Rick Perry seems to have calculated that the most powerful political weapon at his disposal is the 10th Amendment. Speaking to donors in Colorado on Friday, Perry expressed his personal belief in the sanctity of traditional marriage while in the same breath acknowledging New York’s right to go its own way on gay marriage. The carefully crafted strategy is both consistent with Perry’s long-held belief, or at least his rhetoric, in the primacy of the states in the strict constitutional sense while also providing cover on the most contentious social issues that Perry will face if he runs for president.
Whether it’s gay marriage, medical marijuana, education or a host of other issues, Perry’s strong stance on the 10th Amendment allows him to have his cake and eat it too. In his 2010 manifesto, Fed Up, Perry wrote:
“When states take on the federal government, I am hopeful that it will jump-start a conversation about the importance of federalism in our system of government, and the need to restore the balance of power between the central and state governments.”
Perry goes on to praise Congressman Rob Bishop and his 10th Amendment Task Force, endorsing Bishop’s call for “the decentralization of power through the restoration of American federalism.”
This strategy insulates Perry from attacks on the right for his accommodation of controversial positions. With the rise of the Tea Parties and their focus on strict, literal constitutionalism, there is less space for the strident Christian right to demand the kind of national social policies that infuriate the left and are used to scare the pants off of the middle.
Nevertheless, the reaction from evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics was swift. Rick Santorum took up the banner of the nationalist social conservatives, tweeting: “So Gov Perry, if a state wanted to allow polygamy or if they chose to deny heterosexuals the right to marry, would that be OK too?”
Even so, this position seems to put Perry in the middle of a GOP field that includes Ron Paul, who wants the institution of marriage wholly removed from government concern, as well as Jon Huntsman, who supports civil unions, and Mitt Romney, who opposes civil unions but supports domestic partner benefits. Even on conservative blogs and websites, the reaction to Perry’s position has been all over the map. The Republican consensus on gay marriage seems to have evaporated at the same time that a new consensus has developed around the economic policies favored by Perry and the Tea Parties.
By lowering the stakes on a hot-button issue, his 10th Amendment position on gay marriage also makes it harder for liberals to mobilize and fundraise. If Perry can take the juice out of a few special-interest lobbies in “purplish” states like Washington, those states could actually be competitive next year.
One thing is clear, Perry wasn’t just working Colorado donors on Friday night; he was test-driving a national campaign strategy.
Don Rasmussen is a political consultant, writer and former Ron Paul adviser. He lives in Austin, Texas, where he is pursuing a graduate degree in political management.