Vol 29, Issue 11 Print Issue

A States' Rights Strategy

Gov. Rick Perry in his Capitol office on Feb. 21, 2012.
Gov. Rick Perry in his Capitol office on Feb. 21, 2012.

Rick Perry couldn’t have planned it better himself.

Fresh off of a failed — and at times downright embarrassing — presidential bid, he returned home to his favorite battle: the states’ rights standoff. 

Gone are the deer-in-the-headlights “oops” moments, the campaign blooper reels. They’ve been replaced with the all-too-familiar Texas governor beating his drum against the tyrannical federal government, this time on women’s health and voter fraud. 

On the Women’s Health Program front, Perry’s efforts last week were strategic and redirected a conversation that nearly painted him into a corner. When the federal government threatened to cut off funding for the program — which provides contraception and cancer screenings, but not abortions, for more than 100,000 low-income women — if Texas began enforcing a new state rule that excluded Planned Parenthood, Perry called the bluff.

Instead of letting the reproductive health program dissolve, which could have angered some Republican women in his political base, he vowed to find the money somewhere in the tight state budget to run the program without federal help — and without Planned Parenthood’s participation. This made the fight less about access to women’s health and more about Planned Parenthood, a political touchstone for those on the right. Planned Parenthood, sensing that its position was becoming more desperate, turned up the volume and suggested that Texas would have a massive access problem without the organization's clinics.


In the meantime, Perry has repeatedly — and loudly — blasted the Obama administration for preventing Texas from instituting state-based rules to govern the program, one of his fundamental states’ rights arguments. The Obama administration's argument? That Texas' rule excluding Planned Parenthood violates federal law.

Perry got a second bite at the states’ rights apple this week when the U.S. Department of Justice rejected the state’s request for preclearance of Texas’ new voter ID law, saying that it could have a discriminatory effect on minority voters. It’s a fight that plays even more to Perry’s Republican base than the intersection of abortion politics and Planned Parenthood. The governor wasted no time decrying the Obama administration’s “continuing and pervasive federal overreach,” and accused the federal government of preventing Texas from using its laws to protect integrity at the ballot box. 

These fights have served an important purpose for Perry as he re-enters Texas political life not as a candidate, but as a governor. But it’s terrain that comes with some landmines, particularly if Perry runs for re-election in 2014, or even for president in 2016. Will his voter ID push offend the Hispanic voters who Republicans must court to expand their political clout? Will his position on Planned Parenthood’s family-planning funding offend moderate and politically independent women who fear abortion opponents are going too far? These are socially potent issues that hit close to home for many voters.

Some political operatives say that Perry is at bigger risk on the women’s health front than on the voter ID front — and that polling has confirmed this. He would have been better off to pick states' rights fights on energy, they say, or the environment. Others suggest neither the women's health battle nor the voter ID face-off will matter much long term, even in the event that Perry tries to stay on as governor, or maintains aspirations for higher office. They say such debates will be long gone by the time Perry makes his next move.  

For now, as Perry turns from the national stage back to Texas, carrying the states’ rights torch makes for the smoothest of possible transitions — even if it offends some voting blocs in the process.