Sour-faced Perry is Picking the Right Fights

Note: This column originally appeared on The Quorum Report. Join us there daily for coverage of Texas politics and government. 


Gov. Rick Perry, R-Texas, frowns in the corner of the room while President Obama shares a light moment with Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings.

Not only did Gov. Perry get way out ahead of the border crisis politically but he has also now figured out a way to differentiate himself in a major way from a potential fellow GOP contender for the White House, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky. In dueling national op-eds, Perry and Paul have clashed over the United States’ role in the fight against militants in Iraq.

Jonathan Chait put it this way in New York Magazine:

“As is often the case with intra-Republican squabbles, the dispute has taken the form of a Reagan-Off. All sides take as settled fact the premise that Reagan revealed the truth to the world in its entirety forever and ever, and any revisions to the Party canon must make the case that rival claimants have incorrectly interpreted the Reagan writ.”

What Chait misses in his entertaining diatribe is the larger point that if both men are jockeying for position ahead of potential bids for the White House, their number one challenge in today’s GOP is to set themselves apart from the pack while not alienating supporters of Sen. Ted Cruz. Cruz’s base is simply where the energy lies within the party. On that point, both Perry and Paul strike a good balance. But if the game is appealing to conservative primary voters, the non-interventionist approach championed by both Sen. Paul and his father, former Rep. Ron Paul, has actually always played better with those on the left than on the right.

Perry, of course, is much more focused on mending fences with the Tea Party when it comes to the issue that disqualified him in their eyes during his first run for the presidency in 2011: Illegal immigration.

As has been previously noted, the “oops” moment that many remember as the collapse of his candidacy was not the reason most Tea Partiers initially abandoned Perry. No, they did that weeks earlier when Perry defended Texas’ policy of extending college tuition breaks to undocumented students who meet certain criteria. At that time, Dallas Tea Party Co-Founder Phillip Dennis told me “He’s done. Perry is toast tonight.” And, indeed he was.

Twitter exploded last week with folks mocking Perry for the face he was making during his meeting in Dallas with President Obama about the humanitarian crisis on the border. Perry has gone out of his way to look sour throughout this episode – he has had the same angry/serious look throughout every TV appearance – and his comments about sending the refugee children back to their home countries are spot-on as far as what the Tea Party wants to hear.

Perry had in recent months made slow and steady strides in asserting himself as a nuanced elder statesman of the Republican Party who did not jump at the chance to throw red meat to the base. At one point, he even said an energy renaissance in Mexico would likely solve the problem of illegal immigration by creating numerous quality jobs south of the Rio Grande. But, slow and steady strides won’t do the trick during a crisis. As former Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel once famously said “You never let a serious crisis go to waste.”

The lesser-known and perhaps more instructive second half of that Emmanuel quote is that a crisis is “an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” What Perry’s now doing is what he couldn’t do before with nearly as much credibility. He’s projecting a hardline stance similar to what you might hear from Sen. Dan Patrick.

We have seen something like this from Perry previously.

You might remember that back in 2006 when the governor faced off against three challengers in a bizarre four-way race, he staked his candidacy largely on border security. “If Washington won’t protect our border, Texas will,” Perry said in this ad at the time:

“We can’t have homeland security without border security.”

After he secured reelection with 39 percent of the vote, some of the people who had just voted for Perry were shocked when he gave a speech in which he called for a robust guest worker program and denounced a border fence as a ridiculous idea.

University of Houston Political Scientist Brandon Rottinghaus said the border crisis unfolding now allows Perry to address two of his biggest stumbling blocks simultaneously.

“This gives him a platform on a national issue that Republicans care about,” Rottinghaus said, adding that many state issues don’t help Perry nationally. It also earns Perry some “serious credibility with the Tea party folks and he can make up for the fact that he took a position that was seen as less than conservative,” Rottinghaus said of Perry’s argument for in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants.

Copyright July 14, 2014, Harvey Kronberg,, All rights are reserved. Reprinted with permission. 

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