Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Perry's Immigration Attacks May Backfire

In the short term at least, it seems hard to deny that yesterday's debate was good to Rick Perry. The leading un-Romney contender, Herman Cain, sank underneath withering attacks on his 9-9-9 plan; his inability to defend the details of this plan with anything other than assertions that his opponents are wrong reinforced impressions that he still has a lot of policy areas to brush up on.

And Perry's deeply personal attacks on Mitt Romney helped bring the focus of the debate back on himself. These attacks may help keep Perry as the media takeaway from the event seems to be focusing on how much he's hurt Romney---not on the Texas governor's verbal slips or policy haziness.

All this may provide a boost for Perry and keep him in the race. But his attack on Romney about immigration may eventually raise even more problems for Perry. Via Byron York, here's the substance of the exchange:

And Perry, for the first time in any GOP debate, rattled former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. He did it by bringing up a 2007 charge that Romney hired illegal immigrants to do lawn work at his Massachusetts home. Jobs are the magnet for illegal immigrants, Perry said. "And Mitt, you lose all of your standing, from my perspective, because you hired illegals in your home and you knew about it for a year. And the idea that you stand here before us and talk about that you're strong on immigration is on its face the height of hypocrisy."

Romney tried to laugh it off and to deny the story. "I don't think I've ever hired an illegal in my life," he said. Romney tried to explain, but Perry kept pushing, leaving Romney protesting that Perry was ignoring the rules -- just as Perry had planned.

"Rick, again, Rick, I'm speaking," Romney said. "I'm speaking, I'm speaking, I'm speaking. You get 30 seconds. This is the way the rules work here…Anderson?"

By the time Romney appealed to CNN moderator Anderson Cooper for help, Romney seemed flustered, almost frantic. "Would you please wait?" he said to Perry. "Are you just going to keep talking?"

When Perry finally told Romney to "have at it," Romney explained that he had hired a company to do lawn work and had no idea the company hired illegals until it was reported in the paper.
Perry has become known for his verbal imprecision in presidential debates, and his attack depends upon an indifference to the details of verbal meanings.

Romney "hired" illegal aliens, according to Perry, by paying a company that employed them to do a service. Under this definition of "employment," anyone who goes to a restaurant that employs an illegal alien is also "employing" an illegal alien. A woman purchasing a candy bar from a supermarket with an illegal alien working at the deli counter is also "hiring" an illegal alien. By Perry's definition of employment, he has probably "hired" countless illegal immigrants---at restaurants, stores, and so forth.

The point of Perry's charge of hypocrisy was not to clarify the distinction between proclaimed position and actual practice but to shut down debate by casting an impossibly wide net of guilt. This appeal to hypocrisy to avoid a debate of policy principles is all too common in politics, especially at the federal level, so it's perhaps no surprise to see Perry engaging in it here.

The point that primarily concerns American voters is not whether some individual candidate's money ended up indirectly in the pocket of some illegal immigrant. The point that ought to concern us is whether a candidate thinks it is good to have the workforce be flooded with millions and millions of illegal workers. Romney's record as governor and his rhetoric as president demonstrate that he thinks that might be a problem for this country. Rick Perry's rhetoric and record---from his opposition to E-Verify to his support for major taxpayer subsidies for illegal aliens---suggest that he doesn't think that's such a big problem, if a problem at all. Both positions are understandable, but they are quite different, and we should not blur those important policy distinctions.

Ironically, Perry's attack on Romney may leave Perry open to accusations of being a flip-flopper. Supposedly Romney hiring a company that (unknown to him, so he says) employs illegal aliens is to be a thing of outrage. But someone is also "heartless" if he doesn't support giving tens of thousands of dollars of taxpayer subsidies to illegal aliens. It's hard to square that circle. And such a Texas two-step seems more motivated by political opportunism than anything else.

One of Perry's distinguishing characteristics has been his reputation as a straight-shooter. If Perry tarnishes that reputation by contradictory attacks on his political opponents, he may find his standing further erode in the polls.

(Crossposted at FrumForum)

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