A Rare Republican Shout-Out to the 14th Amendment

In what was billed as a speech on the economy, former Texas Governor Rick Perry delivered remarks to the National Press Club yesterday with some startling observations about the Republican Party and race. These observations were highlighted in Evan McMorris-Santoro’s account of the speech for BuzzFeed, and as we speak there’s a robust discussion of them underway on Twitter that involves, among others, Jonathan Chait, Harold Pollack, and John Legend (!).

Here’s the most interesting passage in a speech that began rather abruptly with Perry’s graphic description of a 1916 lynching in Waco:

I know Republicans have much to do to earn the trust of African-Americans. Blacks know that Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964 ran against Lyndon Johnson, who was a champion for Civil Rights. They know that Barry Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He felt parts of it were unconstitutional. States supporting segregation in the south, they cited states’ rights as a justification for keeping blacks from the voting booth and the dinner table.

As you know, I am an ardent believer in the 10th Amendment, which was ratified in 1791, as part of our Bill of Rights. The 10th Amendment says that the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved for the states respectively, or the individual. I know that state governments are more accountable to you than the federal government. But I’m also an ardent believer in the 14th Amendment, which says that no state shall deny any person in its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

There has been, and there will continue to be an important and a legitimate role for the federal government in enforcing Civil Rights. Too often, we Republicans, me included, have emphasized our message on the 10th Amendment but not our message on the 14th. An Amendment, it bears reminding, that was one of the great contributions of Republican party to American life, second only to the abolition of slavery.

The first paragraph of this passage is a pretty blunt refutation of the revisionist history of the GOP and civil rights that we hear all the time–and heard again last week when some Republicans pretended there had never been anyone in their ranks who supported neo-Confederate imagery and rhetoric. The third paragraph an admission that Republican use–even by Perry himself–of state’s rights rhetoric sounds like a neo-Confederate dog whistle to African-Americans. And the second paragraph includes something I don’t recall ever hearing: a Republican pol giving a shout-out to the 14th Amendment, which when mentioned at all in those circles is usually treated as the hellish loophole through which all sorts of Big Government evil has entered the political bloodstream.

Read in isolation, this is pretty remarkable, and frankly strikes me as a more significant concession to reality than Rand Paul’s famous African-American outreach efforts. Moreover, when he gets into his positive claims for an agenda benefiting African-Americans, Perry can not only match Paul’s pledge to pursue criminal justice reform, but can show some results, and can also tout pretty good numbers on black graduation rates in Texas. Indeed, Perry’s got the closest thing I’ve seen to a coherent conservative program in this area:

I will suggest to you, if we’ll do five things, if we create jobs, if we incentivize
work, if we keep nonviolent drug offenders out of prison, if we reform our schools, and
we reduce the cost of living, we will have done more for African-Americans than the last
three Democrat administrations combined.

Without getting off-track here, I’d observe that planks one, two and five of this agenda are based on the ancient conservative illusion–which has always been central to Perry’s whole shtick–that giving “job-creators” everything they want at the expense of the public interest can provide trickle-down benefits to us serfs. He’s basically making the case that the lucky serfs include African-Americans. But at least he’s making the case, even as he conflates, say, the exodus of black Louisianans into next-door Texas after Katrina with the myth of the Lone Star State as the land of milk and honey.

What press accounts of Perry’s speech so far seem to be missing is how little he’s changed his actual policy commitments despite the big and arguably important rhetoric shift. He’s still defending voter ID laws; dropping those, I’d suggest (and John Legend seems to agree) is sort of the price of admission of any real conversation between Republicans and African-Americans. His discourse on Democratic failures continues to be loaded with all sorts of dubious propositions like the conservative urban myth (based on exaggerating a single study in Oregon) that Medicaid does nothing for its beneficiaries. And reading the transcript, it’s also hard not to notice that Perry descends into near-incoherence the moment the Q&A begins, making you wonder if the paragraphs I quoted above are anything other than a speechwriter or adviser’s one-time experiment.

So I’d stick with my first reaction upon reading about Perry’s remarks: will he make similar remarks to an all-white audience at some Pizza Ranch in Iowa?

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.