Rick Perry And The Third Rail of American Politics

Rick Perry took a stroll down the third rail of American politics last night.

Just yesterday, I noted that Rick Perry’s previous statements on Social Security were a potential problem for his campaign, so there were plenty of people who were waiting to see what the Texas Governor would say when asked about it last night’s debate. Anyone who expected him to back down was disappointed:

Rick Perry is sticking to his guns on Social Security, standing by the inflammatory language in his book declaring the entitlement program a “Ponzi scheme” and a failure.

“It is a monstrous lie. It is a Ponzi scheme,” Perry said in the POLITICO/NBC debate. “Anybody that’s for the status quo with Social Security today is involved with a monstrous lie to our kids.”

To the charge that his language was over the top, he said: “Maybe it’s time to have some provocative language in this country.”

POLITICO editor-in-chief John Harris noted that Karl Rove has warned Perry’s rhetoric could be “toxic,” and that Vice President Dick Cheney told ABC News Thursday that he didn’t believe the term “Ponzi scheme” was accurate.

“You know, Karl has been over the top for a long time in some of his remarks, so I’m not responsible for Karl,” Perry said of Rove.

Here’s video of the full Social Security exchange, including Mitt Romney’s criticism of Perry’s position, which is continuing today.

Even before the debate was over, the Romney campaign was sending reporters an email saying that Perry’s statements about Social Security made him unelectable, and today they followed it up with a press release repeating that same message. The Romney strategy, clearly, is to attack Perry as the man who wants to end Social Security, while Romney wants to save it. That’s not necessarily a fair statement since Perry hasn’t explicitly said he wants to end the program, but the fact that these statements are floating out there, and that Romney is repeating them without explaining what he proposes to do to change things leaves him open to a very easy attack, and one that history suggests has a good chance of working.

David Freddoso is right, then, when he says that Perry’s rhetoric, while applauded by people on the right, doesn’t help him with the broad middle of American voters:

As much as I like to hear a dose of the sharp truth, “Ponzi Scheme” is not the best way to discuss Social Security. Perry would do far better to do what other GOP pioneers in this area have done, and stick to the basics. First, emphasize that he won’t mess with anyone over 55. Second, lay out ideas about what he wants to put in place for people my age. (The Chilean model, which Herman Cain invoked, is one of the best ideas for this, although there are others.) Perry should also avoid the trap George W. Bush fell into on Social Security. Don’t talk about the system’s solvency, but about all the wealth that it is locking up, never to be invested in American businesses. Talk about how those paying in could well end up passing a mere fraction of their lifelong contributions to their children. modern, defined-contribution pension system could turn today’s uneducated day-laborers into the parents of tomorrow’s college-educated professionals

Jennifer Rubin argues that Perry’s decision to stick to his guns on this issue prove that Karl Rove and Dick Cheney’s concerns about it are correct, and that Perry needs to sharpen his message on this issue fast:

What is surprising is how ill-thought-out this appears to be. Perry has used incendiary rhetoric about a critical topic, doesn’t have a clear response in the debate and elsewhere offers a highly questionable state plan as an example of what he’d prefer. It is not reassuring to voters who may want reform but don’t want entitlement programs dismantled willy nilly.

Perhaps this is the result of insufficient prep time or overwhelmed homestate staffers. But Perry can’t afford to offer half-baked ideas and allow his past, troublesome statements to float around. He’d be wise to promptly disclaim his comments as intending merely to start a debate and then roll out a smart, forwarding-looking reform plan that will preserve Social Security. If he doesn’t, he places his nomination at risk.

There is a possible way out of this for Perry, and it can be found in the 2010 campaign of Senator Marco Rubio, who won election in Florida despite having a record of public statements about reforming Social Security:

Maybe voters don’t care as much as the polls say they do. U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio in his GOP primary battle with Charlie Crist said during nationally televised debate that he was open to changes to Social Security. Crist ran ads against him. But Rubio won easily.

