Gov. Rick Perry Is a 10th-Amendment Turncoat

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After touting his support for states' rights, he pandered to social conservatives by calling for a constitutional amendment overruling New York on gay marriage

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Earlier this week, I noted that Gov. Rick Perry (R-Tex.) was standing firm on his states' rights convictions, insisting that issues like medical marijuana and gay marriage should be handled by the people of different jurisdictions as they see fit. "That is the beauty of this union," he told Jon Stewart in a November 2010 interview. And on the recent decision to legalize gay marriage in the Empire State? "That's New York, and that's their business, and that's fine with me. That is their call," he said. "If you believe in the 10th Amendment, stay out of their business."

How deeply does Perry believe in the 10th Amendment? As it turns out, not deeply enough for his advocacy on its "beauty" and wisdom to survive an interview with Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council. By its end, he is speaking out on behalf of the Federal Marriage Amendment, a proposal that would define marriage everywhere in the United States as being between one man and one woman, effectively overturning the actions of New York's duly elected legislature, and preventing even citizen-backed ballot initiatives from legalizing gay marriage in the future.

In the interview, Perry and Perkins both try to make this sound as though it is the real states' rights position:

TONY PERKINS I think marriage and family policy is best dealt with at the state level. But the tenth amendment -- and I am a strong supporter. I fought the federal government on a number of issues when they were trying to force us to do things. But when you look at what's happening on marriage, the real fear is that states like New York will change the definition of marriage for Texas. At that point the states rights argument is lost.

GOV. PERRY Right and that is the reason that the federal marriage amendment is being offered, it's that small group of activist judges, and frankly a small handful, if you will, of states, and liberal special interests groups that intend on a redefinition of, if you will, marriage on the nation, for all of us, which I adamantly oppose. Indeed to not pass the federal marriage amendment would impinge on Texas, and other states not to have marriage forced upon us by these activist judges and special interest groups.

Translation: We support the 10th amendment until the people of another state decide an issue in a way that affects us. As these men surely know, a state's drinking age, gambling laws, agricultural policies, drug laws, and many other policies besides affect its neighbors. Should all those issues be federalized too?

That's only the beginning of the wrongheadedness of that exchange. In New York, activist judges didn't pass gay marriage, the legislature did. Support for gay marriage in every state includes more straight people than gay people, so it's disingenuous to describe its enactment as being due to a special interest -- a lot of people regard equality in marriage as a matter of general interest. And state supreme courts, whatever the philosophy of the judges who sit on them, are legitimate parts of state governments, as laid out in their constitutions. Insofar as their rulings change state policy, that too comes under the rubric of states' rights.

Says Perry: "Our Constitution was designed to respect states including the amendment process. That is one of the beauties and why I talk about in my book Fed Up that we need as a nation to get back to really respecting our constitution and the tenth amendment in particular which allows the states to impede against each other, whether it is on taxes or regulations or litigation and create the economic environment."

Adds Perkins: "The only and thin line of protection for those states that have defined marriage, that have been historically been defined between a man and a woman. The support of a marriage amendment is a pro-state's rights position, because it will defend the rights of states to define marriage as it has been."

So now states' rights are defined as the right to be locked into the status quo, regardless of what your legislature or people want at any time in the future. That's absurd. And one wonders if they would also regard it as a victory for states' rights if, at some future date, the people of blue America passed a constitutional amendment forcing gay marriage on the states of Texas, Alabama and Mississippi.

It is possible for a principled federalist who believes in the 10th Amendment to fear that marriage decisions in one state will force the hand of people in other states. The thing to do, if that is the genuine concern: back a very different constitutional amendment. It would affirm every state's right to decide the issue as it sees fit -- and go on to stipulate that officials in one state need not recognize marriages granted in another. That would be an anti-family stance. But not so burdensome and far-reaching in its implications as the Federal Marriage Amendment, which would strip lawfully wedded partners who swore "till death do us part" of their marriage licenses.  

In previous remarks, Perry didn't merely say that the 10th Amendment obligates him to respect the rights of other states to pass their own marriage laws. He embraced the beauty of different strokes for different folks, and localized decision-making. "If I ever became president," he once said, "my first order of business would be to make Washington as inconsequential in your lives as possible." Except for the effort he'd make to trump state marriage laws with federal law.

Perry has shown himself to be a 10th Amendment hypocrite whose credibility on any issue related to federalism should never again be trusted. As noted in that earlier post, "It's easy for governors to advocate for states' rights: Doing so effectively maximizes the power they wield. Once a candidate makes it to the Oval Office, however, his or her power is diminished by permitting states to go their own ways. Presidents, being power hungry, are unreliable defenders of what Perry is espousing." In this case, Perry hasn't even declared in the primaries yet -- mere yearning for the White House was enough to cause him to embrace expediency over principle.

Image credit: Reuters 


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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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