ORLANDO, Fla.—The six and a half minutes Rick Perry spent talking about immigration at the Fox News/Google debate form the Zapruder film of his sudden political collapse. It replayed all weekend in the amygdalas of Florida Republicans. When you walked the halls and skywalks of the Orange County Convention Center, or the Peabody Hotel, or the Hilton, you heard the key quotes repeated back verbatim, with disbelief. Republicans decided that Perry had blown it. Texas' law that let the children of illegal immigrants pay discounted in-state tuition was just indefensible.
In their defense, Perry made minced dog chow out of the question. He channeled the spirit of Christopher Darden, asking Rick Santorum if he had ever even been to the border (he had) and pointing out that "only four" legislators had dissented from the tuition scheme. "This was a state issue," he said. "Texans voted on it. And I still support it greatly."
Perry was arrogant and alienating and had no clue why this was backfiring on him. You can understand his misunderstanding. Perry started to rise as a national figure when he joined the Tea Party and preached the doctrine of Texan exceptionalism. He raised the specter of secession (or maybe nullification) because of Washington's tendency to "thumb their nose at the American people." He wrote a whole book, Fed Up!, full of ways to devolve Washington's powers to Austin, Boston, Bismarck, and the rest of them. "States can be free to experiment with different ideas to deal with societal concerns and problems," writes Perry, "and they can do so at a level closer to the people so that those particular trials can match the morals and beliefs of the people most affected."
This is what the Republican base says it believes. There should be no "one size fits all" health care plan; the states should form compacts to determine their own policies; the EPA should be shrunk small enough to be drowned in a bathtub full of fracking fluid.
And yet, this is not quite what the Republican base believes. For months, it was Mitt Romney and his insistence that Massachusetts' health care mandate was a state issue. Now, it's Perry and the college kids. Michael Williams, the Texas railroad commissioner who's single-handedly bringing back the bowtie, had the unwelcome task of speaking on Perry's behalf before the Florida straw poll. He accepted the premise that Perry hadn't explained the law very well. "I've had extra days to think about it!" said Williams. And anyway, Perry was right. "The federal government has wholly failed to control our border," he said, "so as a consequence we're going to have noncitizens who are residents of our state. We want people to come to America, because as John Paul II said, we are the continent of hope."
After the voting stopped, I asked Republican delegates why Perry was wrong. Only occasionally did they agree that immigration laws could be left up to states.
"What people don't understand is that Texans do it their way," said Duke Wade, a crestfallen Perry-backing delegate from Sarasota. "People get all bent out of shape, but all Perry is saying is, 'We want to make sure that these kids, they're good citizens.' They're working on being good citizens. He didn't quite adequately explain in the debate."
According to a Rasmussen Reports released last month, 81 percent of voters said they opposed the idea of letting noncitizens get in-state tuition rates. That was up from 59 percent in 2007. Most delegates agreed with the nay-sayers. "So, Perry said it was a state's rights issue," huffed Willie Lawson, a delegate from Hillsborough County. "It would be, if immigrants just stayed in Texas. But they don't! If immigrants stayed in one place, then California could have its policy, and Texas could have its policy. But they leave. People leave."
That was as nuanced as it got. Carol Van Rennen, a delegate from Melbourne, paused an argument she was having about Perry to explain that her grandchildren were having a tough time paying for school. "The reason why is that all this money is going to illegal immigrants," she said. Shelly Foder, a delegate from Lake City, spoke in a staccato to make sure I heard her argument. "Stop. Giving. To the illegals."
Perry's argument is that he supported a law in Texas that he wouldn't institute nationwide. "He opposes the national DREAM Act," explained Williams. Romney's defense on health care is similar: He supported a law in Massachusetts that he won't support elsewhere. "I did what I believe was right for the people of my state," he said in his air-clearing health care address four months ago.
There's no evidence that Republican voters buy this. If they've stopped punishing Romney, it's only because Perry, for now, is a piñata that gives out more candy when you bash him. On Thursday, Romney made a distinctly un-10th Amendment argument against his rival. "We have to turn off the magnet of extraordinary government benefits," he said, "like a $100,000 tax credit—or, excuse me, discount for going to the University of Texas." It didn't matter if it was only in one state. President Romney wouldn't let Texans exercise their sovereignty like that. And shortly after Romney said this, Ron Paul got his biggest cheer of the night with a libertarian koan: "The responsibility of the president would be to veto every single bill that violates the 10th Amendment."
Republicans choose not to marry these two ideas. There are some sound, cynical reasons. The argument Perry leans on—that the federal government's immigration policy doesn't work—is the same one used by the comprehensive-reform crowd. It raises hackles. And they have plenty of politicians to choose from who don't support policies like these, even if the policies are popular and broadly supported in their own states.
Still, why was it so hard to find Republicans in Orlando who gave Perry a pass on 10th Amendment grounds? Perry's been clear on this: He thinks the states can do whatever they want, and the federal government should let them carry out every policy in such areas as health care or drug legalization. Republican voters cheered that, right until the policy in question was one they didn't like. This isn't where Perry wanted the 10th Amendment fight to go. Now that we're there, it's pretty revealing.