How Rick Perry's Book Proves His Betrayal of Federalism

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Its passages on gay marriage and local control, juxtaposed with his recent statements, reveal contradictions more glaring than anyone has realizedrick perry full.jpg

Before Gov. Rick Perry entered the presidential race, he took heat for changing his position on gay marriage. "Our friends in New York six weeks ago passed a statute that said marriage can be between two people of the same sex. And you know what? That's New York, and that's their business, and that's fine with me," he told GOP donors in Aspen, Colorado. "If you believe in the 10th Amendment, stay out of their business." Asked about the issue days later by an influential social conservative, he gave a different answer. "Obviously gay marriage is not fine with me, my stance had not changed," he said. "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."

How important is this flip flop? I suggested at the time that Perry is a "tenth amendment turncoat" who can't be trusted as a consistent friend of federalism. His defenders insisted that, as Perry himself put it, amending the constitution is an option given us by the framers, and the process includes the states. The controversy takes on added importance now that he is officially running for the GOP nomination. As Michael Scherer puts it, "Texas Governor Rick Perry is not just any federalist. He is the grand poobah of federalists, an alpha-dog federalist, a federalist other federalists dare not challenge. His call for state sovereignty and a limited federal encroachment on 'liberty' has been a central plank of his political rise." It's an identity certain to appeal to some tea partiers in the primary, and that independents might appreciate in a general election.

It certainly appealed to me.

But is it bullshit?

After the gay marriage flip flop, my thinking was as follows. It is theoretically possible for a principled man to believe that the Constitution is the law of the land, that it leaves certain matters to the states, and that any federal encroachment on those issues would be an affront to the rule of law. But a constitutional amendment would change everything for that man. If that described Perry, I could forgive him his flip flop. It's highly unlikely that a constitutional amendment on gay marriage would actually succeed, so even if Perry favored one, but firmly insisted that states had the freedom to make policy pending its passage, I'd get my way: states would be free to decide gay marriage and many other issues besides without the feds interfering.

But I worried that, having flip flopped so quickly on gay marriage, Perry's word couldn't be trusted -- after all, it is typical for governors to champion states' rights when it enhances their power, only to reverse themselves in the White House, where they seek to maximize presidential authority.

Here's what I've found after further digging: if you care about federalism, Perry isn't to be trusted. That is the only conclusion to draw after reviewing his lengthy, impassioned treatment of the subject in Fed Up!: Our Fight to Save America from Washington. Its passages, juxtaposed with Perry's recent actions, represent a betrayal of principle far more stark than I realized before reading the book. Its account of why federalism matters is anything but legalistic. And a man who intended to stand behind its contents would never support a Federal Marriage Amendment, which would ban gay marriage in all states, imposing a traditional definition even on places like New York, where a duly elected legislature has already passed gay marriage.

Let's turn to the book.

Its arguments for embracing federalism, states rights, the 10th Amendment, and local control are numerous and expounded on at great length. Early in Chapter One, there's outrage at faraway lawmakers. "We are fed up with a federal government that has the arrogance to preach to us about how to live our lives, and the chutzpah to haul every baseball player and other 'evildoer' in the world before a congressional committee," Perry writes.  

He casts federalism as an essential tool in a large, diverse country with profound moral disagreements among its citizens. "We can all still be proud Americans while acknowledging that we simply do not agree on many fundamental issues. We are a diverse people--incapable of being governed from a faraway capital by people who do not share our values. Recognizing this fact is critical to the preservation of a free state," he says. "Federalism enables us to live united as a nation, with a federal government that is focused on our national security and that has specific enumerated powers, while we live in states with like-minded people who share our values and beliefs. Crucial to understanding federalism in modern-day America is the concept of mobility, or the ability to vote with your feet."

For example?

"If you don't support the death penalty and citizens packing a pistol, don't come to Texas," he writes. "If you don't like medicinal marijuana and gay marriage, don't move to California."

That's what the people want, he insists.

"Americans want to live free. They want to gather together with people of common beliefs and goals to establish communities in which they can prosper. They do not want to be told how to live their lives," he writes. "They certainly don't want some faraway bureaucrat, judge, or representative of a different community to tell them how to live. That liberty has been the essence of America ever since the colonists came here."

The essence of America!

"States Allow Us to Live with People of Like Mind," he declares in a subtitled section that reads as follows:

The Founders gave us a federal system of government that, if respected, allows people of varying beliefs to live together united as Americans. We agree that there are certain things we must do together as Americans to be a strong nation--the providing of national defense and security being first and foremost--but most problems get better solutions when they are solved at the local level. And in doing so, we can tailor those solutions to our own values and perspectives rather than trying to create national one-size-fits-all policies. I would no more consider living in Massachusetts than I suspect a great number of folks from Massachusetts would like to live in Texas. We just don't agree on a number of things. They passed state-run health care, they have sanctioned gay marriage, and they elected Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, and Barney Frank repeatedly.

Huh. So Massachusetts sanctioning gay marriage is one example of the local freedom to choose that is necessary for all Americans to live together and respect one another as a diverse people. "In an increasingly diverse and growing nation of over 300 million citizens of varying religious, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds, this benefit has only grown in significance and impact since the Founders contemplated and implemented federalism. From marriage to prayer," Perry writes, "from zoning laws to tax policy, from our school systems to health care, and everything in between, it is essential to our liberty that we be allowed to live as we see fit through the democratic process at the local and state level."

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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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