For anyone who's lived -- or, rather, done time -- in Rick Perry's Texas, nothing could be more astonishing than what transpired in Orlando on Thursday night: The governor who has turned his state into an Ayn Rand fantasia with a Wild West theme looked and sounded ... humane. And as a result, thanks to the implacable absurdity of his opposition, he took another improbable step toward resembling an electable candidate for president.
Assailed for being "soft" on immigration by hardass-come-lately Mitt Romney -- who set world speed records for repeating the words "magnet" and "illegals" -- Perry first stood up cowboy-straight and blustered about border security and how he's the only candidate who's actually had to deal with it. But then he defended the Texas "Dream Act" he signed and supported, giving some undocumented students in-state university tuition. And if his opponents disagree, he said -- as every Texan gasped in wonder and surprise -- "I don't think you have a heart."
Had the nation's most bloodthirsty executioner just lectured folks on "having a heart?" Yes, and he was only getting started. When the other inevitable "bash the front-runner" topic of the night arose -- Perry's executive order requiring young girls to have an HPV vaccine that his former chief of staff lobbied him for -- Perry's answer was both clever and bleeding-hearty: "I did get lobbied on this issue. I got lobbied by a 31-year-old young lady with Stage 4 cervical cancer. ... I erred on the side of life, and the fact is, I will always err on the side of life as president of the United States."
Rick Perry, compassionate conservative? Nothing could exemplify the extremity of this year's GOP presidential field more than this unimaginable turn. The gang of Tea Party panderers he's running against have wafted us into an alternate universe where the most ideologically pure right-wing governor in America can be transformed, at intervals, into something like a pragmatic, compassionate moderate.
The emphasis on Thursday wasn't on the destruction Perry has wrought on public education in his state. It wasn't on the way he created a record budget deficit and gutted essential social services to balance the ledger. It wasn't on the fact that more than one-quarter of Texans lack health insurance, that teen pregnancies have skyrocketed because of abstinence-only sex ed, that more workers die on the job than in any other state because of lax regulations, that ... well, I'll stop there. The emphasis wasn't on his spectacular failures of governance; the Santorums and Bachmanns and Romneys have shined a spotlight on the rare issues, like immigration, on which Perry has been fairly reasonable and mainstream.
The GOP debates are playing beautifully into Perry's hands -- even though he has put in spotty, and sometimes downright lousy, performances in all three. Perry isn't being forced to move himself toward the mainstream; his opponents are doing it for him. And so are the debate audiences. In his first debate, Perry's disturbingly cold-blooded response to a question about the 234 executions he'd presided over was overshadowed by the audience lustily cheering the killings. Once again last night, the single ugliest moment of a Republican encounter came from off-stage, when debate-goers hooted Stephen Hill, a gay soldier deployed to Iraq in 2010, who dared to ask, via YouTube, whether the candidates would turn back the progress made by repealing "don't ask, don't tell." Perry was no doubt happy the question didn't come to him -- and Rick Santorum, America's proudest gay-basher, was delighted to do the honors, calling the new military policy "social experimentation," and nuttily proclaiming that "any type of sexual activity has no place in the military." (Has this man never seen From Here to Eternity?)
For sheer numb-and-dumbness, of course, nothing topped Michele Bachmann's answer on Thursday night to the question first asked in the previous debate: Of every dollar I earn, how much should I be able to keep? "I think you earned every dollar," Bachmann beamed. "You should get to keep every dollar you earned." As she grinned her way through the rest of her answer, the congresswoman did come around to acknowledging that the government does sort of need some tax money for certain things. God only knows how it's supposed to get it.
But Bachmann is a goner -- like everybody else on stage with Rick Perry, save Romney. The former moderate out-debated Perry on Thursday night. That's not hard to do. Perry is often awkward; among other things, he fumbled a line he'd obviously been practicing about Romney's ideological flip-flops, and he answered a question about Pakistan's nuclear weapons by saying we should have sold India M-16s. But as George W. Bush demonstrated, to fumble is human, and not altogether unattractive to voters.
It's long been a truism in Texas politics that Rick Perry is the luckiest politician on earth. He's run for the right jobs at the right times, and against the right people. And by God and by golly, it looks like he's done it again -- at least until the general election. There has never, in the history of the republic, been a Republican primary field that could have made Perry look pragmatic, humane -- or electable. There's never been a field so extreme that a performance as awkward and unconvincing as Perry's in his first three debates could do him no harm. Until now.