Rick Perry is pretty clearly running for president. Not the old, bumbling Rick Perry who amused us endlessly with his serial gaffes and horrifically cold-blooded attitude towards capital punishment, but the new, glasses-wearing Rick Perry who’s on the comeback trail and still has a horrifically cold-blooded attitude towards capital punishment. And when you’re running for president, you release advertisements like the one Rick Perry’s PAC – cleverly called Rick PAC – just put out touting Perry’s stunning success at keeping terrorists from invading our country through Mexico.
“Gang members and terrorists are reportedly using the border crisis as a free pass to set up shop in the United States,” a Fox Business anchor intones with startling gravity before the ad quick-cuts to the various things Rick Perry has done to defend the country from the reported terrorists, like ordering 1,000 National Guard troops to the border and fondling a large gun with Sean Hannity. The first of the National Guard troops arrived at the border only yesterday, so Perry quite sensibly took a victory lap for an operation that is literally less than a day old.
Since Perry is quite obviously running for president, we can take this ad as an indication of how the immigration debate will play out in the Republicans primaries. If this is the starting point – Lock down the border! Terrorists! Criminal gangs! – it’s looking like it’ll be very ugly. Perry’s ad is also the latest indicator of just how far the GOP has backslid on immigration as an issue.
What people recall most about Perry’s awful 2012 campaign is the gaffes – “oops,” the bizarre speech he gave in New Hampshire, the War on Christmas ad. But part of what got Perry in such deep trouble with Republican primary voters was his stance on immigration, which was to the left of the rest of the primary field.
Perry had signed a law in Texas to allow in-state tuitions for undocumented immigrants students, which he defended during a 2011 debate: “If you say that we should not educate children who come into our state for no other reason than that they've been brought their through no fault of their own, I don't think you have a heart.” He’d also rejected the notion of a border fence. “We know how to deal with border security, and you don't do it by building a fence,” Perry said in 2007. “The idea that you're going to build a 1,200-mile wall ... is idiocy.”
Of course, taking a hardline stance on immigration killed the Republicans in 2012, which impelled the Republican establishment to back the passage of comprehensive immigration reform as a way of turning around the party’s declining fortunes with Latino voters. That rebranding effort failed as the GOP fell prey yet again to its nativist impulses.
And now here comes Rick Perry laying down the 2016 marker on immigration with a hard-charging “BORDER SECURITY FIRST” ad that plays up the fact that he sent the military to lock down the border and protect us from terrorists. Quite a departure from the guy who mocked border fences and rebuked his opponents for lacking “heart” when it came to undocumented immigrants. But this is what Republican voters clearly want, and Perry’s trying to position himself as the tough guy enforcer.
No candidate who saw what happened to Perry in 2012, or what happened to Marco Rubio in 2013 when he helped pass comprehensive immigration reform in the Senate, is going to want to be perceived as moving to the left on immigration. So they’ll drag the party further and further to the right, even though that’s what tanked the GOP the last time around.