Michael Gerson: Renewed zeal for the 10th Amendment

By MICHAEL GERSON Published: July 27, 2011
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It is Gov. Rick Perry's main appeal as a presidential candidate that 48 percent of the nation's job creation during the recovery has come in Texas. But his main message to America is not economic but constitutional.

Perry's passion is a rigorous reading of the 10th Amendment — the one insisting that powers not delegated to the federal government are reserved to the states or the people. In 2009, Perry endorsed a resolution of the Texas legislature claiming “sovereignty under the 10th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States over all powers not otherwise enumerated and granted to the federal government by the Constitution of the United States.” It was an act without legal significance but not without political meaning. “We've got a great union,” Perry insisted. “There's absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, who knows what might come of that?”

Perry's argument befits a state that once possessed its own foreign policy and an embassy on the Place Vendome in Paris. But the approach sets limits on a presidential candidate. The last attempt to campaign on the appeal of the 10th Amendment was made in 1996 by Bob Dole, who carried a well-worn version in his breast pocket. The strategy amounted to unilateral policy disarmament. While Bill Clinton described improvements in education and public safety, Dole talked of procedural limits on federal power. The domestic centerpiece of Dole's campaign was a void, a negation.

Given President Obama's record of federal overreach, the 10th Amendment may have more political appeal this time around. But the problem with a sweeping application of the amendment is not merely political.

Fights about the proper role of the government were common among the Founders. Thomas Jefferson thought federal spending should be limited to purposes specifically enumerated in the Constitution — little more than war and the Post Office. James Madison took his side. Alexander Hamilton envisioned a powerful, commercial republic beyond a loose confederation of agricultural states — requiring the federal government to exercise implied powers in promoting the general welfare.

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