WASHINGTON -- Two things happened in Monday night's CNN-Tea Party debate. The dynamics of the Republican race became clear: it's Rick Perry against the field. And the contest's central theme became just as clear: let's dismantle as much as we can of the federal government's role.
We are in the midst of a great national unraveling, a slow-motion secession fostered by fear, anger, $15 trillion in debt and the ineffectual yet conceptually ambitious presidency of Barack Obama.
The GOP grassroots response -- the Tea Party response -- is, however unrealistic and impractical, to try to dismember the federal government except when its largesse was created by Republicans or when it is failing to fully protect the borders.
Questioned repeatedly about the wisdom of their policies, the three current and former governors on the stage -- Rick Perry, Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman -- claimed the mantle of state's rights to defend their actions. Perry defended his support for in-state tuition for undocumented college students in Texas; Huntsman defended his support for driver's licenses for illegals in Utah; and Romney defended his health care plan in Massachusetts.
In defending his tuition policy, Perry even made it sound as though he was doing so because of Texas' long history with Mexico -- as though the Lone Star State still had its own foreign policy.
The contenders for the most part supported a scaled-back military presence in the world -- a presence that itself is an extensive and expensive source of federal power. They called for limiting the role of the Federal Reserve itself, not just its current chairman.
And even when Perry's foes purported to disagree with him on Social Security -- he calls it an unconstitutional invasion of state's rights -- they were careful not to defend the program (let alone Medicare) with anything other than the most cautious language. They reluctantly -- almost woefully -- made an exception for the prescription drug benefit -- a trillion dollar program championed by former President George W. Bush.
The man who made the federal government's role the center of the campaign is also the man who was the center of attention in the debate: Rick Perry.
He has his story about the 10th Amendment and he is sticking to it. An all-but-forgotten part of the Bill of Rights until recently, it has become the organizing principle of the GOP race this year. When Perry mentioned the federal government during the debate, he used the word "they." It was "they" -- the feds -- who were disregarding their duty to protect the border with Mexico.
Think about it: the federal government is "they."
Is that the way most Americans regard it?
The GOP nomination, it seems, is going to go to the candidate who most forcefully makes the case for his or her antagonism to the federal government.
It will be up to President Obama not only to make the case for his own re-election, but for the role of the federal government itself.
It has been a long time -- since the 1920s -- that anyone has really had to do that. Perry threw down the challenge.
And as he makes the case, he is increasingly under attack from his rivals. At one time or another, almost all of them -- led by Romney and Bachmann -- turned their fire on him.
He held his ground for the most part. He hadn't debated much, if at all, in recent years in Texas. He has a decent knack for it and he relishes the punch and -- even more -- the counterpunch.
Perhaps the president should suggest that, if Texas is so cool and successful and powerful, Perry himself should secure the border from Brownsville to El Paso.
Perry once talked about secession. Was he joking?