Rick Perry seems to be reeling after his debate performance in Florida last week. It’s early yet to see anything in public polling, but his subsequent flop in the Florida straw poll into which he had invested significant money and energy is causing serious concern for his campaign. However, before Romney gets too excited about Perry’s dilemma he should take a closer look at the cause.
Many are pointing to Perry’s awkward debate performance in Florida as the source of his trouble, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. For example, his rambling non-answer to a direct question on Pakistan, though odd, wasn’t much less coherent than some of his prepared statements. Perry’s base doesn’t get cold feet about a clumsy public performance. The danger to Romney in Perry’s apparent decline is what actually triggered it – an accidental moment of candor and humanity on the wedge issue of immigration.
Perry finds it hard to demonize Mexicans. Thanks to a lifetime in a border state Perry actually knows something about Mexico and Hispanic interests. It’s likely that in his guts he understands that much of his own “Texas Miracle,” such as it is, was accomplished on their backs. Just like George W. Bush before him he’s not comfortable scapegoating these people in the way that his increasingly fanatical base demands.
Perry’s wobble is evidence of a wider problem that will dog Romney if he wins in 2012. As President he will be forced to wrestle with our dangerously antique immigration laws in ways that require sensible, pragmatic compromises. If Romney’s victory over Perry comes by flanking Perry’s right on the Mexican front, he will have a drastically limited operating space on that subject in office.
Republicans have built a narrow activist base on a skewed information diet. Constructing rational, working policy on the political foundation we’ve built will be a nasty challenge, perhaps more than we can hope for. There’s a warning for the winner in comments John McCain reportedly made when the civility of his town hall meetings began to deteriorate in 2007: “Why do I want to be the leader of a party of such a%$*s?”
If he manages to win this thing Romney will have his work cut out for him. It’s no fun governing a patch of scorched earth.