The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.

Matthew Yglesias on Rick Perry’s “Weirdest” Ideas


Rick Perry is a blunt conservative, and there can be little doubt that many of the things that he has said over the years will be controversial on the Left. So I was surprisingly underwhelmed by Matthew Yglesias’ first crack at the task. “I read [Perry’s book] over the weekend, and thus am proud to produce the following list of the Top Ten Weirdest Ideas” contained in the book, he writes. But, in context, it’s not obvious that Perry’s ideas are so weird. Matthew writes:

10. Social Security Is Evil: According to Perry Social Security is “by far the best example” of a program “violently tossing aside any respect for our founding principles.” (page 48)

Other than the rhetorical use of the word “violently,” a fuller quotation from Perry’s book reflects mainstream conservative views on the topic:

The impact of the New Deal is staggering not just because of the number of programs but also because of their scope. Certain of these programs massively altered the relationship between Americans and their government with respect to critical aspects of our lives, violently tossing aside any respect for our founding principles of federalism and limited government.

By far the best example of this is Social Security. A New Deal invention, it was clearly intended to be a permanent fixture of the entitlement state FDR was constructing. Private pensions were largely solvent and performing, despite the Depression.

Matthew continues:

9. Private Enterprise Blossomed Under Conscription and Wartime Price Controls: Not only does he argue that the New Deal failed to end the Great Depression, but he asserts “recovery did not come until World War II, when FDR was finally persuaded to unleash private enterprise.” (page 48)

Don’t take Rick Perry’s word for it; here’s Larry Summers on the subject:

Never forget, never forget, and I think it’s very important for Democrats especially to remember this, that if Hitler had not come along, Franklin Roosevelt would have left office in 1941 with an unemployment rate in excess of 15 percent and an economic recovery strategy that had basically failed.

Matthew argues, without evidence, that Perry believes Medicare “must never be cut”:

8. Medicare is Too Expensive But Must Never Be Cut: Both establishing Medicare in 1965 and expanding it to include prescription drugs in 2003 are examples of “an irresponsible culture of spending in Washington” (page 63), but establishing “‘councils of experts’ and panels of various sorts” to assess the cost effectiveness of different Medicare-eligible treatments is a “frightening” “scheme” that “undermines freedom” and can be fairly labeled “death panels” (page 81).

I was really surprised to read this from Matthew. He knows that there are plenty of proposed methods for reducing Medicare spending that don’t involve expert panels. While Perry doesn’t outline such a plan in the book (at the time, after all, he wasn’t running for President), we can be reasonably confident that he will. “By far the most alarming problem we face with respect to the largesse of the federal government,” Perry writes, “is the very real crisis of the looming implosion of New Deal and Great Society entitlement programs.”

7. All Bank Regulation Is Unconstitutional: Criticizing the Security and Exchange Commission’s rulemaking process under the Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill, Perry asserts that “if the Constitution were shown the appropriate respect, Washington regulation writers wouldn’t have to worry about underrepresented views, because they wouldn’t have control over them in the first place” (page 94).

Perry never says that “all bank regulation is unconstitutional,” or anything remotely resembling that. He correctly points out that faulty regulation was a principal cause of the financial crisis:

Fundamentally, the financial crisis of 2008 was the product of a number of forces. Significant among them were the federal government’s mandate that banks provide a certain number of loans, that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac existed to purchase these loans (thereby hedging the banks’ risk and encouraging banks to make loans that a free market would never sustain), and the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy of extremely low interest rates over a long period of time. These government interventions in the free market let to a bubble that eventually burst.

His principal criticism of Dodd-Frank is not on constitutional grounds, but rather that Dodd-Frank is excessively complicated, economically harmful, and unresponsive to democratic feedback:

The new law is estimated to require at least 243 new formal rule makings by 11 different federal agencies. Counting new rule makings authorized by the law, in addition to the minimum of 243 that are mandated, the total could actually be 533. The new law has thus been described by the Wall Street Journal as “30 times more complicated than Sarbanes-Oxley,” the burdens of which, despite only requiring 16 new regulations, have been extremely harmful to the competitiveness of American businesses.

We have to remember that there are thousands of local financial institutions that aren’t Citigroup or Goldman Sachs, that face higher regulatory burdens due to Dodd-Frank. In addition, local businesses suffer when access to credit is constrained by ill-considered regulations. Taking the side of those local institutions, Perry argues that “local communites [would be better] represented in government [if] the Constitution were shown the appropriate respect.” Again, hardly controversial.

6. Consumer Financial Protection Is Unconstitutional: Further reiterates his view that all federal financial regulation is illegitimate, listing the SEC on page 44 as part of a “federal alphabet soup” in which “undemocratic unelected Washington bureaucrats” are “now (dubiously) empowered to dictate their own preferences to the American people.”

Perry’s statement is factually indisputable: the executive branch contains hundreds of thousands of unelected officials who are empowered to advance their preferences. This is not the same thing as arguing that “consumer financial protection” in any form is unconstitutional. I suppose Matthew is being snarky here, but again, I fail to see the red flag.

