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Peter Wehner’s Unconstructive Governing Agenda

Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks at the Conservative Political Action Committee annual conference in National Harbor, Md., Friday, March 7, 2014. Friday marks the second day of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, which brings together prospective presidential candidates, conservative opinion leaders and tea party activists from coast to coast. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) ORG XMIT: MDSW103

Rick Perry’s governing agenda has been far more successful and politically popular than Peter Wehner’s.

Former Bush adviser Peter Wehner penned a blog post for Commentary earlier this week attacking Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s speech at CPAC. Although Perry’s speech was well received by the audience and widely praised across the center-right blogosphere, Wehner thinks Perry’s sentiments spell nothing but doom for the GOP.

Maybe, but if you’re looking for the fruits of one’s ideological roots, it makes a lot more sense to look at actual results.

In Wehner’s defense, as a former top White House adviser, he had a front-row seat to GOP doom: a Republican Congress resoundingly defeated in 2006 due to the widespread unpopularity of Wehner-style Republican governance, and a White House handed to the Democrats in 2008 (and yet to be reclaimed since) for similar reasons. I worked in Washington at the time most of that happened, and I don’t recall any of it being the fault of Rick Perry (full disclosure: I worked for Perry’s 2012 presidential campaign, and yes, I’ve already heard that exact same “oops” joke you’re currently cooking up).

Although we know full well the effects on the Republican Party of the style of governance promoted by Wehner — nearly eight years of minority status and counting — let’s focus on his specific criticisms of Perry’s speech. Wehner criticizes Perry for being a strict constructionist hypocrite: some of the Founding Fathers promoted a strong federal government, Wehner asserts, so Perry should as well:

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?

Child labor? Seriously? We’re going to play that game? Contrary to what Wehner asserts, much of what Perry promotes — like local control of education, family control of health care decisions, and an EPA that abides by the quaint notion that agencies should be restrained by the statutes that created them — is actually pretty popular in places that aren’t New York City or Washington, D.C.

It’s one thing to disagree with Perry and other conservatives about the proper role of the federal government, but it’s rather stupid and lazy to imply that big government skeptics are just like child labor exploiters. I’m not going to imply that Wehner’s support of various Federalist Founders indicates a support for slavery, and if he wishes for conservatives to take his arguments seriously, he needs to extend the same basic courtesy to us.

But do you know what else was more restrictive than what “many of the Federalist Founders believed”? A lot of things that non-Federalist Founders believed: non-Federalists like George Mason, who was primarily responsible for the Bill of Rights, the tenth item of which delegates to the states and the people all responsibilities not explicitly granted to the federal government. The notion that the bulk of power in the United States was to be reserved for the people and the states in which they lived is not exactly a new idea. Anyone who has ever worked in a sprawling bureaucracy knows exactly why the Founders thought that most power should be decentralized and localized to allow for maximum innovation, flexibility, and responsiveness.

But setting all that aside: we don’t need a 10-minute CPAC speech to tell us what Perry’s “governing vision” is, because we have 14 years worth of evidence on the reality of Perry’s governing results. And it turns out that local control, low taxes, limited government, energy exploration, and commonsense tort reforms are a recipe for economic and political success. Due in large part to the radical differences between Obama’s and Perry’s visions of government’s appropriate role, we really do have two Americas: one where people can’t find a decent job, and Texas.

Unsurprisingly, given Wehner’s consistent argument that the sputtering ship of state merely needs an abler captain rather than a smaller hull, those actual governing results were never mentioned in his blog post. For nine straight years, Texas has been named the top state in the country for business by Chief Executive magazine. A new study from the Dallas Fed found that “Texas Leads Nation in Creation of Jobs at All Pay Levels.”

“Texas has produced hundreds of thousands of well-paying jobs across most industries since 2000, making Texas the top destination for domestic migrants
since 2006,” the study found. “The data show Texas has experienced far greater growth of ‘good’ jobs than the rest of the nation has since 2000.”

It’s no wonder that nearly a million net new people flocked to Texas between 2000 and 2010, the last year for which IRS tax migration data are available. But why focus on actual results when you can nitpick a 10-minute speech to an energetic crowd of conservatives hungry for conservative leadership?

Wehner concludes his column with a rather odd take given the election results for the GOP in 2010 and the increasingly likely results in 2014:

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.”

Yeah, that whole “get out of the health care business” line was a real disaster for the GOP in 2010. And putting the tinkering technocrat author of Obamacare’s rough draft at the top of the 2012 ticket really fanned the flames of a roaring GOP success in 2012.

As a political matter, running under the banner of “Let the federal government pick your doctor for you! Let those guys in Washington borrow another eleventy trillion dollars! Let a barely literate bureaucrat set your child’s reading curriculum!” hardly strikes me as the best way for people who aren’t liberal Democrats to market themselves.

I’m reminded of the words of the distinguished 40th president: “I hope we have once again reminded people that man is not free unless government is limited. There’s a clear cause and effect here that is as neat and predictable as a law of physics: As government expands, liberty contracts.”

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