Over the next few months, the battle for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination will begin in earnest—and the Tea Party is poised to play a major part in picking the winner. The question now is what kind of candidate they’re looking for.
Rick Perry thinks he has the answer. On Nov. 15, Perry, who was just reelected governor of Texas after a decade in office, will release Fed Up! a book calling for a radically limited federal government that discards the last 75 years of national policy and relinquishes most of its responsibilities to the states. An early Tea Party supporter, Perry insisted in an interview with NEWSWEEK that he wouldn't run for president in 2012--even as he made the media rounds in New York. Regardless, his proposals provide the clearest preview to date of a Tea Party presidential platform.
Perry believes, for example, that the national Social Security system, which he calls a “failure” that “we have been forced to accept for more than 70 years now,” should be scrapped and that each state should be allowed to create, or not create, its own pension system. "The [Texas] counties of Matagorda, Bresoria, and Galveston in 1981 decided they wanted to opt out of this Social Security program," he tells NEWSWEEK. "They have now very well funded programs and their employees are going to be substantially better taken care of than anybody in Social Security. So I would suggest a legitimate conversation about letting the states keep their money and implement those programs [themselves]."
Perry is less eager to talk about dismantling Medicare, an extremely popular program that even Tea Partiers support. (Remember the signs that read "Keep Your Government Hands Off My Medicare"?) But when pressed, the governor admits, "We need to deal with it and quit passing it on to the next Congress and the next generation" and that Republicans, many of whom opposed Medicare cuts in the new Democratic health-care-reform package, deserve their fair share of the blame. "I would suggest that any Republican who is not going to work toward finding a solution to the budgetary problems that we have in this country ought to just go home," Perry says. "Let somebody come who really is interested in not spending more dollars that we don’t have on programs that we don’t want."
Like most Tea Partiers, Perry includes George W. Bush in the first category—even though the former president was his boss back in Texas. Earlier this year, Perry told NEWSWEEK, “When the history books are written, I think George W. Bush will go down as…an incredibly good president.” He claims to "still think that." But in Fed Up! he slams Bush’s 2008 stimulus as “a quick (non) fix,” criticizes him for signing into law “large education increases and a massive expansion of Medicare to the tune of more than $500 billion," knocks his attempt at comprehensive immigration reform, and dismisses "compassionate conservatism" as a cheap branding maneuver. Asked now whether he thinks Bush was a disappointment domestically, Perry says, "Yeah. There were programs that President Bush promoted that I don’t think, neither on the front side or now with history, were particularly good."
After passing the Troubled Asset Relief Program, Bush famously said that he "abandoned free-market principles to save the free-market system." But Perry thinks TARP was a mistake—along with the subsequent efforts to backstop or stimulate the economy. Instead, he prefers a hands-off approach to the current economic crisis, at least on the federal level. "I think you allow the market to work its way through it," he says. "The idea that we own an automobile company today is staggering in its proportions. I don’t understand why the TARP bill exists. Let the processes find their way." When it's pointed out that some of Washington's interventionist policies seem to have worked—if GM collapsed, there would have been tons of jobs lost, and now it’s profitable again; without TARP, the banking system may have imploded, and now the money has been paid back—the governor doesn't blink. "I don’t necessarily buy into the premise that somehow or another those measures saved jobs," he says.
Perry doesn't agree with the Tea Party on everything. While he criticizes the 17th Amendment in his book, he stops short, unlike some Tea Partiers, of calling for a return to an era when senators were elected by state legislatures instead of ordinary citizens. "I put the repeal of the 17th Amendment in the [category of] 'It’s important to have that conversation, but relative to the spending, it’s secondary,' he says. Same goes for the 14th amendment, which automatically grants citizenship to the native-born children of foreign-born residents, including illegal immigrants. "Is it being abused today?" Perry says. "It may be. But from the standpoint of ‘Does it rise to the level of having a constitutional prohibition,’ probably not." Perry's reluctance to rail against the 14th Amendment probably has something to do with the fact that he's the governor of a state with a huge Latino population—as does his willingness to allow (again, unlike many Tea Partiers) for some wiggle room on immigration reform. Asked whether the nation's 11 million illegal immigrants should be rounded up, shipped home, and told to "get back in line," Perry says, "Nope"; asked whether a pathway to citizenship would be a possibility after the borders are secured, he says, "Sure." It's clear that he's not as much of a hardliner on immigration as some Tea Partiers.
But even if Perry isn't quite batting 1.000 on Tea Party issues, his average is higher than almost anyone else in the league. As such, he may provide activists with a model for the 2012 presidential campaign—a model that in its desire to scrap Social Security and Medicare, reverse 75 years of federal policy, and return power almost completely to the states is far to the right of any previous Republican president, including Ronald Reagan. "I could probably go through and find programs from each [Republican] president that were not as conservative as I am," Perry says. "We have to be principled and disciplined and learn how to say no. The idea that you can’t put the genie back in the bottle is not correct." While the governor insists that he is "not going to run for president [and] not going to be a vice-presidential candidate," it's increasingly likely that candidates who share his views will be angling for both of those gigs. What remains to be seen is whether voters are ready to reward them for their conservatism—or whether they're more comfortable sticking closer to the center of the spectrum.