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The American Debate: Rick Perry's Social Security stumble

Texas Gov. Rick Perry. By Monday, he was softening his “Ponzi scheme” talk. (Steve Helber / Associated Press)
Texas Gov. Rick Perry. By Monday, he was softening his “Ponzi scheme” talk. (Steve Helber / Associated Press)Read more

More than half a century ago, a U.S. president insisted it was nuts for any politician to target Social Security. In his words, "the federal government cannot avoid or escape responsibilities which the mass of the people firmly believe should be undertaken by it." Therefore, "should any political party attempt to abolish Social Security . . . you would not hear of that party again in our political history." And those who want to abolish it "are stupid."

So wrote Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower, in a 1954 letter to his brother, voicing the bipartisan consensus of his era.

Of course, if Eisenhower were around today, conservatives would assail him as a squishy lefty and drum him out of the GOP. As Rick Perry has so vividly demonstrated recently, the Republican right is revved up on taking down Social Security. Consensus support for the popular program is out; incendiary rhetoric ("Ponzi scheme" and "monstrous lie") is in. As Perry declared in his 2010 book, in a passage he defends today, "By any measure, Social Security is a failure."

When are these politicians going to learn that going after Social Security is the political equivalent of nitroglycerin?

Now it's Perry whose fingers are getting singed.

Many in the Republican establishment are rightly concerned that the party's front-runner has insulted millions of Americans. Charles Ponzi was a swindler who conned his investors by promising 100 percent returns within three months, all while keeping them in the dark; by contrast, the Social Security Administration publicly reports its finances, tracking how the payroll taxes are converted into benefits.

As Ike might've remarked, it's "stupid" politics to insinuate via provocative rhetoric that 52 million Americans are mere suckers in a criminal enterprise. That won't win key senior-heavy states such as Pennsylvania and Florida.

Perry said at a debate last week, "Maybe it's time to have some provocative language in this country." But his is disconnected from reality. How can anyone believe that Social Security is a failure "by any measure" when in fact the percentage of seniors living in poverty has dropped precipitously since the program was enacted during the Great Depression?

The GOP front-runner also complains that "Social Security is something we have been forced to accept for more than 70 years now." Really? He makes it sound as if Social Security was imposed at gunpoint. Yet the program was enacted by duly elected House and Senate members, and signed by a president elected in a landslide. You know, democracy.

Granted, the program has some financial woes. Everyone recognizes that. But the polls report that most Americans want to fix Social Security, not turn back the clock and leave seniors exposed, once again, to the gyrations of Wall Street.

Back in June, in a poll sponsored by the Wall Street Journal and NBC News, 56 percent of Americans (including 57 percent of swing-voting independents) said they'd be less likely to back a candidate who favored Social Security privatization. The Pew Research Center has stats showing that 87 percent of Americans view the program as "very good" or "good" for the country. And the latest polls track Perry's distance from the mainstream; according to a CNN-ORC survey released this week, only 27 percent of Americans (and 31 percent of independents) buy Perry's assertion that Social Security has been a total failure.

Ike would have nodded knowingly. Ten years after he wrote his letter, Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater suffered a 44-state loss, in part because he had suggested on the stump that Social Security should be voluntary. Conservative icon Ronald Reagan took that lesson to heart; running in 1980, he successfully emphasized that he intended to mend Social Security, not end it.

As Karl Rove remarked the other day on ABC News, trashing Social Security is "toxic in a general-election environment." Rove should know, because he discovered it was toxic even in a postelection environment. When he was George W. Bush's political guru, he put the president on the road to stump for Social Security privatization. This was 2005, when Bush had some political capital after his '04 reelection win. Yet the more Bush talked up privatization, the more people got turned off to the idea, and the less popular he became.

That's the danger for Perry. He appears to sense it, because in the Monday debate he sought to soften the "Ponzi scheme" rhetoric by suddenly insisting that "we're not going to take that program away." He needs to be careful. As Rich Galen, a Republican commentator, once told me: "On this issue, I know we have a long history of getting the you-know-what kicked out of us. You clearly have to approach it with sensitivity."

He told me that in August 2001. Ten years later, the sensitivities remain.