The Return of States’ RightsWhy Rick Perry Is Important Even If He Loses
Rick Perry rose from dirt-poor origins on the desolate plains of northern West Texas to become the state’s longest-serving governor. Now the guy from tiny Paint Creek who won’t take it any more—an angry man tired of seeing America run down and ordinary Americans demoralized by big government—wants to be president.
Perry has a well-deserved reputation for keen political instincts. Having entered politics as a Democrat, he followed former Governor John Connally and other conservative Texas Democrats into the Republican Party in 1989. He debuted as a border security hawk during his 2006 reelection bid and broadcast his libertarian and states’ rights ideology in March 2009, just as the Tea Party backlash was showing its first signs of life. And he brandished his evangelical Christian faith at a conference of the like-minded only weeks before announcing his presidential candidacy. These well-timed shifts of focus have served Perry well: he has never lost an election.
But Perry does not simply keep his ear to the ground. He claims he is “conservative to the core,” and we can readily believe him.
He is socially conservative, committed to Christian moral precepts he says animated the nation’s founders. A proud Eagle Scout, Perry also defends the Boy Scouts of America for their policy of prohibiting atheists and gays, and he believes in intelligent design, not evolution.
Perry is also a conservative on border and national security issues. As governor, he has brought together border sheriffs, state police, and the Texas Rangers in a campaign to “protect Texans” from the Mexican drug gangs allegedly crossing into Texas and bringing drug war–related violence with them. He has invested several hundred million dollars along the Rio Grande through initiatives such as Operation Border Star, which, according to Perry’s Homeland Security Director Steve McCraw, aims to “leave no exploitable seam” in the border.
Perry’s militaristic approach to security extends well beyond national boundaries. U.S. global leadership requires a strategy of “peace through strength,” he says. To preserve our God-given “American exceptionalism,” he envisions an “America that has the strongest national defense in the world, by an insurmountable order of magnitude.”
Finally, Perry is fiscally conservative. His outlook is founded on confidence that free markets, personal responsibility, charity, and civic virtue will resolve most economic and social problems. He has pushed a “Texas model” with no state taxes on income, capital gains, or corporate dividends. The Texas model stands in sharp contrast to the “job-killing” policies of Washington and higher-tax states, such as Massachusetts and California, that provide more social services. It is a real alternative to what Perry believes the Democratic Party and big-government Republicans offer: a “road to serfdom” and a “slow march to socialize” government.
What is most distinctive about Perry’s small-government conservatism, however, is a new federalist platform that aims to elevate anti-government, anti-elite sentiments into a coherent philosophy of states’ rights. The idea is to give social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, and security hawks a unifying framework in their fight against the Washington “establishment.”
At the same time, Perry’s states’ rights framework helps make sense of some of his own big-government policies, such as accepting $38 billion in federal stimulus dollars and relying on $72.5 billion in federal funds to shore up Texas’s $187.5 billion budget for 2010–11. Perry sees no problem with depending on the government that he condemns, arguing, “Politically, it is hard for politicians to refuse such funds—particularly when it comes right out of the pockets of their constituents.” That, Perry says, is the “box Washington puts us in.”
If victorious, Perry would undertake the next phase in the right’s counterrevolutionary revolution: a wholesale downsizing of national government that, by unleashing private enterprise and free markets, would “save America”—and in the process, if the similar although less radical reforms of the Reagan Revolution are a guide, broaden the gap between the rich and the rest of us.