Second act, anyone?
Amid the imagery and policy tussling Wednesday over the border immigration crisis, there was this delicious irony: The issue that confounded Rick Perry more than any other when he sought the presidency in 2012 has now given him a center stage role opposite the man who won the race.
As President Obama arrived in Texas on Wednesday, the Texas governor greeted him at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and flew via helicopter with him to Love Field for some one-on-one conversations about the border mess, the latest in a television-heavy assault by Perry on the issue.
Defining moments are often thrust upon political figures—it is far harder to create them than to rise to the occasion when they slap you in the face—and for Perry this moment came at an opportune time, just months before he leaves office and amid a national redemption tour that has brought him both praise and scorn as he considers a second presidential run in 2016.
In his nationally broadcast remarks about the crisis Wednesday afternoon, Obama went out of his way to defer to what he said were Perry’s demands.
“I indicated to him that what he said sounded like it made sense,” Obama said.
But it was immediately clear that, more than anything, Obama was using Perry’s demands as a cudgel against his fellow Republicans in Congress, who have balked at the administration's $3.7-billion request to deal with the thousands of immigrants, many of them young and unattended, streaming across the border.
“The challenge is, is Congress prepared to act to put the resources in place to get this done?” Obama asked. “Are folks more interested in politics or are they more interested in solving the problem?”
That underscored a persistent difficulty for Perry as he heightens his involvement in the issue. If Perry’s demands require the billions that Republicans have declined to support—and the president repeatedly made that argument Wednesday--the governor could very quickly find himself caught between what he has proposed and the need to politically oppose the means for doing it.
Dicey positions have been the norm for Perry when it comes to immigration. Like many Republican governors in border states with large Latino populations, he has been more accommodating to Latinos and more moderate on issues involving legal and illegal immigration than GOP leaders elsewhere. (Perry succeeded as governor George W. Bush, who found his similar leanings thwarted once he hit Washington.)
Perry entered the 2012 presidential contest the summer before the primaries, but while he zoomed almost instantly to the position of front-runner, he just as quickly came under fire in key early voting states from voters who saw his views on immigrants as suspect.
In Iowa and elsewhere, Perry's opposition to a fence along the entire southern border and his signing of a bill allowing children of illegal immigrants to pay lower in-state tuition at Texas’ public colleges engendered antipathy among many voters, particularly in rural areas. (In a last-ditch but losing attempt at redefinition, Perry imported as a campaign surrogate a symbol of running roughshod: Arizona's Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who a federal court judge later concluded had systematically racially profiled Latinos.)
The immigration coup de grace may have been Perry’s debate assertion that Republicans who didn’t share his support for in-state tuition for children of immigrants in the country illegally didn’t “have a heart”—in effect, a castigation of much of the GOP’s primary base.
Other candidates whacked mercilessly at Perry after that—Mitt Romney declared that opposition to illegal immigration “doesn’t mean you don’t have a heart. It means you have a heart and a brain.” Perry himself delivered the death blow in a subsequent debate when he forgot the third of three federal departments he wished to eliminate. “Oops,” he said.
This time around, Perry has accented the need to police the border and has hewed much more publicly to orthodox GOP positions on immigration—at least as espoused in Washington. The change appeared to be an attempt to mitigate what one GOP strategist in 2012 called Perry’s “surprisingly tin ear” when it came to how immigration was viewed by his party.
In a recent appearance on Fox, Perry fell comfortably in with some of the party’s angriest voices when he implied that Obama had orchestrated the movement of children and others from Central American countries beset by violence and poverty.
“The federal government is just absolutely failing,” he said. “You either have an incredibly inept administration or they're in on this somehow or another. I mean, I hate to be conspiratorial, but I mean, how do you move that many people from Central America across Mexico and then into the United States without there being a fairly coordinated effort?”
Called on that statement later by ABC News reporter Martha Raddatz, he insisted that the border crisis, from the administration’s perspective, meant that “you are either inept or you have some ulterior motive of which you are functioning from.”
In Perry’s ongoing national tour, he has emphasized areas where his views and record are most akin to Republicans at large. He has talked up job gains in Texas, reiterated his conservative views on gays and other issues, and exhorted his belief in a government that is small and based in the states, not D.C.
His odds in 2016 would seem to be long; the path from laughingstock to front-runner is rocky and circuitous. But the Republican field is replete with potential candidates whose upsides are negated at least in part by substantial downsides. And now Perry has a chance, if he can navigate it, to return to his party’s good graces on an issue that proved a big part of his undoing last time out.
It may have been with a modicum of personal hope that Perry made a point during a House committee hearing last week in McAllen, Texas. If politicians don’t secure the border, he said, "the American people will address this in a number of ways, electorally and otherwise."