In his speech at CPAC, Texas Governor Rick Perry brought the crowd to its feet by saying this:
Nowhere does the Constitution say we should federalize classrooms. Nowhere does it give federal officials primary responsibility over the air we breathe, the land we farm, the water we drink. And nowhere does it say Congress has the right to federalize health care… It is time for Washington to focus on the few things the Constitution establishes as the federal government’s role: defend our country, provide a cogent foreign policy, and – what the heck – deliver the mail, preferably on time and on Saturdays. Get out of the health care business! Get out of the education business!
This points to a concern of mine and which Michael Gerson and I wrote about recently in an essay for National Affairs. For starters, Governor Perry’s interpretation of enumerated powers is more restrictive than what many of the Federalist Founders believed. (See the essay and here for more.) As for Governor Perry’s line of argument: He says the Constitution doesn’t give “primary” responsibility over the air we breathe, the land we farm and the water we drink. But in fact, the Constitution doesn’t affirm even a secondary role for the areas mentioned by Perry. Is it really his position, then, that the federal government should have no role in education, health care, and clean air and water? What about child immunization? Support for the National Institutes of Health? Pell grants? The GI Bill? All of the New Deal? Bans on child labor? The Second National Bank (signed into law by the “father” of the Constitution, James Madison)? After all, the Constitution says nothing about establishing a national bank.
It’s worth quoting here, as I have before, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who made this observation:
Perhaps the most important act of the Continental Congress was the Northwest Ordinance which provided a direct federal subsidy for education. Almost the first act of the Congress established by the present Constitution was to reaffirm this grant. A plaque on the Sub-Treasury on Wall Street commemorates both actions. This does not invalidate the view that the federal government ought not to exercise any responsibility, but it does make nonsense of the view that the Constitution – presumably because it does not mention the subject – somehow bars such an exercise.
It is one thing – and I think very much the right thing – to argue for a more limited role for the federal government and conservative reforms of everything from entitlement programs to education, from our tax code to our immigration system to much else. It’s quite another when we have the kind of loose talk from the governor of the second most populous state in America.
I realize that some people will argue that what Perry is offering up is simply “red meat” for a conservative audience. It’s a (lazy) default language those on the right sometimes resort to in order to express their unhappiness with the size of the federal government. But words matter, Governor Perry is actually putting forth (albeit in a simplified version) a governing philosophy, and most Americans who hear it will be alarmed by it.
As a political matter, running under the banner of “Get out of the health care business! Get out of the education business!” hardly strikes me as the best way to rally people who are not now voting for the GOP in presidential elections. I’m reminded of the words of the distinguished political scientist James Q. Wilson: “Telling people who want clean air, a safe environment, fewer drug dealers, a decent retirement, and protection against catastrophic medical bills that the government ought not to do these things is wishful or suicidal politics.”
According to a CBS News/New York Times poll, only 33 percent of respondents had a favorable view of the Republican Party while 61 percent had an unfavorable view. Having a prominent GOP figure give a speech in which he insists that virtually the entire modern state is unconstitutional and therefore illegitimate probably won’t help matters. Then again, neither does having the 2008 vice presidential nominee give a speech in which she takes great delight in re-writing Dr. Seuss.
This is not what the Republican Party or the conservative cause needs just now.