” said New Jersey-based Republican consultant Adam Geller. "But I think it’s far less of a big deal than some would like to make it out to be. Over the course of a few weeks, it will be seen as a big to-do over nothing.”
Other Republicans suggested that Perry not change at all, even criticizing Republican establishment figures who chastised the Texan.
“I would not underestimate the appetite for the American public to be spoken to plainly and directly right now,” said Brad Todd, a Virginia-based GOP strategist.
The GOP establishment, he added, was wrong in “90 percent of the races in 2010.”
“Republican primary voters are funny; they don’t take orders very well,” said Todd. “If the establishment does sour on Rick Perry, I would welcome that.”