One representation of the volatility of the Republican presidential primary this year has been in the positioning of the candidates on the debate stage. Television producers, perhaps imagining the podiums as a football offensive line, place the frontrunners in the middle, then fan out the rest of the candidates in order of relevance. With the exception of perennial bookend Jon Huntsman, just about every GOP contender enjoyed his or her time at center stage.
Not long ago, Texas Governor Rick Perry stood in that coveted middle, alongside current frontrunner Mitt Romney. But at last week’s candidates’ forum in South Carolina, the deck was once again reshuffled and Perry was (perhaps ironically) positioned on the far-left side. And all this in the state that became the linchpin of his post-Iowa campaign. How far the mighty had fallen.
About halfway through the debate, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum got in a dust-up over a bill that Santorum had supported in Congress which would have given felons who exhausted their sentences the right to vote. After several rounds of slings and arrows between the two, Perry managed to interrupt. “And this is a great example of the insiders that are having the conversation up here. And the fact of the matter is this: Washington, DC needs to leave the states alone and let the states decide these issues and don’t do it from Washington, DC.” The line received wild applause. Later on, Perry declared, in a sound bite that probably autopenned a few Huffington Post headlines the next day, “South Carolina is at war with this federal government and this administration.
Perry received accolades for his debate performance from many conservatives that night. But the damage had already been done. Lassoed by stagnant poll numbers in the Palmetto State, he dropped out of the race three days later.
During his brief ride across the presidential frontier, Perry was often compared to George W. Bush. Both were Texas governors. Both ran as credentialed conservatives. Both moved with a pluck and a crackle in the air that seem native to the Lone Star State. But this ham-handed metaphor obscured something worth noticing: Perry’s ideas — states’ rights, interstate competition, and the superiority of local governance — are unique; not just unique among the current candidates, but representative of an ideological strain in the Republican Party that seems to have gone dormant over the past decade and may be awakening from its slumber.
States-rights conservatism has historically been in the Republican wheelhouse, embodied in its most unvarnished form by Barry Goldwater back in 1964. In his seminal Conscience of a Conservative, Goldwater wrote, “There is a reason for the reservation of States’ Rights. Not only does it prevent the accumulation of power in a central government that is remote from the people and relatively immune from popular restraints; it also recognizes the principle that essentially local problems are best dealt with by the people most directly concerned.”
But somewhere along the way, the GOP’s taste for states’ rights was discarded as a nettlesome impediment to Republican governance. The new fad was wielding the g-forces of government to produce “conservative solutions.” Thus did the Heritage Foundation dream up the individual mandate: rather than collectivize the entire health care system, they would foist personal responsibility on people by forcing them to purchase insurance. Then the free market would sputter to life and all our health care woes would be solved. (Though forcing citizens to buy a product seems to clash with the whole “free market” idea just a smidge.) It was this obsequious, technocratic swamp that produced ideas like the federalization of education under No Child Left Behind and Medicare Part D.
So when Rick Perry talks about federalism, he’s lobbing stones not only at progressive Democrats who view the very term “states’ rights” as cursive for racism, but also at many old-guard Republicans.
But it’s curious that the idea of federalism should sound so novel in the first place. Empowering the states and enforcing the Tenth Amendment would necessarily neuter the federal government. But it would also maintain a scaffolding of laws to preserve order. Federalism means dividing and devolving power, not eliminating it. “States’ rights” often gets tagged as a “libertarian” ideal. But it lacks the flavor of libertarianism desired by some doe-eyed Randian utopists who believe you can strip away laws and Americans ultimately won’t drive through red lights because the free market will kill them. Federalism is an ordered liberty. What could be more conservative?
When Rick Perry drawls, “Let the states decide,” he’s expressing a remarkably intricate and authentically American idea that dates back to our founding documents and the writings of James Madison. The Constitution was written as an elaborate labyrinth teeming with trip wires and booby traps for any aristocrat or mob energetically seeking power, keeping them at arm’s length so the individual had room to prosper and thrive. Back then, the challenge was painstakingly balancing the rights of the states while still sculpting an effective national government. Today the seesaw has lurched so far in the federal direction, restoring federalism means bringing the states back to life. This should be a levelheaded goal of conservatives everywhere.
Perry was the candidate who kept the Tenth Amendment closest to his heart. This isn’t to say that he drew his theories into practice flawlessly. Stacks of articles have been written pointing out his inconsistencies. Perry also fell victim to sporadic gimmickry, represented best by his tax plan that literally had it both ways by allowing people to either subscribe to a flat tax or remain under the current code. But as an insolent Texas governor who indefatigably battled the Obama Administration on a host of issues and preached about states’ rights at every turn, he was the most potent embodiment of the federalist ideals that once inspired Barry Goldwater.
One of the great whodunit cases of this election will be why Perry, once advertised as the GOP’s next redeemer, never caught on. It could have been the debate gaffes, or his claim that those opposed to in-state tuition for illegal immigrants “don’t have a heart,” or his ill-advised barn-coat ad attacking President Obama’s “war on religion,” or the volatility of the Republican electorate, or all of those things, or none of them. But Perry’s ideas, however imperfectly they were practiced, hearken back to a buried cornerstone of conservatism worth unearthing again in this age of federal overreach. Perry won’t make it to the White House. But let’s hope his torch is carried there by the eventual nominee.