Commentary Magazine


Perry’s Continuing Misadventures North and South of the Border

This was supposed to be the start of a comeback week for Rick Perry as he began to hit back hard at Mitt Romney and prepared for a better performance at the next Republican presidential debate. Instead, it has begun with him still playing defense on immigration, a questionable new policy initiative on border security and a potentially devastating revelation about the racially charged name of the hunting camp that he and his family used to lease.

It is the latter charge upon which most commentary about Perry will center this week and not without cause. But even if we accept his campaign’s claims of innocence about the “Niggerhead” hunting camp, the continued criticism from conservatives about his very defensible position on education benefits for the children of illegal immigrants would be a problem. So, too, would the feedback about his suggestion the United States military get involved in the drug war raging in Northern Mexico. All in all, it’s hard to escape the impression that unless he can do something to reverse the trend, Perry’s presidential hopes are sinking fast into the Texas twilight.

To be fair to Perry, the Washington Post feature on the hunting camp is vague about the details about how long a rock with the disgusting name “Niggerhead” was allowed to stand at one of the entrances to the place before it was painted over. Neither Perry nor his father, who leased part of the site for years, are responsible for the original name of the site which is rooted in Texas’ racist past. But it can’t be denied that they tolerated it for a while before deciding to efface the tangible evidence of the name. It is true, as the article says, what Perry did about the name is “unclear.” But it is also true the governor’s claim his family did away with the name when they took over the place cannot be contradicted with certainty.

Yet no matter which side of this dispute you choose to believe, it looks bad. Even if one takes Perry at his word about his actions, his family’s association with a relic of his state’s history of racism ought to leave everyone with a bad taste even in their mouths. Considering that he is running for the chance to unseat the country’s first African-American president, the story is an appalling distraction from the issues that can only serve to aid an otherwise faltering Obama re-election campaign.

Yet though it is going to be overshadowed by the “Niggerhead” story, Perry’s suggestion in a campaign speech in New Hampshire that he might send America’s armed forces to aid the Mexican authorities stamp out drug cartels operating south of the Rio Grande is as problematic as anything else he has said since he declared for the presidency.

It is true American intervention in Colombia has been an important part of the war on drugs, and few would argue it was a mistake. But the decision of a friendly government in Colombia to accept U.S. aid in a war against narco-terrorists who are aided and abetted by the leftist regime in neighboring Venezuela is a very different thing from Perry’s idea. The history of American military intervention in Mexico is an unfortunate obstacle to close relations between the two countries. Perry’s decision to channel his inner Woodrow Wilson (who sent an expedition of U.S. cavalry on an extended wild goose chase after Pancho Villa in 1916) can only make an already messy situation worse. The U.S. ought to help the Mexicans fight the drug gangs in any way possible, but Perry knows enough about the situation to understand that having our armed forces cross the border is a non-starter.

Perhaps this idea was an effort to compensate for being unfairly branded as “weak” on border defense and immigration. But rather than change the conversation on that issue, it will only remind many conservatives that they disagree with him.

Both the camp story and the border proposal indicate insufficient preparation for a presidential campaign and poor judgment on the part of the candidate and his staff. It remains to be seen whether even a dazzling comeback by Perry at the next debate on Oct. 11 will be enough to wipe the smile off the face of an increasingly confident Mitt Romney.