Here’s Rick! The Axe Man Cometh (Not!)

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In his New York Times column last Thursday (hat tip to Simon Gerlin for bringing it to my attention)  Matt Bai implicitly agrees with the somewhat unconventional argument that I’ve been making regarding Rick Perry’s debate gaffe , namely, that the mere fact of forgetting the third of the three cabinet departments he would eliminate if elected president will, by itself, have almost no impact on his chances of winning the Republican nomination. Instead, what is hurting Perry is that a sizeable number of Tea Party-sympathizing likely Republican voters who were initially inclined to support Perry now believe, largely on the basis of his debate performances, that he isn’t a genuine conservative. But their disappointment is not rooted in his apparent lack of debating skills – it is based on the unmistakable evidence that Perry, as Governor, embraced decidedly un-conservative policies. In his column, Bai drives home my point by suggesting that Perry’s failure to remember all three departments indicates that he didn’t really have a principled reason for cutting the Department of Energy in the first place.  Instead, it was just one item among a number of conventional Republican-pleasing acts on Perry’s to-do list (tax cuts? Check; eliminate cabinet departments? Check) motivated more by political posturing than conservative principles.

Lacking an underlying rationale for deciding which cabinet departments to cut, Perry had no reason to remember their specific names. (Heck, he’s lucky to have recalled two of them!) To be sure, the ostensible reason for eliminating cabinet departments is to cut government spending and reduce its size.  But that can be accomplished by cutting any number of departments and agencies.  Why not start with the biggest budget busters, and eliminate the Health and Human Services or Defense departments? How about the Department of Homeland Security? In Perry’s defense, he’s not the only Republican candidate who has failed to articulate a cogent reason for determining which government departments to axe, and why; Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich and Michelle Bachmann have all promised to chop down specific parts of the cabinet but except for Paul, it’s hard to remember exactly why they have targeted specific departments, beyond a vague promise to cut spending.

This failure to articulate a rationale for deciding which cabinets to cut raises questions, as Mark Schmitt points out in the New Republic, about just how much money this axe-wielding exercise would actually save.  For example, if Commerce is eliminated, who will carry out the census, which is mandated by the Constitution?  Similarly, it is all well and good to dismantle the Education department, but does that mean the end of all student loan programs too?  In short, which current government programs are these candidates willing to cut, and which do they expect to see transferred to other existing government agencies?  Without specifying the details, it’s not clear whether any money will be saved at all.

My point is not that there is no good reason to cut cabinet departments, or any other government agency, for that matter.  Perry’s problem is that he didn’t explain why he targeted these three departments and, as Bai suggests, his failure to do so is simply additional evidence that he hasn’t developed a cogent set of conservative principles on which to base such decisions.  At least we know that in Ron Paul’s libertarian world view, government ought not to be making student loans, so his promise to eliminate the Department of Education seems genuine.  In contrast, Perry has yet to convince anyone that his candidacy is motivated by more than the opportunity to grab the “I’m not Mitt” mantle.

In this regard, he has much to learn from this man, who at least had a reason for taking an axe to his problems: too much work, not enough play, and a history of “cost-cutting measures” to live up to.

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