Don’t blame Rick Perry, people. James Madison and Thomas Jeffer-son started it. When John Adams’ Alien and Sedition Acts were wreaking havoc on constitutional rights, the Virginians claimed that because states had sovereignty, they could “interpose their authority between the local and the federal over any issue that was not explicitly delineated as a federal power in the Constitution,” writes historian Joseph E. Lowndes in From the New Deal to the New Right.
What began as a righteous if questionable remedy for a mass abuse of civil rights soon enough became a rallying cry for slaveholding interests. John C. Calhoun, oracle of the Confederacy, took hold of the “interposition” idea and tortured it into such concepts as “states’ rights” and “nullification,” calling state sovereignty “the fundamental principle of our system.” Almost a century after that notion was buried beneath the rubble of the Civil War, it was unearthed as the rebel yell of the anti-integration crowd after Brown v. Board of Education threatened their “way of life.”
“Although its articulation was often contradictory and confused,” Lowndes writes, “nullification had an underlying simplicity that translated easily into popular parlance.”
Another half-century later, “Hell No!” still translates loud and clear. Which is why Gov. Perry has taken to flogging sovereignty and flirting with nullification as he riles up his right-wing base in advance of next year’s gubernatorial showdown with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. Witness the polls: It took only a couple of months of making himself a national spectacle by railing against President Obama’s economic stimulus and hollering about states’ rights for Perry to erase-temporarily, at least-Hutchison’s once-daunting edge among likely Republican voters. A Rasmussen survey in early May showed Perry taking a slim advantage on the strength of a 15-point lead among self-described “conservatives.”
While Perry’s people cheered this latest example of their man’s curious brand of political wizardry, saner Texas Republicans had new reasons to fret about their party’s tenuous future. “Hell no!” politics might still be able to carry a GOP primary, if Perry can find a way to keep his John C. Calhoun act humming along for another 13 months. But winning the battle this way could mean losing the larger war for partisan supremacy in a fast-evolving state.
Last December, the Republican polling firm Hill Research released a survey presaging big trouble for the Texas GOP. While voters increasingly viewed the Democrats as thoughtful and innovative, the party of the future, they were seeing the GOP as the party of the past. Among an array of unflattering words used to characterize the Republicans were “racist” and “angry.” The party’s “enduring base” in Texas had shrunk to 21 percent-smaller than the Dems’. With younger and Hispanic voters rejecting the Republicans’ cultural conservatism, Hill found that GOP candidates in Texas would need to win 80 percent of moderate voters to prevail in future elections. “This isn’t ‘optional,’ ” the report warned. “Anything less means Republicans lose.”
Which brings us to the flip side of Perry’s “states’-rights bump”: The same poll that showed him overtaking Hutchison among likely Republican primary voters also put him 35 percent behind among the party’s self-described “moderates.” It would take some serious spade work to dig out of that hole in time to win a general election-even against a Texas Democrat.
Perry, whose political savvy has been perpetually underestimated, could conceivably manage it. But even if he does, his states’ rights hijinks will have done lasting damage to the troubled Republican brand in Texas. The only thing this governor is going to nullify is the preeminence of his party.