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Rick Perry takes on the salt police

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By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The feds are trying to take away your salt - and Texas Gov. Rick Perry finds this unsavory.

"We are fed up with being overtaxed and overregulated," he writes in "Fed Up," his aptly named new book."We are tired of being told how much salt we can put on our food, what windows we can buy for our house, what kind of cars we can drive... and countless other restrictions on our right to live as we see fit."

I like a pinch of salt as much as the next guy, so this alleged assault on seasoning caused my blood pressure to rise. I went to the Heritage Foundation on Monday morning to hear the Texas governor speak and see him sign books.

"Who's telling you that you can't put salt on your food, governor?" I asked after handing over my copy of Fed Up! for his autograph.

The cameras were still on him, and Perry adopted a tight smile. "Um, when you read this book, the footnote is there," he said, "and it's clearly a, um, case, I don't know the exact, uh, page, but it is footnoted, very well."

The governor soon turned his attention to the next paying customer ("I love to see them coming with handfuls of books!" he remarked) and I went to look up the footnote -- only to discover that there was none attached to the statement.

When the fact-checking group Politifact went further into the salty allegations, a publicist for Perry said the claim was based on an article in The Washington Post, although that story had nothing to do with the salt Americans put on their food. It was about processed foods, and it said the government was working to develop standards with industry, which was already pursuing voluntary reductions. "False," was Politifact's ruling on Perry's claim.

The salt story is emblematic of Perry, a darling of the Tea Party and a possible 2012 Republican presidential candidate: He's taking it a step too far.

He didn't just complain about intrusions from the federal government last year: He publicly floated the possibility of Texas seceding from the Union. He doesn't just talk about unfunded liabilities in Social Security: He calls it a Ponzi scheme and says states should be allowed to opt out. He doesn't just complain about Congress: He writes in his book that our national legislature has "one of the worst track records of mismanagement in the history of mankind." He doesn't just complain about judicial activism: He writes that judges have no business "telling the people how to punish criminals" (isn't that exactly what judges are supposed to do?).

In the case of salt, it would seem to be a good thing if government and industry could cooperate on a public-health effort that would prevent hundreds of thousands of heart attacks and strokes, saving untold billions in health-care costs. But Perry turned it into a case of big government intrusion into the kitchen - as if it's only a matter of time before the salt-shaker police come knocking.

Perry, a solid and handsome man who wore a pink tie and a thick gold ring, took the stage at Heritage with a smile and a thumbs up. The introduction included reference to his animal-science degree from Texas A&M and his position as Aggie "yell leader."

Delivering his speech, Perry bore a striking similarity to his predecessor, George W. Bush. He spoke with exaggerated enunciation, gripped the lectern with both hands, and laughed at his own jokes with a little "heh-heh."

He spoke with bravado about the "overwhelming landslide for Republicans" last week, which included his own reelection to a third term. He spoke freely about the need for "states' rights" (a term loaded with civil rights baggage) and said that James Madison would agree with him.

He brashly voiced his opposition to the 16th Amendment creating the federal income tax, and he called the New Deal a "legacy of glut... including a Social Security program that is not only bankrupt but also had very little to do with America's emergence from the Great Depression." Add in "President Johnson's Great Society and its associated Medicare and Medicaid costs," he said, "and you end up with $106 trillion of unfunded liability and approximately zero dollars set aside to pay for it."

So, Perry opposes income taxes, Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare? This is radical stuff, and he calls his book evidence that "I'm not running for the presidency." Maybe so. Whatever the wisdom of his ideas, he gets points for bravery. He wants others to "push back on those who would be nothing more than fearmongers."

Good plan. Let's push back against Social Security fearmongers. And, while we're at it, let's also push back against fearmongers who say big government is coming for your salt shaker.

danamilbank@washpost.com


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