There’s very little daylight between Texas Governor Rick Perry and a large number of fair-minded liberals on the subject of his felony indictment. Not all lawyers agree. But the idea that Perry did nothing wrong by threatening to veto funding for the state’s public integrity office enjoys an impressive bipartisan consensus. Either it wasn’t against the law, or, if it was, then the law is bad.
The key difference is that liberals can discuss it without wandering, as if in fugue state, into a denunciation of illegal immigrants.
Perry made the unlikely connection between the two in his first public comments about the indictment earlier this month.
“I think there are a lot of people on both sides of the aisle, Democrats and Republicans, who have looked at this and understand it to be exactly what we're seeing, a political decision that has been made in Travis County,” Perry said. “I’m going to continue to do my job. I'm going to continue to deal with the big, important issues that are important to the people of the state of Texas and for that matter this country. We have a border that it is not secure because of what the federal government has failed to do. Yesterday I talked to the mother of the border patrol agent who was gunned down in cold blood in front of his family by an individual who has come across this border multiple times, a criminal alien. That mother expects me to do the job and keep the citizens of this state safe, and that is what I am going to do from today until I leave office in January of 2015.”
Then last week, at a Heritage Foundation event in Washington, D.C., he one-upped the Republican members of Congress warning that some of the child migrants flooding the country might be carrying Ebola, by suggesting that ISIS may have infiltrated the country across the southern border thanks (implicitly) to the Obama administration.
This may be post hoc rationalization for ordering the National Guard to the Rio Grande Valley. But it is better understood as an attempt to make right with the GOP presidential primary electorate, which still hasn’t forgotten his second most famous heresy. Not the time he drew a blank, under pressure, about his desire to abolish the Department of Energy, but the time he called Republicans who oppose in-state tuition for so-called DREAMers heartless.
"If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they have been brought there by no fault of their own, I don't think you have a heart," Perry said back in 2011.
That was Perry at his most presidential. It was also disqualifying. The “oops” error came to define his failed presidential candidacy in 2012. But he was already a sitting duck by the time that happened. And to an under-appreciated extent just about everything Rick Perry does on the national stage these days is tailored to correcting those two mistakes.
But wearing horn-rimmed glasses to signal intellectual heft is goofy and harmless. Crafting border policy with an eye toward assuaging the Republican primary electorate sets parameters that will constrain him, or whomever wins the nominating contest. Especially now—amid the child-migrant crisis, as President Obama contemplates broad action to reshape deportation policy. This is how self-deportation became the GOP’s de facto immigration platform in 2012. If Mitt Romney had won the presidency, it would have informed his enforcement actions, and his negotiations with Congress over broader immigration policy. Instead, Republicans were routed everywhere except the South, and for a few months, they played footsie with the idea that their intolerance of undocumented immigrants explained their defeat.
It didn’t last long. Their views today are notably farther right than they were two years ago. And Perry is pushing them farther still.
Last week, while on a much-publicized medical mission to Guatemala, Senator Rand Paul, another Republican presidential favorite, told the conservative website Breitbart that he supported House-passed legislation to end Obama’s deferred action program, which protects DREAMers from deportation.
“I’m supportive of the House bill and I think it will go a long way to fixing the problem,” he said.
It’s probably not fair to say that Paul was following Perry’s lead. But Perry is helping to establish a theoretical baseline—militarized border, maximum deportation of low-priority offenders—that will become policy if a Republican manages to win the presidency in 2016.
Considering the stakes, I’d prefer it if Perry were channeling all of this energy into not saying “oops” on a debate stage again.
Brian Beutler is a senior editor at The New Republic.