Rick Perry’s Superficial Extremism

Tags: federal, governor, stimulus, radical, washington, program, medicaid, reason, states, government

Texas Gov. Rick Perry often talks like he’s ready to refight the Alamo—this time against Washington. He rails about the stimulus and the expansion of federal power while flirting with the idea of devolving control of entitlements to the states.

So when Perry officially announced he was throwing in his 40-gallon hat for next year’s Republican presidential nomination, critics were quick to warn of his extremist, radical small-government views. But Perry’s suit-and-tie-Republican record doesn’t match up to his pistol-packing, Texas-sized rhetoric.

Many of the warnings concern Perry’s allegedly extreme federalism. After reading the governor’s book, Fed Up: Our Fight to Save America From Washington, The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein described the governor’s federalism as “radical in scope,” but “not thoughtless.” Mother Jones blogger Kevin Drum wondered whether Perry might be “too radical even for the Tea Party.” After investigating Perry’s positions on entitlements, Newsweek’s Andrew Romano reported that the governor “hints that he would do more to limit the power of the federal government—or at least attempt to do more—than any president since Calvin Coolidge.” At the Guardian, columnist Ana Marie Cox warned that if Perry got his way with federal regulation, “it would be total anarchy: Mad Max meets Dr. Moreau.” 

“More than any of his fellow contenders,” Cox wrote, “Perry represents a bruising roll of the dice on America's future.” Is Perry really such an outlier? Not really. While he's frequently willing to stake out heated rhetorical territory, his actual governance is relatively mild in comparison.

Take Perry’s position on the stimulus. In theory, he was vigorously opposed to the program. In practice, however, he was willing to collect. In 2009, he loudly rejected $555 million in federal unemployment aid. “The calls to take the (stimulus) money and sort out the consequences later are quite troubling to me,” he told The Houston Chronicle. Later, in a letter to President Obama, he highlighted his “vocal opposition” to the law, saying it “will burden future generations with unprecedented levels of debt.” In the same letter, however, Perry also agreed to take the stimulus funds, noting his promise to state residents that if a stimulus passed, he “would work to ensure that our citizens receive their fair share.” They got a bundle: In 2010, Perry relied on the $6 billion in federal stimulus funds he accepted to fill in big gaps in the state’s budget.

Indeed, despite his allegedly radical federalism, Perry has been more than happy to take—and seek out—federal handouts throughout his tenure in the governor’s mansion. In 2009, Cato Director of Tax Policy Studies Chris Edward noted that under Perry, Texas has been “an aggressive scavenger of federal grant dollars,” taking hundreds of millions in federal funds for drought assistance, homeland security, and local law enforcement. Does this sound like the record of an unusually anti-federal radical?

Newsweek’s Andrew Romano's description of Perry as a modern day Coolidge came as a result of the governor’s stated interest in devolving federal entitlement programs to the states. But on Medicaid, the major entitlement over which state governments have the most control, Perry’s talk-to-action ratio was familiarly lopsided.

It’s common enough for governors, especially Republicans, to criticize Medicaid’s mass of federal mandates and poor financing structure. But last year, Perry noisily and repeatedly raised the possibility of pulling his state out of the joint federal-state program entirely. “We need to get out of it,” he said of the program. “And with the budget shortfall we’re anticipating, we may have to act this year.”

But action of the sort he threatened was not forthcoming. In Texas’s most recent budget, Perry cut Medicaid provider rates and put off finding funding for an estimated $4.8 billion in expected spending. But the state is still very much enrolled in the program. In the end, reported The Washington Post’s Sarah Kliff, “there’s a pretty wide disconnect between what Perry says he would like to change about Medicaid in Texas and what he’s been able to accomplish.”

So why all the ominous warnings? It may have something to do with the press’s willingness to overinterpret Perry’s remarks. In 2009, for example, CNN posted a story headlined “Texas governor says secession possible.” Similar stories popped up in dozens of other publications; according to Politifact.com, at least 169 major newspaper articles linked Perry with the idea of Texas secession.

But contrary to what even presidential press secretary Jay Carney has since asserted, Perry didn’t actually threaten to pull his state out of the United States. Arguably, he said the opposite: “We’ve got a great union. There is absolutely no reason to dissolve it.” At most, he melodramatically referenced an old—and incorrect—understanding that Texas maintains a special right to leave the union at any time. That's typical for Perry, whose supposed extremism often looks a lot like a theatrical affectation—part practiced Texas swagger, part savvy political positioning.

Whatever the reason, though, Perry’s critics appear all too willing to believe that the gun-toting Texas governor—yes, he carries a hollow-point packed, laser-sight pistol with him, even while jogging—represents some unprecedented form of radicalism. Their worry seems to be that he’s ready to unload some of his deadly ammo into cherished federal programs from a White House perch. But if his record is any indication, Perry specializes more in rhetorical warning shots than serious small-government salvos. 

Peter Suderman is an associate editor at Reason magazine. This column first appeared at Reason.com.

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