Rick Perry's Bet on Federalism

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The Texas governor insists social issues should be handled by the states, and his stance could pit religious conservatives against 10th Amendment fans in 2012

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Gov. Rick Perry, the charismatic Texan said to be launching a presidential bid this August, is getting attention for his ongoing flirtation with the 10th Amendment. In a 2010 "Daily Show" interview, he defended states' rights in conversation with Jon Stewart, saying that if Californians want to smoke marijuana and hire trial lawyers to sue one another, that's their prerogative.

In the same interview, he took a federalist position on gay marriage. And even as prepares for the campaign trail, he's sticking to it. "Our friends in New York six weeks ago passed a statute that said marriage can be between two people of the same sex," he told GOP donors over the weekend in Aspen. "And you know what? That's New York, and that's their business, and that's fine with me. That is their call. If you believe in the 10th Amendment, stay out of their business."

Adam Serwer, a progressive blogger who is unimpressed by Perry's record, nevertheless sees the appeal of his rhetoric. "If Perry gets into the race, this kind of positioning could blunt the growing distaste for anti-gay discrimination among American voters," he writes. "In a general election, it could make him more palatable to those with conservative views who aren't willing to countenance anti-gay bigotry."

There's a more immediate political logic to the position too. In 2008, Perry backed a nemesis of religious conservatives. "For all his new found commitment to hyper-conservatism," Mike Huckabee recently wrote of Perry in an email to supporters, "he'll get to explain why he supported pro-abortion, pro-same sex marriage Rudy Giuliani last time." It appears that Perry has settled on this explanation: Those are state matters. Pragmatic social conservatives should be satisfied by his stance. Returning abortion to the states, via federalist Supreme Court justices, is the best they can do.

Gay marriage is more complicated. Many religious conservatives see that it's hopeless to fight its legality in states like New York, where it was enacted by the legislature. But they also recognize that marriages granted in one state are likely to eventually be recognized in all states.

With the ascendance of the tea party and the GOP electorate focused on jobs, size of government, and fiscal issues, there's no better time to run as a 10th Amendment Republican. If Perry does so, it'll be an interesting test of how many conservatives buy into its logic as a matter of principle, not just convenience. Gary Bauer has taken his stand: "The 10th Amendment and states' rights is very important to conservatives, but it's not our highest value," he said. "There are some things so fundamentally wrong that we have not left those things up to the states."

As a 10th Amendment fan, I'm glad to see Perry speaking on its behalf, but wary too. 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.


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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