Rick Perry's two-month-old presidential campaign, while still young, has nonetheless had more than its share of gaffes. From Perry's infamous decision to call Social Security a "Ponzi scheme" to his strange ideas about what the original tea party was, his shoot-from-the-hip persona often causes him to misfire. Still, nothing seems to have aroused doubts about him quite like his defense at last week's presidential debate of a controversial Texas initiative that grants in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants. Perry's problem isn't so much that he's on the wrong side of the GOP base on the issue -- everyone knows Mitt Romney has his heterodoxies -- it's how he responded when challenged: If you don't see things my way, he essentially said, "I don't think you have a heart."
Voters regularly vote for politicians they disagree with on some issues, and politicians with unpopular stances win elections all the time. The right approach for finessing an issue like that, however, is to appeal to the human capacity to agree to disagree and respect multiple viewpoints. Perry, by calling orthodox conservatives heartless, did just the opposite: He dissed the right.
It's difficult for any progressive observer to differ with Perry on this point. We're talking, after all, about people who broke U.S. immigration law as children, presumably at the behest of their parents. To not sympathize with the desire of a kid like that to be treated like any other American would be pretty heartless. But if Perry wants to defend his non-heartless attitude toward immigrants with a less moralistic argument, he should consider talking about the lessons of Texas' impressive record of job creation over the past decade.
After all, this record is Perry's main argument for why he should be president. The solid foundation for this job growth has been a population that increases at nearly twice the rate of the overall national average. When I point this out, some conservatives posit that Texas's population is growing because of all the employment opportunities. That's no doubt happening to some extent (particularly in the oil industry), but this view misunderstands the nature of modern employment. A growing population in the Dallas area means more homebuilding near Dallas. It means more restaurants and supermarkets for the new people to shop at. It means more hospital beds and more dental hygienists to take care of the new people. It means more schools to educate their kids, more cops to keep the streets safe, more bank tellers, more accountants. Production of these kinds of non-tradable goods accounts for the bulk of contemporary employment, and it's driven by population movements rather than vice versa. You have to have people to provide these services to before the jobs can exist.
Texans aren't breeding at double the pace of other Americans. People are moving there -- about 300,000 a year, with approximately equal shares coming from elsewhere in the country and from abroad. But wherever they come from, their presence has made Texas a richer, more prosperous, more dynamic place with more economic activity and more employment growth than it would otherwise have.
Conventional thinking about this in the United States becomes oddly confused when we look at the national level. People get terrified that immigrants will "take" jobs from other people, drive down wages, and overburden our infrastructure. When looking at a particular state, though, we tend to understand much more clearly that it's a good thing if people want to move there. The new people bring with them demand for goods and services, as well as their own skills. America as a whole would, in this sense, benefit from a bit more of the Texas spirit. Becoming more welcoming to people who want to move here would, for example, increase demand for living space and help revive the American housing market, providing a much needed boost to the economy and checking the waves of foreclosure that are pushing us ever further from prosperity.
My guess is that Perry will try to wriggle out of what he said, somehow apologizing or backtracking. But the damage is probably done. By discussing Texas as a success story borne of migration-driven population growth, though, he can turn his Achilles' heel into the strongest part of his campaign, reframe the immigration issue in less moralistic terms, and -- no small thing -- put an actual good idea on the table.