Of course, Rubio never called Social Security a Ponzi Scheme, a monstrous lie, or unconstitutional, and he made clear to Florida’s elderly citizens that his idea of Social Security benefits did not contemplate touching the benefits of current recipients. If Perry is going to get beyond the easy issue he’s created for Romney now and Obama in the fall of 2012 should he become the GOP nominee, he’s going to have to temper his rhetoric and explain to the public just what his idea of Social Security reform actually is. In fact, one would argue that he has a responsibility to do that before the election, because once he’s elected it’ll be too late.

As I’ve mentioned before, Perry’s stance on Social Security is one that is likely to resonate with younger voter, many of whom have no real confidence that they’ll ever get back what they’re being forced to pay into the system. At the same time he’s appealing to them, though, he needs to explain what he contemplates for people receiving benefits now, and people who are near the retirement age. If he doesn’t, then I would think that people like Rove and Cheney are going to end up being proven right when they argue that his position on the most popular program administered by the Federal Government is going to be toxic to his campaign.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, Social Security, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Polaris says:

    I think that SS is no longer the “third rail” of US politics that it used to be (as little as five years ago). I point to the last senate race in Wis (Feingold v Johnson) where Johnson also explicitly called SS a ponzi scheme in a rather progressive state and still won the race.

    I think more and more the electorate is coming to understand that our entitlement system (including SS) is generally unworkable and are willing to give those that cricitize it even harshly a fair hearing unlike before.

    I also note that in the GOP electate (which is what matters now), Perry’s SS stance is more likely to help him than hurt him, and I have to believe Romney knows this. This seems like a long-bomb desperation throw by Romney to keep Perry from becoming the de-facto nominee.

    The next few polls out of Fla, Az, and other ‘snowbird’ states should tell the tale I think.

    -Polais

  2. rodney dill says:

    While calling SS a Ponzi scheme is inaccurate it may sit well with younger voters who are paying into SS today, and don’t feel they will ever collect anything out of it.

  3. Fog says:

    “Don’t talk about the system’s solvency, but about all the wealth that it is locking up, never to be invested in American businesses.”

    OF COURSE it will never be invested in American businesses, that’s the whole point! Social Security was created to give seniors a small income independent of the volatile markets, which are subject to catastrophic crashes from time to time, thanks to the wisdom of our Wall St overlords. SS is intended to mitigate the effects of their incompetence on the investments of seniors.

  4. Console says:

    People will perceive all of this stuff as “straight talk.” There is nothing third rail in bad mouthing social security. The electricity comes when Perry actually starts doing that whole proposal part… which he won’t.

  5. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Calling Social Security a “Ponzi scheme” actually is an insult to Charles Ponzi. Ponzi didn’t tax his marks coming and going, like Uncle Sam does with Social Security.

    As for the electoral significance of all this, keep in mind George W. Bush in 2004 campaigned on a platform of among other things reforming Social Security (or “destroying” it, according to the media/academe/union/Democrat cabal). Bush won Florida that year by a giant margin. Florida by far is the nation’s oldest state. Connect the dots.

  6. David M says:

    The SS shortfall over the next 75 years is .7% of GDP, hardly what most people would consider a ponzi scheme or generally unworkable. There are plenty of ways to fix it that don’t involve destroying the program.

  7. Polaris says:

    @David M:

    The SS shortfall over the next 75 years is .7% of GDP, hardly what most people would consider a ponzi scheme or generally unworkable. There are plenty of ways to fix it that don’t involve destroying the program.

    That number assumes that growth, and tax trends all remain the same. In addition, it’s also assuming that the US Govt is able to cash in it’s IOUs (there is no stored SS surplus like there is supposed to be, it’s been spent) without further creating more deficit problems and loss of credit rating. It most especially assumes that interest rates will remain at near zero percent, and that assumption is almost certainlly wrong.

    Even setting all that aside, you have a system that works by taking money off a larger pool of new participants to pay off the old, and the people promoting know it’s insolvent. That certainly sounds like a Ponzi type fraud to me. Further the same people have no intention of fixing it (see what happened to GWB the last time he tried).

