During Monday night’s debate, in the middle of Rick Perry’s mystifyingly passionate defense of in-state tuition for Texas college students here illegally, I imagined that somewhere an old conservative rose from his TV chair to go find new batteries for his hearing aids. No, sir, you heard him correctly. Perry’s not just a compassionate conservative. He’s a contradictory one, too. But in his defense, he’s just a Texan being Texan.
As a 30-plus-year resident of Texas, having lived there most of my adult life, I never cease to be amazed by contradictions, bordering on hypocrisy, that litter the Texas social and political landscape. My introduction came shortly after entering the state in 1978, driving to my new job at Texas A&M University in College Station along a two-lane back road out of Beaumont. Every few miles you’d pass a clearing for either a church or a honky-tonk beer joint. It was a Sunday night and business seemed brisk at both types of establishment.
As I got to know Texas better over the years, I came to appreciate and better understand this initial baptism into Texas dichotomies as symbolic of a larger bipolar syndrome that afflicts the state. Texans are comfortable going to church one Sunday and the honky-tonk the next. Heck, why not hit the honky-tonk on the way home from church? Let’s get real. We’re saints and sinners. Once you cross that threshold, being a conservative who wants to give tax-subsidized benefits to illegal residents ain’t no big leap.
The Mexican issue is a good place to start. For the first 25 years I was in Texas, I almost never saw or heard unkind political rhetoric about undocumented or illegal Mexicans. They were all around us. Everyone knew. The politicians and the public just shrugged. No significant Republican politician (and few Democrats) ever rallied around the English Only movement when it flared up in the 1980s. The only Texas pol of any consequence I ever knew to rail on the immigration issue was Kent Hance, the West Texas Blue Dog Democrat who turned Republican and then ran for governor in 1986. His campaign aired a border-security TV ad that was a harbinger of things to come in the next millennium. But Texans didn’t get it back then, and Hance lost. In fact, the presence of so many illegal Mexicans continued to be a non-issue until George W. Bush left for the White House and Rush Limbaugh began to creep into the consciousness of Republican primary candidates.
But because of the Texas heritage of tolerance and the fact that undocumented labor is an essential part of the Texas workforce, Texans are still laissez-faire except during primary season. Consider the following when trying to understand Perry’s difficulty being a predictably reliable Tea Party conservative when it comes to immigration issues. Some of Rick Perry’s largest political donors, Houston homebuilders, are beneficiaries of open borders. These donors’ homebuilding empires are constructed on a system of subcontracting arrangements that employ tens of thousands of undocumented Mexicans. You don’t build homes on the Texas Gulf Coast without Mexicans. And everyone knows that many aren’t here legally. It’s the worst-kept secret in Texas since the loss to Santa Anna at the Alamo. Then the homebuilders take the fortunes they made off that labor and plow some into Rick Perry’s political ventures. Gov. Perry is therefore cross-pressured into an awkward fence-rail straddle of being pro-Mexican on tuition and anti-Mexican on the border fence. Ouch.
Taxes could be Perry’s next straddle. Perry and most boosterish Texans love to extol the fact that Texas has no income tax. But that ignores other high taxes in Texas. Next week I’ll explain why that’s another bipolar problem for Perry.
David Hill is a pollster that has worked for Republican candidates and causes since 1984.