The most important word spoken in the CNN/Tea Party Republican presidential debate this month was not “Ponzi.” It was “we.”
When moderator Wolf Blitzer posed the question, “Should we let him die?” after positing a hypothetical coma patient who had refused to buy health insurance before misfortune befell him, he didn’t make clear who “we” were.
In Rick Perry’s “Fed Up! Our Fight to Save America From Washington,” it’s pretty clear that the Texas governor and Blitzer aren’t talking about the same “we.”
The coma question was aimed at Rep. Ron Paul, Perry’s fellow Texan. But Perry should prepare an answer — it’s likely to come up again, especially after a smattering of people in the audience seemed to agree that, yes, “we” should let the risk-taking patient deal with the consequences of his actions.
The point of Perry’s book and the play on words in its title is that the federal government is not the only “we” at work here and that the massive usurpation of authority by the federal government over the past eight decades has damaged all the other “we’s” in American civil society.
“Fed Up!” is in many ways an outlandish book. It convinces me that when Perry was saying he was undecided about whether to run for president, he was telling the truth. It seems inconceivable that anyone who had already decided to run for president would have written this book — it was published in November 2010 — or have another likely candidate (former Speaker Newt Gingrich) write the foreword.
In other ways, though, it reads like a conventional campaign tome. Perry pays homage to the Founders, praises the 10th Amendment and devotes a chapter to what the government should be doing differently.
Of course, it’s the stuff beyond the conventional that makes “Fed Up!” an interesting read.
Beyond the already well-chronicled presentation of Social Security as a Ponzi scheme, Perry delves into detail on the broader vision of the New Deal. He finds it wanting, to say the least. Republicans have been successfully taking potshots at Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, eldest son of the New Deal, for quite a while now. But they’ve never had much success going after Franklin Roosevelt — none when he was alive and little more since his death.
Perry goes right for the progenitor’s jugular, though, referring to the delivered liberal wisdom on the era as “a fraud” that “simply does not stand up to history.” He brings numbers to bolster his case and cites the excellent work of Amity Shlaes and Burton Folsom in offering a revisionist look at the 1930s.
But mostly, he brings indignation. That is perhaps the central theme he has carried from the book to the campaign. When Perry said of tea partyers that “we’re not angry, we’re indignant,” he was trying to alter the perception of his base from the media-imagined rabble of peasants with pitchforks to something else: solid, middle-class people who are aghast at the Obama administration.
Perry is hardly less indignant when talking about Republican complicity in perpetuating Washington’s power grab. Borrowing William F. Buckley’s famous founding phrase for the conservative magazine National Review, Perry accuses many Republicans of “standing athwart history not doing a damned thing.”
Perry’s indictment: “While the modern Democrat is unabashedly committed to expanding the federal government ... the average Republican too often shows up to the fight seeking something ‘less bad.’”
Many of the book’s policy prescriptions don’t go far beyond what an average Republican, who might not be the same breed as the average Republican of a few years ago, would support today.
But even here Perry’s language separates him from what more establishment party figures generally espouse. In making the obligatory call for the repeal of the 2010 health care overhaul, Perry does not parrot the standard GOP talking point about replacing it with something else.
“Of course we should talk about the things we are for,” he writes. “But under no circumstances should Washington Republicans forsake the clarity of this single mission: to repeal and stop this misguided, un-American, and unconstitutional law from undermining our health care system.”
So, how does that coma patient fit into this health care debate? Depends on who “we” are. If “we” is the federal government, you might get one answer. If “we” is the state government, you might get another.
But “we” can also include the coma guy’s family, church, neighbors, co-workers or some combination of a host of other social institutions that, in Perry’s vision, could flourish if only they could get the federal government to stop thinking it has to do everything for everybody.
“I’ll work every day to make Washington, D.C., as inconsequential in your life as I can,” Perry said in his presidential announcement. Reading “Fed Up!” it’s easy to believe that he means it.