How Rick Perry's Book Proves His Betrayal of Federalism

Its passages on gay marriage and local control, juxtaposed with his recent statements, reveal contradictions more glaring than anyone has realized
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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."

It is essential to our liberty.

"That is the blessing of federalism and the importance of states in a nation as large as ours," Perry writes. "As one pro-states Revolutionary-era politician writing under the pseudonym of Agrippa said, 'The idea of an uncompounded republick [with millions of] inhabitants all reduced to the same standards of morals, of habits, and of laws is in itself an absurdity, and contrary to the whole experience of mankind.' Just as each individual is unique, so, too, do we come together to form unique communities with differing needs."

What would be the consequence of denying local decision-making?

Ultimately, as long as we avoid a one-size-fits-all federal government solution, no American need ever be forced into a mold that does not fit. In a nation of a single rule of law, a frustrated citizen would have no options and would be forced to lead his life under laws he found oppressive. Under federalism, however, this citizen has the opportunity to exercise his liberty by moving to a state where his preferences are better matched.

So he argues that many Americans would find a one-size-fits-all solution to issues like marriage oppressive. Yet he now favors one.

"We can bring about a true renaissance of freedom in America, where the people once again control their lives without interference from faraway mandates in Washington," he writes. "That is the very promise of America."

He now favors breaking it.

Inevitably, federalism is sold under the "laboratory of democracy" rationale too:

As Justice Louis D. Brandeis wrote, "A single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country." This of course relates to each of the reasons offered above, but it's worth noting independently because it strengthens the nation to experiment with ideas... Some states can try different sentencing schemes for their criminals--including, yes, the death penalty--and we can determine what effects they have on crime. States can be free to experiment with different ideas to deal with societal concerns and problems, 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.

Perry was for novel social experiments reflecting the morals and beliefs of the people most affected before he was against them.

"When we empower Washington at the expense of local control, we rip apart the concept of civic virtue by removing the ability of the citizens to govern themselves," he writes. "Prohibition on school prayer, the redefinition of marriage, the nationalization of health care, the proliferation of federal criminal laws... there is seemingly no end to the reach of Washington." An explicit statement that defining marriage at the federal level rips apart the concept of civic virtue.

"To me," he writes, "the idea of living under a distant government that dictates those circumstances and what I may and may not do is not comforting but intolerable." He goes on to write that "the examples I have offered are just a few of the many intrusions into decisions that are not only best left to the people and the states but are constitutionally left to them." And still later he says this: "I see a country that allows the people, and not the courts, to define marriage according to their wishes and morals."

And summing up his vision:

I see a world where all things that can be done by the individual are done by him and no one else. I see a world where all things that cannot be done by the individual are first facilitated by families, friends, colleagues, and those close to him. I see a world where communities and local government step in to fill the breach, and where states step in only when necessary. But most of all, I see a world where the federal government involves itself as the last resort...

What is there to say about a man who says all that -- local control on issues including marriage is what the Founders intended, it's a necessity for holding America together as a country, one-size-fits-all solutions are oppressive, the ability to vote with one's feet should be maintained, novel social experiments strengthen the nation, it's good that people can live in communities ruled by people who share their values, the federal government should only involve itself in the people's affairs as a last resort -- and who then favors the Federal Marriage Amendment?

Here's what I'd say about him: either he is willing to passionately profess, at great length, arguments and sentiments he doesn't actually believe, or in order to become president, he is willing to abandon his most closely held and expansively argued convictions. I am not sure which is more damning.

Here is what Perry would say about such a man:

There are those who enable the statists--a group largely made up of old-guard Republicans, sometimes professing a questionable belief in conservatism--who are complicit in expanding Washington at the expense of the states and the people. They cowardly and selfishly empower themselves politically by compromising liberty issue by issue... It is not enough to pay lip service to limited government or conservative principles if you go forward promoting and embracing flawed, misguided policies that expand the size and scope of the federal government.

Or perhaps this Perry quote is even more apt:

See, those who get power simply want more of it and are willing to set aside principle to maintain it.

Or this one:

The truth is that in the face of a constant drumbeat to centralize power in Washington, Republicans too often either sit on the sidelines or actually make the problem worse.

Or my personal favorite:

Limiting government seems to be but a quaint notion today for Republicans who prefer instead to set aside principle to use government to achieve their own, preferred--supposedly conservative--policy goals.

That Rick Perry sure is hard on himself.

Image credit: Reuters