WASHINGTON - Texas Gov. Rick Perry recognizes that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. Tuesday, wearing his smart glasses, his hands chopping the air, he called out the National Guard to go to the border to deal with the influx of more than 50,000 children crossing into the U.S. illegally.
"I will not stand idly by while our citizens are under assault and little children from Central America are detained in squalor," Perry said.
This call-up of 1,000 troops, something between a babysitter's club and a costly piece of theater at $12 million a month, is an obvious step to bolster his nascent presidential campaign. It's certainly a better headline grabber than anything he got from a recent weekend in Iowa, the site of the first presidential contest, his fourth trip there in eight months.
Like every presidential hopeful, Perry is a hammer looking for a nail: George W. Bush had the return to chastity in the White House; Mitt Romney had the economy; Barack Obama had hope. What's more presidential than marshaling the troops?
This will be a slam-dunk if Woody Allen's dictum that 80 percent of life is just showing up turns out to be right. Still, calling up the Guard and asking Dad to pay (he is expecting the federal government to pick up the tab) hardly evokes Gary Cooper in "High Noon."
And what will the Guard do? Those coming into Texas aren't evading the Border Patrol, they are giving themselves over to it in hopes they will get asylum from the gang wars and murders at home. However big a misreading that is of current law or Obama's executive actions, there's a process, put in place by President George W. Bush and Congress that gives these Central American immigrants shelter and a hearing before they are sent back.
If Perry wanted to be helpful, albeit in a quieter way, he might encourage his party in Congress not to thwart Obama on fixing our broken immigration system just for the sake of thwarting Obama.
As a border governor, Perry knows the president has put in place more new border guards and seen to more deportations than any recent president. And by working with Central American leaders to get the word out that migrants will be returned, the administration has reduced the flow by more than half, from 355 children a day to 150 or less in recent weeks, according to preliminary data from the Customs and Border Patrol.
But what political fun is that when you can appear to turn back a crime wave with a press conference. Perry said his army would stop the "drug cartels, human traffickers and individual criminals" who are "exploiting this tragedy."
Problem is there is no crime wave. The mayor of McAllen, the city most affected, confirmed that the immigrants don't evade the law but seek it out for protection. That city's police chief testifed at a legislative hearing that there's been no surge in crime. Likewise, the police chief of El Paso, the largest border city, reported no spillover violence.
That's not to say that Obama has wreathed himself in glory. His administration initially called the huge increase in unaccompanied children crossing the border a "local" matter.
It was poor statecraft when fear of a bad photo kept Obama, who was attending a fundraiser in the vicinity, from going to the border to see the crisis first hand. He was afraid of being compared to Bush helicoptering over Katrina-stricken New Orleans.
But for Perry, jumping into the middle of the border crisis is an enticing two-fer. It allows him to swing into action - politicians are action figures at heart - and get right with his party on immigration, a subject that tripped him up when he ran for the presidential nomination in 2012. Among the memorable flubs of the campaign, along with failing to remember much of anything, was his charge that anyone who disagreed with him on giving an in-state tuition break for the children of undocumented immigrants "didn't have a heart."
Action-figures often jump the gun. Look at the "oops" moment of Adam Kwasman, a Republican state legislator in Arizona who is running for Congress and tried to score points off the crisis. Describing what he believed to be migrant children being transported to a detention center, he said: "I was actually able to see some of the children in the buses. The fear on their faces ... This is not compassion."
In fact, they were local kids on their way to YMCA camp, whose biggest worries probably involved lanyard-wearing and whether there would be enough S'mores to go around.
The Texas governor would do well to remember another candidate who relied too heavily on his martial image.
That was Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, who accepted his party's nomination at the 2004 Democratic convention with a sharp salute: "I'm John Kerry and I'm reporting for duty." That quickly became a late-night joke.
Perry is just beginning his climb out of the hole he dug for himself in 2012.
He may be digging himself another by deploying Guardsmen who will be seen standing idly by as kids runs into the arms of the Border Patrol.
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.