    -Polaris

  8. Neill Fendly says:

    Social Security ia hardly what Perry would like us to believe. We have more folks living longer and we need to make adjustments. 2009 was the first year more money was paid out than collected and the trend must be reversed but it is and will continue to be a viable program for Americans. I am a member of the GOP and also a leading edge baby boomer that has paid into Social Security my entire life. Perry just lost my vote and if he changes his opinion I won’t trust him. I am done with him and I suspect many others are already looking for another GOP hopeful we can support. Obviously Perry has an elevator that doesn’t go to the top floor.

  9. jan says:

    @Neill Fendly:

    Perry just lost my vote and if he changes his opinion I won’t trust him. I am done with him and I suspect many others are already looking for another GOP hopeful we can support. Obviously Perry has an elevator that doesn’t go to the top floor.

    Somehow, I seriously doubt Perry ever had your vote, in the first place.

  10. MM says:

    @rodney dill: Except SS reform is always predicated on not impacting people above 55 or so, meaning young people will still pay for it for the bulk of their working lives.

    How is “you know that thing you pay for but don’t think you’ll get? You definitely won’t get it, but we need you to pay for it anyway” a good deal?

  11. ponce says:

    Gallup now has Obama’s approval rating up six points over the past two weeks.

    Surely that deserves a post when every drop rates a post by you, doug.

  12. rodney dill says:

    @MM: I said calling it a Ponzi scheme would probably sit well with younger voters, how do you derive that I would think that is a good deal for them?

  13. anjin-san says:

    Somehow, I seriously doubt Perry ever had your vote, in the first place.

    Yea, you sound rational…

  14. MM says:

    @rodney dill: You said it would resonate well with younger voters who are paying into it and feel they will get nothing out of it. Are you implying that it will resonate in an anti-Rick Perry way?

  15. steve says:

    “It most especially assumes that interest rates will remain at near zero percent, and that assumption is almost certainlly wrong.”

    The CBO has been making projections for years, with varying interest rates. Social Security has always been a minor problem. Our real future debt comes from Medicare/Medicaid. SS has always been a pay-go system.

    Steve

  16. An Interested Party says:

    First, emphasize that he won’t mess with anyone over 55.

    Hmm, that didn’t seem to work too well for the Ryan Plan…

    As for all of those who are cheering on Perry’s position, yes, please tell all your friends about that and do everything you can to make sure that is the official GOP policy…see how well that works out for you…

  17. Racehorse says:

    Years ago Senator Daniel Moynihan had the idea of letting people have a certain percentage of their SS contribution to invest in certain areas, such as stocks. This plan would have been strictly voluntary and no capital gains tax on any earnings. President Bush proposed the same idea shortly after his election in 2000. Neither idea got anywhere. Too bad: Many people and myself could now be sitting on a million dollars or more and the economy would have been helped.

  18. ponce says:

    Too bad: Many people and myself could now be sitting on a million dollars or more and the economy would have been helped.

    Dow close Jan 1, 2000 – 11,357
    Dow close today – 11,295

  19. 1-) The Chilean model requires bailouts from time to time.

    2-) Saying that you wont mess with anyone older than 55 is political cowardice and an insult to younger people.

  20. rodney dill says:

    @MM: Please try to keep up – I said the statement “SS is a Ponzi scheme” would probably “sit well” with some younger voters. How would you infer that this would be and anti-Perry sentiment for those voters?

  21. grumpy realist says:

    So how are you doing to fix it? If Perry’s mechanism is to continue taxing younger workers to pay for people on SS now all the while promising them that they’ll never see a dime back, pray tell me why we should go along with this at all?

    If you’re going to “fix” social security by getting rid of it, at least have the courage to spread the pain equally–kick everyone off at the same time. Many people on social security already have gotten more back out of the system than they originally paid in; I see no reason why the younger generation should be required to pay one more cent towards their support if we’re really going to institute the Ayn Rand IGMFY society so dear to many modern Republicans.

  22. anjin-san says:

    Many people and myself could now be sitting on a million dollars or more

    @ Ponce

    You just don’t get it. If not for the government, ALL the tea party types would be millionaires. Thats why the identify so strongly with plutocrats. They are made from the same stuff. Why do you hate success and hard work?