Why Rick Perry should take his immigration problem very seriously

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Jonathan Martin’s post today on how Rick Perry’s campaign has “no plans for real or even symbolic changes to their campaign” is interesting. A campaign, of course, should avoid telegraphing that they are in crisis mode — especially if it’s true. On the other hand, if Perry’s team isn’t alarmed by the potency of the immigration issue, they’re making a tragic mistake.

Consider John McCain, for example. His 2008 presidential campaign was nearly wrecked because he championed comprehensive immigration reform. (Two short years later, seeking re-election to the U.S. Senate, he would star in a TV ad, saying he wanted to “complete the danged fence.”)

McCain obviously learned how potent the issue is. Will Perry — before it’s too late?

The point, of course, is not to argue right or wrong policy positions (for a variety of reasons, Perry’s positions are entirely intellectually defensible), but to make the obvious point that this is a politically toxic issue in a Republican primary (in a general election, it might actually help).

Aside from the obvious political dilemma — it’s hard to be the conservative alternative to Romney if you’re not 100 percent “pure,” yourself — the immigration issue is especially divisive for a variety of reasons. Stopping illegal immigration is a populist panacea: The guy stuck in traffic can blame illegal immigrants. The guy who lost his job can blame illegal immigrants. The guy who got burglarized can blame illegal immigration. The guy who can’t get into college can blame illegal immigrants …

RomneyCare may be philosophically more offensive to conservatives — I would argue that the individual mandate is much worse — but the average American can’t blame RomneyCare for bad traffic or crime. And it’s hard (though not impossible) to make the connection between the individual mandate and losing your job. That’s just one of the reasons this issue is so problematic for Perry.

These are all emotional issues — especially during tough economic times. And since voters can’t exactly vote against illegal immigrants, their only option is to take their frustration out on a surrogate — like Perry — at the ballot box. Yet, it seems like Perry may not fully appreciate the seriousness of this problem.

I have a theory. Having been to Texas many times, it occurs to me that — with some exceptions — the Anglo-Hispanic tension in the state is relatively low. This is just my observation, but Texans seem to have more successfully integrated than other states. I wonder if Perry fully appreciates that.

This is not merely a “communications” problem, but it is fair to say that Perry has, so far, failed to eloquently defend what is at least an intellectually defensible position. Some people, of course, would never be convinced, but if Perry had aggressively stressed his commitment to controlling the border and stopping illegal immigration — and then eloquently defended his position — he might have mitigated the damage.

That’s his fault. But it’s also an unfortunate truth that Perry’s position requires a serious explanation, whereas the opposing viewpoint can be expressed on a bumper sticker. As New Jersey Governor Chris Christie pointed out in a speech last night, the argument against giving illegal immigrants in-state tuition is “a common-sense position.”

It seems like common sense, at least. And that’s the problem for Perry.

Matt K. Lewis