Saturday, September 24, 2011

EDITORIAL >>We applaud Rick Perry

Rick Perry, Arkansas’ favorite Republican candidate for president, according to the polls, has a Mike Huckabee problem. It is not so much that Huckabee seems to despise him—that will not be a factor in Perry’s fortunes even in Arkansas—but that he and Huckabee share too many impulses.

They are not the impulses that get you nominated for president by the Republican Party. First, there was Perry’s softhearted effort to use the government of Texas to vaccinate teenage girls against a fatal cancer. His party’s right wing in Texas forced him to withdraw that executive order, and all his Republican opponents have clobbered him for it in the debates. He apologized for his humanitarian impulse, and the issue seems to have gone away.

It was reminiscent of Huckabee’s vast expansion of the Arkansas government’s health-insurance services for children—a little bit of socialism that seemed to carry well with Arkansas voters, although it would kill our former governor if he were running for president in the 2012 primaries.

But Perry’s larger problem became apparent in the big Florida debate Thursday night. His opponents, chiefly Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, ridiculed Perry’s big Texas achievement, to allow the children of illegal immigrants to go to Texas state universities and junior colleges without having to pay prohibitive out-of-state tuition. Huckabee tried to pass a similar law in Arkansas in 2003 and 2005 but failed, largely owing to opposition by Republican legislators.

Hostility to immigrants has been a litmus test for the Republican Party for a decade, and this year it is one of those issues on which the party’s controlling right wing brooks no softness. John McCain and Mike Huckabee learned that early in 2008 and managed to overcome it. McCain, like the early George W. Bush, supported a “pathway to citizenship” for illegal immigrants, but he was booed so vociferously in the early debates and dropped so precipitously in the polls that he came back demagoguing the immigration issue, saying that stopping immigration by building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico had to come first. Huckabee did the same.

No politician in America had been more sympathetic and considerate of illegal immigrants than Huckabee while he was governor. On Huckabee’s volition, Arkansas became one of only seven states that used Medicaid money to cover prenatal care for immigrant women because, Huckabee said, Hispanic women had an unusually high prenatal birth-defect risk.

He arranged to open a Mexican consulate to Little Rock to help immigrants with labor problems and with getting legal papers. He condemned federal agents for raiding a plant at Arkadelphia and deporting Mexican workers and splitting their families. He told one crowd that God had given America “a second chance” to do the right thing by treating Hispanics better than it had treated African-Americans for much of its history.

Perry isn’t that sympathetic to the central American aliens, but it is still a bigger problem for him than it was for Huckabee, who managed to hang in the race with McCain in 2008 long after everyone else had caved. Perry is the front-runner, owing mainly to his instant good standing with the tea-party wing, but it was pretty clear that most people weren’t aware of Perry’s record. They are becoming more aware with every debate.

Perry has to find a way to force some acceptance of his views on immigration or else change his views, as he has on so many issues. Wednesday, he said he was not backing down, but we imagine there is some deep reassessment going on in the governor’s camp.

Perry tried a little of Huckabee’s early strategy three years ago, but it did not seem to win any favor. He said children of illegal immigrants did not break the law and they should not be punished for what their parents did. It was far better for everyone, he said, if the state made it as easy as possible for them to get a good education so that they could become productive people.

Of the opponents who were criticizing him, Perry said, anyone who disagreed with his tuition policy did not have a heart. The tea-party audience at the debate—a Perry crowd, you thought at the outset—booed him lustily. Romney and Santorum seized the moment.

“I think if you are opposed to illegal immigration, it doesn’t mean you don’t have a heart,” Romney said. “It means you have a heart and a brain.”

Santorum hit a chord with the audience with a lie. He said the point was not humanity but money. He said Perry was subsidizing college for immigrant children when they should be made to borrow money for school like everyone else.

It is not true, of course. Paying in-state tuition rather than out-of-state tuition puts the youngsters on the same footing as everyone else except people from outside Texas who want to attend its once-great universities. Immigrants pay the same taxes as everyone else and there is no reason they should not be allowed to go to school on the same financial terms as everyone else. Even with in-state tuition it is still expensive, prohibitively expensive for all but a few migrants.

Huckabee has made his hostility to Perry clear (it arises from Perry’s refusal to endorse his candidacy for president in 2008, instead backing the liberal Rudy Giuliani and then McCain). Huckabee said the other day that Romney, despite their own bitter differences, was a better candidate than Perry. You might think that Huckabee would be in Perry’s corner, which might fortify Perry’s standing in the evangelical wing of the party, but with Huckabee grudges trump philosophy.

The big-haired Texan can still profit from Huckabee’s example. He ought to stand behind the one humanitarian impulse that he has evinced. It would show some character. Huckabee turned it into a religious issue, and Perry surely can manage that. Being generous with poor immigrants is what Jesus would do. Perry could say that God told him to do it. That is our contribution to the Perry candidacy. It may be our last. — Ernie Dumas