Among all the speakers who’ve come and gone on day two of the Conservative Political Action Conference, my favorite thus far has been former Texas governor and affable dunce Rick Perry. He came roaring out onto the stage to the accompaniment of AC/DC’s “Back in Black,” and then twirled off a loud and mostly articulate rendition of what will become his 2016 stump speech. It had all the hallmarks of your standard CPAC address: the world’s falling to pieces and it’s Obama’s fault; the economy sucks and it’s Obama’s fault; the unemployment rate is a “sham” (probably perpetrated by Obama); and even though everything is terrible there’s hope for the future because of freedom, America, freedom, liberty, America, etc.
Perry’s positioning himself as sort of a tough guy action man, the Wild West governor who got shit done and wasn’t afraid to tell it like it is. Over the course of his speech and the ensuing Q&A, he twice told the same anecdote about how he looked President Obama square in the eye and told him “if you will not secure the border between Texas and Mexico, Texas will.” Yeah! You tell ‘em, cowboy governor!
He was referring, of course, to his much celebrated decision last July to deploy the Texas National Guard to the southern border in response to the mass influx of unaccompanied Central American minors. And to hear Perry tell it, he fixed the problem. “I told him, I said ‘Mr. President, if you don’t secure this border, Texas will,’” Perry said during the Q&A. “And that’s exactly what we did. We put the National Guard there to secure the border.” This tale of leadership and heroism is obviously going to play a big role in Perry’s political “comeback” story. What remains to be seen is whether the press will point out that it’s not true.
Perry announced that he was ordering the troops to the border in July 2014. By the time they got there in mid-August, the border crisis had already abated and the number of unaccompanied minors crossing into the U.S. had fallen back to the previous year’s levels. DHS secretary Jeh Johnson pointed out as much just a few days ago: “By mid-August it was down to very low levels, and it pretty much stayed that way.” Things had calmed down so much by the end of August that when the soldiers actually made it to the border, they had trouble finding something to do. Perry likes to boast that he secured the border in the face of a crisis, but if he had done nothing, the result would have been the same.
When the border crisis shifted out of the headlines, Perry changed his story, claiming that the National Guard was down on the border to stop drug traffickers and ISIS, and that the lack of terrorist attacks inside the United States since the beginning of the deployment was proof that his plan was working.
Perry is out of office now, but the troops are still down on the border and lots of money is being spent to keep them there, even though no one really seems to know why. They carry weapons and wear uniforms, but they are strictly limited to surveillance duties and don’t have the authority to actually detain people – they have to call a separate agency to come and make arrests. Lawmakers from the border region argue that the amount of money being spent on maintaining the guard presence is wasteful and could be better applied to boosting local law enforcement resources.
And for all of Perry’s claims that the surge of resources to the border was a success, state lawmakers complain that they “have no real way of determining whether the enforcement operation is effective, in part because of inconsistent interpretation of statistics.” Also, both Perry’s administration and that of new governor Greg Abbott have been stingy and highly selective when it comes to releasing data on the number people apprehended.
But Perry’s determined to appeal to the GOP base by boasting that he “secured the border” when Obama wouldn’t. The reality is very different – Perry committed a significant number of troops to an open-ended mission at great cost to taxpayers and with no strategic objective or endgame in sight before leaving office and turning it all over to his successor. Luckily for Perry, Republican voters are big into that too.