The Republican presidential debate on Wednesday night will take place without the bracing contrast of a presidential address on jobs. House Speaker John Boehner’s contemptible contempt for the president and the presidency pushed the president’s address to Thursday. That should have one good effect: It will allow the debate to focus on the Republican candidates’ views on the U.S. Constitution.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry champions states’ rights, invoking the 10th Amendment, which leaves to the states all powers not explicitly delegated to the federal government in the Constitution. Perry pledges to “work every day to try to make Washington, D.C., as inconsequential in your life as I can.”
In 2009, as governor, Perry championed a Texas legislative resolution advocating Texas secession from the union — to “reaffirm the states’ rights affirmed by the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” because “I believe that our federal government has become oppressive.” The resolution, as the governor’s statement summarized, “affirms that Texas claims sovereignty under the 10th Amendment over all powers not otherwise granted to the federal government.” The resolution “also designates that all compulsory federal legislation that requires states to comply under threat of civil or criminal penalties, or that requires states to pass legislation or lose federal funding, be prohibited or repealed.”
Obvious questions arise: Does this include the Civil Rights Act? The Voting Rights Act? The Clean Water Act? Gov. Perry scorns Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme” and apparently thinks that it is unconstitutional. Does he also think that of the minimum wage? Would he repeal the Fair Labor Standards Act — the law that limits hours and gave us the weekend?
This sounds nutty — and Perry isn’t exactly consistent. He embraced the right of states to define marriage, until New York legalized gay marriage. Then he flip-flopped and touted the constitutional amendment to define marriage as between a man and a woman. Under pressure, he also embraced the federal government’s right to ban abortion. So he seems to be for states’ rights except where conservative special interest groups oppose them.
But this macho rhetoric sends a signal. As my son, Rep. Jesse L Jackson Jr. wrote, “It was the 10th Amendment and states’ rights that protected the institution of slavery. . . . It was the 10th Amendment and states’ rights, the South argued, that gave it the right to secede from the Union in 1861.” It took The Civil War — the bloodiest war in American history — to reverse that. Now, on the 150th anniversary of that tragedy, Gov. Perry has embraced the same doctrines, and even postured about secession for Texas.
After the Civil War, the country passed the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, outlawing slavery and guaranteeing equal protection under the law. But the South resisted, and invoked states’ rights to defend segregation as a form of legal apartheid. It took the civil rights movement to force passage of “compulsory federal legislation” to overcome that. Does Gov. Perry or any of the Republican candidates oppose those laws? Does he or any of the Republican candidates believe that the Supreme Court overreached in Brown v. Board of Education, the decision outlawing segregated schools?
The Republican presidential campaign is deteriorating into a competition for ugly. Candidates vie to show who is most avid in denying evolution and in scorning global warming, and most savage in cutting Medicare and Social Security while defending the tax breaks of the wealthy. Are they now going to compete to be the most ardent advocate of a return to the era of Dred Scott and states’ rights?
Black unemployment is rising. Banks have been found guilty of targeting minority communities to take away wealth earned by home ownership. As we honor the legacy of Dr. King’s work with his memorial on the Mall, let us also remember he reminded us of the dangers of governors’ lips dripping with the words “interposition” and “nullification.” Secession and segregation are the most violent and worst parts of our past.
America has come a long way since then, but Gov. Perry and many of his competitors seem intent on reviving that same kind of politics. In this debate, we must choose redemption, reconciliation, reconstruction and equal protection for all — and not resort to the worst fears and divisions of our past.