August 26, 2011 11:00AM

Rick Perry, Serious Constitutionalist?

In a Washington Examiner column Tuesday, reviewing Texas governor and 2012 GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry's book, I wrote:

It's clear from Fed Up! that the guy with a degree in animal science from Texas A&M understands the Constitution better than Barack Obama, former president of the Harvard Law Review.

I said that because Fed Up! is pretty radical for a campaign tract. At times it reads like a call to restore what legal analyst Jeffrey Rosen---borrowing from Judge Douglas Ginsburg's 1995 Cato article---has dubbed "the Constitution in Exile"---which is to say, the original Constitution, whose doctrine of enumerated powers, Fed Up! notes, effectively vanished after the New Deal.

Alas, there isn't a lot of room for nuance in a 600-word column; it might have been more accurate to say that Chip Roy, former senior adviser to Sen John Cornyn (R-TX), understands the Constitution a lot better than Barack Obama does.

Roy's apparently the guy who did most of the heavy lifting on the book. Perry singles him out in the acknowledgments for "special recognition"---Fed Up! "wouldn't have been possible without Chip's dedication over the course of several months." Chip, Perry writes, "you have a brilliant legal mind, and after working with you on this project I will never again attempt one like this without you by my side."

As these things go, Perry was relatively gracious and hardly tried to hide the fact that he'd had major help. Which is fine. I don't know whether or not it's fair to call Mr. Roy the "ghostwriter," but being a governor is a busy job, and nobody really expects elected officials to write their own books these days.

Even so, when he's called upon to explain the ideas in a book that he put his name on, Gov. Perry doesn't exactly impress.

Here's the transcript from a Newsweek interview the governor did last fall, when Fed Up! came out, and its arguments should have been fresh in his memory.

Newsweek: Let’s talk about some Constitutional issues, which take up a large part of your book. In the book, you argue against the 17th Amendment, which allowed the people to elect their senators directly instead of letting their state legislatures do it for them. This has become a big Tea Party talking point, but I’m not sure I understand the logic behind it. ... wouldn’t we be less free, and the country less democratic, if we didn’t have a say in who was representing us in Washington?

Perry: Stand by just a second. [30 seconds of silence.] OK, I’m back with you. I apologize. I’m sorry, I got distracted when you were talking. I think the issue is about consolidating the power in Washington, D.C. The 17th Amendment is one of those where they were making... the states were historically more in control when they decided who those senators were going to be. They took the states out of the process at that particular point in time. So that’s the... uh... the historic concept of checks and balances, when you had the concept of the federal government and the states. The 17th Amendment is when the states started getting out of balance with the federal government, is my belief.

Newsweek: Progressives would say that “general welfare” includes things like Social Security or Medicare—that it gives the government the flexibility to tackle more than just the basic responsibilities laid out explicitly in our founding document. What does “general welfare” mean to you?

Perry: I don’t think our founding fathers when they were putting the term “general welfare” in there were thinking about a federally operated program of pensions nor a federally operated program of health care. What they clearly said was that those were issues that the states need to address. Not the federal government. I stand very clear on that. From my perspective, the states could substantially better operate those programs if that’s what those states decided to do.

Newsweek: So in your view those things fall outside of general welfare. But what falls inside of it? What did the Founders mean by “general welfare”?

Perry: I don’t know if I’m going to sit here and parse down to what the Founding Fathers thought general welfare meant.

Newsweek: But you just said what you thought they didn’t mean by general welfare. So isn’t it fair to ask what they did mean? It’s in the Constitution.

Perry: [Silence.]

Newsweek: OK. Moving on...


What to make of that "[30 seconds of silence]"? Was the governor looking for a "lifeline"? If so, maybe he should bring Chip Roy back to Austin and keep him close at hand.

I know what you're going to say, and I get it: wonky people tend to overestimate the value of wonkishness--and wonks make some of the worst presidents.

And you're right, there's no reason to expect a president to be able to explain the Constitution as well as his solicitor general.

Even so, Perry's the guy who signed his name to a book full of admirably radical--and, to my mind, correct--constitutional ideas. Is it asking too much to expect him to study up enough to be capable of convincingly bluffing his way through a discussion of those ideas?

As I suggested a couple of days ago, it's hard to tell whether Fed Up! reflects Perry's deeply held beliefs or primary-season cultural signaling that means about as much as Barack Obama's 2007 boilerplate about civil liberties.

But if you're a small-government type inclined to cheer Perry's rise to the front of the GOP field, I'd give serious thought to the latter possibility.