As we bid adieu to Rick Perry – who rode into the sunset on Friday, this time forever – we should take a moment to ponder why he failed so badly.
Just four years ago, believe it or not, Perry was ballyhooed as the Republican savior. In the late summer of ’11, the long-serving Texas governor was The Guy who would unite tea-partyers and evangelicals, and sweep through the ’12 primaries as the consensus conservative alternative to Mitt Romney. He launched his campaign at the top of the GOP field, with 28 percent of the likely voters. But he bailed out, after only a handful of caucuses and primaries, after having won a mere 0.3 percent of the actual voters. In the history of Republican primaries, not even Herman Cain and Rudy “9/11” Giuliani had fallen so far so fast.
What the heck happened? Why was his ’12 plunge so precipitous – and why, this time around, was his standing so woeful that he ran out of money and couldn’t even make it to the second debate kiddie table?
Yes, Perry has been dogged since ’11 by his “oops” moment, his failure to remember the three federal departments he wanted to kill off. And yes, the occasionally rambling remarks he delivered on the ’11 stump tended to make him look goofy and unprepared (he was taking pain medication for his back). And yes, it didn’t help that he was under indictment. But in the end, he failed for one fundamental reason:
On the key issue of immigration, he was way too moderate for the right-wing nativists in the Republican base. They never forgave him for that – and certainly not now, with Donald Trump tapping into their demagogic id. And that tells you plenty about the current mood of the Republican electorate.
It didn’t matter that Perry was reliably conservative on a whole range of issues. It didn’t matter that he assailed climate change as a bogus topic (“one contrived phony mess that is falling apart under its own weight”); or that he ridiculed Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme” (thereby insinuating that 52 million Americans were suckers in a criminal enterprise); or that he had served up raw meat to ticked-off Texas tea-partyers who wanted to secede from the union. Perry was Correct on all those issues and many more, but when he dared to say a few nice things about undocumented immigrants…bingo, he was politically DOA.
It happened during a debate in September ’11, when he defended the law that offers college tuition to the undocumented children who graduate from Texas high schools. (Texas was the first state to pass such a law, signed by Perry in 2001; since then, at least a dozen other states – red as well as blue – have enacted similar laws.) His rivals, led by Romney, attacked him from the right and denounced the law. Perry then said this:
“If you say we should not educate our children who have come into our state for no other reason than they’ve been brought there by no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart. We need to be educating these children, because (otherwise) they will become drag on our society.”
Oh dear. He accused the right-wing nativists of being heartless. That’s not something they wanted to hear. So they booed him.
And even during the runup to Perry’s second presidential bid, he stuck to his guns and defended that law. Last year he said, “Economically, what was in the best interest in the state of Texas was to give these young people the opportunity to be givers rather than takers, to be a constructive part of this society.” That kind of talk doesn’t sit well with conservative voters, not when they’ve got Trump out there stoking anger and promising to kick those young people out of the country.
Perry was simply out of tune with the latest conservative zeitgeist. He was saying nice things about undocumented children; that doesn’t play anymore. He called Trump “a cancer on conservatism,” but the base is in love with the disease. In a summer speech, he even implored Republicans to reach out to non-white people (“When we gave up on trying to win the support of African-Americans, we lost our moral legitimacy as the party of Lincoln, as the party of equal opportunity for all”), but the white base doesn’t want to hear that. Perry used to be ground zero for Texas-style conservatism. Now it’s Ted Cruz.
Which is why Perry sounded so moderate, during his farewell speech on Friday: “We cannot indulge nativist appeals that divide the nation further. (We should debate immigration) without inflammatory rhetoric, without base appeals that divide us based on race, culture, and creed….We need to get back to the central constitutional principle that, in America, it is the content of your character that matters, not the color of your skin.”
Wow. A denunciation of demagoguery, and a line cribbed from Martin Luther King. No wonder Rick Perry never got traction in today’s Republican party.