Reading Rick Perry

by Stanley Kurtz

I’ve been reading Rick Perry’s book, Fed Up! Our Fight to Save America from Washington. You should read it too. A thoughtful argument for reviving federalism and taming our out-of-control welfare state, Fed Up! also helps makes sense of Perry the man and the phenomenon. The book provides enough context to defuse what are sure to be a long line of bogus attacks on Perry, while also setting up a legitimate argument about the size and purpose of government. Fed Up! is going to help build Perry a mass following. It’s certain to ignite a series of bitter anti-Perry attacks as well. More than your typical campaign book, Fed Up! is going to play a role in the 2012 presidential election.

Too Texas — that’s the political knock on Perry. Will a gun-toting evangelical with a Texas drawl be able to reach suburban soccer-moms in the Midwest? Far from being naive on this point, Perry places it at the center of his philosophy. He rests much of his argument for federalism on America’s diverse local cultures. For a country forged from ethnically and religiously varied immigrant communities, federalism was the solution, Perry reminds us. With religious and cultural variety on the increase, Perry argues, federalism — not racial or ethnic bean-counting — remains the way.

So while Perry may want to be the president of us all, his real goal is to let Midwesterners and New Englanders develop, say, local K-12 curriculum standards or energy regulations with as little interference from Washington as possible. Since Californians want to legalize medical marijuana, says Perry, the Supreme Court ought not to have allowed Congress to override that state law — even though California’s policy was not to his personal liking. Perry, in other words, isn’t trying to remake the country in the image of Texas. His real argument is that federal efforts to press Texas into a single, national cultural and economic mold have deepened his respect for local differences — and for the Founders’ system of protecting those differences. If Perry can make that point to Midwestern soccer-moms, he can win.

Perry’s support for constitutional amendments on marriage and abortion doesn’t contradict his basic federalist stance, since the Founders allowed for the adoption of such national policies in cases where a very high bar of multi-state approval could be met. Even so, the fact that the political parties now differ so profoundly on some key cultural issues means that almost any possible presidential match-up is going to have an element of cultural either/or. Still, if Perry can bring across the cultural rationale of his broader federalist stance, he may be able to flip the Texas issue into a positive with many skeptical voters.

Perry’s case for federalism goes hand in hand with his argument for paring back what has become an unaffordable welfare state. Federal taxes siphon off resources from the states, says Perry, only to turn that money into a de facto system of bribery for enforcing national standards on reluctant localities. You can have your tax money back, say the feds — for education, health, etc. — but only if you play it our way. What’s a governor to do? Turn down the money and you’re excoriated as heartless. Accept the funding and you’ve swallowed curriculum guidelines or regulatory policies your state doesn’t want. So, Perry asks, why not cut federal taxes and let the states work things out on their own?

The real controversy comes when Perry suggests that, in an ideal world, even sacred cows like Social Security and Medicare might have been better run by the states. In any case, says Perry, we have to recognize that our entitlement system is headed for bankruptcy, and will therefore have to be reformed in substantial ways.

So what’s the big deal? Aren’t most conservatives and Republicans talking like that nowadays? Absolutely. But Perry’s critique of our entitlement system is very sharp — in a couple senses of that word — and is part of a systematic attack on the welfare state that runs all the way back to Roosevelt’s New Deal. Perry may feel freer to speak boldly because he grew up as a New Deal Democrat himself. Like many contemporary conservatives, Perry is out to puncture the myth that the New Deal saved America from the Depression. Recognizing that the roots of the modern welfare state were flawed, says Perry, opens our eyes to the need for reform today.

All this will be loudly excoriated by Democrats. Perry is going to be portrayed as an extremist who wants to kill Social Security and Medicare. In fact, Perry doesn’t call for that. What he does say is that we’ve got to face up to the fact that our entitlements are headed off a financial cliff, and will therefore have to be substantially reformed. Perry sees Fed Up! as a wake-up call, part of a national conversation about entitlements we now have to undertake.

But let’s meet the “extremist who wants to kill entitlements” charge more directly. The truth is, Perry’s stance on the need for significant entitlement reform isn’t fundamentally different from the position of Republicans generally– witness the Ryan plan. If anything, Paul Ryan is more explicit about what actually needs to be done than Perry. Of course, that won’t stop the Democrats from trying to portray Perry, Ryan, and the entire Republican party as a bunch of crazy extremists for wanting to reform entitlements at all.

You can argue that the history of the New Deal is best left in peace, since those old battles have long been resolved. The problem is that new demographic realities are forcing us to reopen seemingly settled questions. The smaller size of the post-baby-boom generations mean that the current welfare state can only be sustained by huge tax increases, and the expansion of the federal role in our lives that is sure to follow.

So we increasingly face a fundamental societal choice. Either we try to sustain our soon-to-be-bankrupt entitlements by transforming ourselves into a European-style welfare state, or we pare back the New Deal/Great Society system and re-invigorate traditional free-enterprise and/or federalist solutions. Perry, Ryan, and the Republican party as a whole are simply recognizing and responding to that fundamental choice. Standing still is no longer an option. Even Pres. George W. Bush, supposedly more moderate than Perry, ran on fundamental Social Security reform — including privatization — in 2004.

I agree with Avik Roy that Perry’s best move would be to get more explicit, not less, about how he might reform entitlements. That would put unfounded charges of extremism to rest. The truth is that Perry’s concerns about entitlements are well within the Republican mainstream, and have been for some time. What Perry adds to the mix is clarity, passion, and years of on-the-ground experience with a system that badly needs fixing.

Fed Up! is going to be a factor in the 2012 election campaign. It crystallizes and deepens Perry’s appeal, explodes silly caricatures and, like it or not, is about to take our already super-hot national debate on the fate of the welfare state to the next level.