Something strange is happening in the 2012 campaign. Conservative pundits are increasingly accusing Rick Perry — that’s the Rick Perry who shoots coyotes with a laser-sighted .380 handgun on his morning jogs — of being a closet liberal.
Perry’s always had some vulnerabilities from the right, but they’re pretty exceptional cases overall. The two big ones are (a): his moderate and pro-business streak on immigration, which included signing a law granting in-state tuition to illegal immigrants, and (b): his unsuccessful attempt to mandate HPV vaccinations for schoolchildren. But what’s really irking pundits on the right is the way he’s chosen to defend them.
The most crucial moment so far was in Perry’s last debate, where he lashed out at critics of his immigration policies with some surprisingly tough rhetoric.
“If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they’ve been brought there by no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart,” Perry told the audience.
Mitt Romney has jumped on the line to attack Perry, defending anti-immigration Republicans as the ones who “have a heart and a brain.” But it’s not just Romney — some of conservative media’s biggest names are also going after him from the right these days.
“That is a progressive talking point, that you don’t have a heart, you don’t like children,” Beck sidekick Pat Gray said. “Shut up. Don’t give me that.”
Beck literally applauded after playing audio of Michele Bachmann slamming Perry’s record, then accused Perry of “luring these people in” with in-state tuition.
Other top names joined in. Mark Steyn said that Perry “has basically adopted the Democratic line now on the whole illegal immigration issue,” despite Perry’s stated opposition to the federal DREAM Act. Rush Limbaugh praised Herman Cain for his Florida Straw Poll victory over the weekend in what appeared to be a very clear dig at Perry.
“I know what the people of this country want and they don’t want John McCain, Jr,” Limbaugh said. “They don’t want another moderate Republican to work with the other side. They don’t want somebody who wants to cut it both ways on illegal immigration or on health care. They want a conservative.”
Limbaugh’s jab was all the more notable given that he had defended Perry from his opponents’ attacks on his HPV vaccination policy just days earlier.
While Limbaugh, Beck, et al may be warning signs, it’s still not clear from the polls whether the “Progressive Perry” line is sinking in with GOP voters. For Perry, who is trying to brand himself as the straight shooter to Romney’s flip flopper, the biggest danger could also be overreacting to the attacks and changing his position abruptly.
Take, for instance, the latest “Perry is a closet hippie” dig by Rick Santorum. The former Pennsylvania Senator turned the Texas governor’s strong “States’ Rights” stance against him by noting he implicitly supports California’s right to legalize medical marijuana. That same line of attack forced Perry to flip earlier in the summer on the subject of gay marriage.
Considering that Perry was widely hailed as a kind of conservative savior heading into his campaign, with his strong “States’ Rights” view being held up as a central part of that, it’s pretty shocking to see these lapses being used to suggest that he has a secretly liberal worldview.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.