GOP devotion to states’ rights tripping some Republicans

Share via

Two values many Republicans hold dear — a smaller federal government and a less permissive society — are colliding as presidential hopefuls try to reconcile their call for empowering the states with their support for federal limits on abortion and gay rights.

The conflict arises from the expanded influence of the “tea party” movement, with its crusade for a more circumscribed Washington, and the long-standing power of social conservatives, who play a major role in the GOP nominating process, especially in the early contests in Iowa and South Carolina.

PHOTOS: Potential 2012 GOP presidential candidates


Though the clash is unlikely to do terrible harm to the eventual Republican nominee — not when the zeal to defeat President Obama is such a powerfully unifying force — it has made for early friction and some uncomfortable moments, for none more than Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

Perry, who is apparently edging toward entry into the race, has been among the staunchest supporters of states’ rights; in 2009 he even went so far as to entertain the notion of Texas leaving the United States, before backing off amid criticism and ridicule.

A tea party favorite, Perry frequently cites the importance of the Constitution’s 10th Amendment — holy writ to small-government advocates — which was intended to limit the powers of Washington in favor of the states. (Many proponents prefer to speak of state sovereignty rather than the more freighted term states’ rights, which was invoked across the segregated South in opposition to the civil rights movement.)

Perry’s recent troubles began with a speech to GOP donors at an Aspen Institute forum in Colorado.

“Our friends in New York six weeks ago passed a statute that said marriage can be between two people of the same sex. And you know what? That’s New York and that’s their business and that’s fine with me,” Perry said to applause. “That is their call. If you believe in the 10th Amendment, stay out of their business.”

Days later, speaking to reporters in Houston, Perry took a similar stance on abortion, saying that if Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, were overturned, it would be up to states to set their laws regarding the procedure.


The remarks quickly circulated among social conservatives, many of whom took deep umbrage.

“Certainly states’ rights are paramount,” said Iowa’s Bill Salier, a staunch antiabortion, small-government advocate, but “not if you want homosexual marriage and the killing of unborn babies to be legal. Those are two positions that can’t be sustained against each other.”

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, a declared GOP presidential candidate, was quick to assail Perry’s remarks, first via Twitter — “So Gov Perry, if a state wanted to allow polygamy or if they chose to deny heterosexuals the right to marry, would that be OK too?” — later at an Iowa campaign stop, then addressing conservative activists last weekend in Denver.

“States do not have the right to destroy the American family. It is our business,” Santorum said at the Western Conservative Summit. “It is not fine with me that New York has destroyed marriage. It is not fine with me that New York is setting a template that will cause great division in this country.”

Perry soon backed off his comment on same-sex marriage. In a radio interview with Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, a conservative advocacy group, Perry said, “I probably needed to add a few words after that ‘it’s fine with me.’ ”

“It’s fine with me that a state is using their sovereign rights to decide an issue,” Perry went on. “Obviously, gay marriage is not fine with me. My stance hasn’t changed.”

Not long after, Perry retreated from his remarks on Roe vs. Wade, endorsing constitutional amendments to ban abortion and same-sex marriage as well as to require a federally balanced budget. In an interview this week with the Christian Broadcasting Network, Perry suggested there was nothing inconsistent in his support for those amendments — which could override the sentiments in dissenting states — at the same time he champions the 10th Amendment.


While respecting a state’s right “to have a different opinion … our Founding Fathers also said, ‘Listen, if you all in the future think things are so important you need to change the Constitution, here’s the way you do it,’ ” Perry said. “I support that for issues that are so important, I think, to the soul of this country.”

Other candidates, including former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, whom many consider the GOP front-runner, have taken a similar stance, calling for greater deference to states while at the same time backing constitutional amendments banning abortion and same-sex marriage.

To Michael Boldin, executive director of the Tenth Amendment Center, a Los Angeles group that advocates smaller government, that qualified position amounts to nothing more than pandering.

“We have in this country partisan ‘constitutionalists,’ ” Boldin said. “They talk about the importance of standing up for the principle of decentralized government until it doesn’t fit their political ideology. Then all of a sudden they want to change the Constitution and twist it to fit their own needs.”

Others say the pirouette is not surprising. If candidates seem as though they want things both ways, they are not unlike some voters.

“Many social conservatives believe government should be small, except when it comes to the issues they really care about, such as abortion and gay marriage,” said Jan van Lohuizen, a Republican strategist sitting out the party’s primary fight.


Though the tensions may not hurt the party’s nominee, given the focus on winning in November 2012, they will not necessarily subside.

PHOTOS: Potential 2012 GOP presidential candidates

“This clash was bound to happen,” said Dick Wadhams, a former chairman of the Colorado Republican Party who feuded with tea party members over the direction of the state party. “If there’s a Republican president inaugurated in 2013, or a Republican majority in Congress, that’s when things will really flare up.”