5. Almost Everything Is Unconstitutional: Regrets the existence of jurisprudence construing the Commerce Clause to permit “federal laws regulating the environment, regulating guns, protecting civil rights, establishing the massive programs and Medicare and Medicaid, creating national minimum wage laws, [and] establishing national labor laws.” Perry makes a partial exception for laws barring racial discrimination which he says fulfill “the intent behind the passage of the Reconstruction Era amendments.” (page 51)

This is about as mainstream of a conservative position on constitutional law as there is.

4. Federal Education Policy Is Unconstitutional: Cites the willingness of Republicans to vote for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act as a “perfect example” of “losing sight of the fact that perfectly laudable policy choices at the local level are not appropriate (much less constitutional) at the federal level.” (page 87)

Again, here is a fuller treatment of Perry’s remarks on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, a.k.a. No Child Left Behind, with which one would think many progressives would find common cause:

Unfortunately, this willingness to turn power over to Washington was driven in significant part by the desire to further expand federal faith-based initiatives and to provide for the increased possibility of school choice. This is a perfect example of Republicans losing sight of the fact that perfectly laudable policy choices at the local level are not appropriate (much less constitutional) at the federal level.

Matthew thinks Perry is weird for objecting to Al Gore:

3. Al Gore Is Part Of A Conspiracy To Deny The Existence Of Global Cooling: Jokes that the Social Security Trust Fund “must be somewhere in Al Gore’s lockbox, right next to his notes from inventing the Internet and that global cooling data he doesn’t want anyone to see” (page 60). Argues that moderates oppose curbing greenhouse gas emissions because “they know that we have been experiencing a cooling trend” (page 92).

Despite Matthew’s use of the word “conspiracy” to imply that Perry is a nutty conspiracy theorist, Perry’s discussion of the faulty science around global warming is well within the parameters of the national debate of that issue, in which Perry points out that “the complexities of the global atmosphere have often eluded the most sophisticated scientists…when science gets hijacked by the political left, we should all be concerned.”

2. Not Only Is Everything Unconstitutional, Activist Judges Are a Problem: Having called the majority of the duly enacted modern welfare state and federal regulatory apparatus unconstitutional, Perry pivots to the complaint that “the [Supreme] court too often chooses to take it upon itself to govern and to develop policy” (page 114).

Liberals didn’t think this was a “weird” view when it came to Bush v. Gore. This is possibly the least controversial statement on Matthew’s list.

1. The Civil War Was Caused By Slaveowners Trampling On Northern States’ Rights: Rather than simply citing chattel slavery as an exemption to his “states’ rights are good” principle, Perry argues that slaveholder activism in the 1850s was an example of big government federal overreach. “In many ways it was was the northern states whose sovereignty was violated in the run-up to the Civil War,” he argues, citing the Fugitive Slave Act and completely ignoring the human rights of the enslaved African-Americans of the south. He says “we can never know what would have happened in the absence of federal involvement,” ignoring again the fact that federalism would have bought peace at the price of continued slavery.

Here, again, is a fuller treatment of Perry’s remarks, to which Matthew does a disservice, in what appears to be an attempt to paint Perry as some sort of closet racist:

Any discussion of the need to empower states inevitably brings with it cynical questions about their role in promoting slavery and hindering the civil rights movement…These were inexcusable chapters in American history—particularly for the southern states most responsible. These chapters were often defined by some who championed “states’ rights,” and thus the concept of federalism has been understandably but mistakenly weakened…

Unwilling to give up a way of life inexcusably based on an abominable practice, southern states persuaded Congress—the federal government—to pass the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which compelled citizens of northern states to act against their conscience and help return escaped former slaves into bondage. Meanwhile the federal Supreme Court got involved, striking down states’ personal liberty laws and ruling in Dred Scott v. Sanford that federal territories could not be free and that free states were not entitled to offer the rights of citizenship to former slaves. Thus, while the southern states seceded in the name of “states’ rights,” in many ways it was the northern states whose sovereignty was violated in the run-up to the Civil War.

We can never know what would have happened in the absence of federal involvement because we cannot rewrite history. There was a major divide in the nation, and it is possible that war was inevitable. But once war was upon the nation, it was the steadfast commitment of Abraham Lincoln to preserve the Union, and ultimately his leadership, that led to a victory by the North and emancipation. And the ultimate result is that the people adopted three constitutional amendments—the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth—abolishing slavery, protecting due process and equal protection of the laws, and prohibiting race as a factor in eligibility for voting, respectively.

Unfortunately, even after a bloody war, the full freedom offered by these amendments took more than a century to be realized. A combination of factors made that true, including both intervention by the Supreme Court, and, sadly, opposition by some in the name of states’ rights.

Perry is a risk-taking politician. If he turns out to be the nominee, he will provide no shortage of policy contrasts to the President. There won’t be any need to invent controversy with out-of-context quotations.

UPDATE: Matthew thinks I’m whining, but his response is unsatisfactory (Perry, for example, never says that he is opposed to any and all federal banking regulation). Ezra Klein writes the kind of piece I was looking for. Scott Lemieux thinks it’s frightening that I consider Perry’s views mainstream, to which I would simply say that Perry’s views are as mainstream to conservatives as Obama’s support of single-payer health care is to liberals. I agree with the proposition that Perry’s (accurately quoted) views will be controversial to left-of-center thinkers. Are liberals really shocked to learn that the Right opposes the Great Society and the New Deal?


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