Perry's Trump Conundrum

Ex-governor gets moment in the sun, courtesy of the Donald

"Someone's talking about me? Really?" Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry should probably thank Donald Trump for the first serious media exposure he's had in weeks. (Photo by John Anderson)

Former governor and repeat presidential hopeful Rick Perry could have taken one of two paths when Donald Trump called Mexican immigrants in the U.S. "killers" and "rapists." Either debunk his kookery, or pander to the same racist base. Miraculously, he did both.

Erstwhile celebrity "reality" TV comedian Trump had actually taken direct shots at Perry's record on border security. After all, in the Trump-o-verse, if there are ravening hordes coming across the border, someone has to be blamed for it. This being primary season, it's not the federal government (which has actual jurisdiction in these matters), but his primary adversary, old ex-Governor Goodhair himself. To quote Trump's campaign to Business Insider: "The unsecured border harms our economy, safety and national security. Perry was the governor of Texas for over 14 years. He ignored the problem for far too long."

Ah, such a change from 2011, when Perry boasted about dining with the Donald while the pair discussed birther-ism.

Clearly Perry took umbrage at this: Not least because this was a clear shot at his record, but also because this was probably the first time anyone had mentioned his name as anything other than an also-ran in this cycle. Now the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination was calling him out by name. Yes, you read that right: Trump, who had previously been down in margin-of-error territory in polling, is now leading the field in North Carolina, according to the Public Policy Polling numbers.

Perry had previously aimed for that high road. It was part of a recent speech at the National Press Club in which Perry said the GOP needs to do a better job at reaching out to African-Americans. When asked about Trump's ramblings, he replied, "I don't think Donald Trump's remarks reflect the Republican Party."

Strong words, indeed. Anyway, this is when Trump's people said he was weak on the border, and so Perry stood on the tallest soapbox at Sean Hannity's Fox studio to defend his record and (of course) blame the Feds for the border situation. As a former border governor, he said, "I understand exactly what’s going on and all of the people of the state of Texas, whether they’re Anglo, or African-American, or Hispanic, want to see that border secure."

And there's the balancing act. He's not saying that Mexican immigrants are rapists and murderers, but he's still showing his credentials as a strong-willed defender of the nation's embattled fringes.

It's a tough balancing act for Perry. In recent years, Republican presidential hopefuls have lurched to the right in primary season, and then tried to pivot to the center during the main election cycle. Yet, with a ridiculously packed primary this year, and more seasoned bloviators like Trump and Jeb Bush sucking up all that prime-time oxygen, Perry is struggling to be seen, or to find some unique turf on which to stand. As he admitted at the Press Club, the GOP has done a lousy job reaching out to minorities, and this could be something that distinguishes him.

Will this help? It's earned him a little national recognition, at least, and the idea of a ranking Republican putting some distance between himself and outright racism has at least a little novelty to it. Yet a brief glimpse of Perry's actual track record on issues like health care and voter ID, both of which hit minorities disproportionately, could reveal that unique turf as a rapidly melting ice flow.

Moreover, the big money and the big headlines seem to be following Trump, Bush, and Sen. Ted Cruz (yes Cruz, the Canadian-born son of a Cuban migrant*, who so far has been the only GOP presidential hopeful to say “I am proud to stand with Donald Trump"). Plus, none of them had the legendary "oops" flame-out of the 2012 election cycle that still shadows Perry's campaign. Also, Perry may still face questions outside of Texas as to whether his "border surge" was anything more or less than a lengthy and expensive photo op.

Of course, maybe we're overlooking the upside of President Trump. Maybe, finally, he would be the marker which the Republican Party would be ashamed to go beyond: a towering pinnacle of delusion, reaction, fiscal incompetence, and churlish tub-thumping. But then, we all said that about Ronald Reagan.

A previous version of this blog indicated Cruz's parents were both Cuban migrants. However, only his father was born in Cuba.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

Rick Perry, The Perry Trap, Immigration, U.S.-Mexico Border, Election 2016, GOP Primary, Ted Cruz, Donald Trump

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