In this era of Red States and Blue States it is a bit surprising that there hasn't been more specific discussion of what authority belongs to the federal government and what belongs to the states. I'll try.
First, lets set the goalposts:
- On the right, the phrase "states rights" became entangled with segregation 60 years ago in an era when Strom Thurmond ran for president on the States Rights Democratic Party (Dixicrat) ticket. A bad taste remains.
- On the left, politicians in San Francisco take a different approach. They just ignore federal laws which they don't like, such as immigration laws (sanctuary cities) and drug laws (medical marijuana.)
- Somewhere between the two are the vast majority of Americans. Most people would agree that the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the 1968 Civil Rights Act are cornerstones of our legal system and that they apply in all states. Similarly, most would agree that we are a country of laws and that they should be obeyed.
Then, a layman's view of a couple constitutional points:
- The US Constitution gives the federal government "enumerated powers" (only those specifically stated) with the 10th Amendment explicitly leaving to the states and the people those powers not specifically granted to the federal government. Conservatives would say that the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution to protect against governmental overreach.
- Over time interpretation of the Commerce Clause which gives Congress the right to regulate commerce between the states and with foreign countries has grown to include any economic activity which could affect a national market - e.g. almost everything.
So, what are a couple of relevant issues today?
1. Romneycare/Obamacare.The Supreme Court will need to decide if Obamacare's individual mandate exceeds Congress' Constitutional authority at a federal level, but a "states' rights" approach does make some sense if a majority of the people of Massachusetts want it. (Romney's support for concept of an individual mandate remains a big problem in any case.)
2. Educating Illegals. There is a difference of opinion about handling illegal immigrants between those living near the border with heavy Mexican populations (many of which move back and forth across the border) and those living further away. Governor Perry's support of in-state tuition for foreign-born children of illegal immigrants is a case in point. If Texas (and California) want it that way and they pay for it, why should the folks in Ohio care?
3. The Death Penalty. Folks in New York are horrified that Texas executes over 300 hard core criminals each year. Folks in Texas don't understand why New Yorkers would kill millions of innocent fetuses and worry about 300 murderers and recidivist rapists. At least on the criminal side we let each state have its way.
4. The European Financial Crisis. The Eurozone model is the extreme version of "states' rights" with everybody jointly responsible for the common currency while each country can be be as irresponsible as it chooses with its own budgets. (Failure is inevitable.) In our case it works because most states are required to have balanced budgets and there is no promise to bail out those who might deviate.
When Rick Perry says that he will "work every day to make Washington D.C. as inconsequential in your life" as he can, the conservatives think that he is in tune with the Founding Fathers, Ron Paul Libertarians cheer, and he gets the Tea Party vote. The liberals think that he is fighting against the inevitable arc of history reflected in the thousands of pages of new regulations contained in Obamacare, financial regulations, the EPA, and the National Labor Relations Board. It could be argued that the conservative perspective is "live and let live" while the liberal perspective is "my way or the highway."
Before Obama's $1 billion campaign starts, it might be worth looking at a Canadian Conservative Party campaign ad. Michael Ignatieff stepped down as the Liberal Party leader after the party finished a disasterous third place in May's election.