What the Republican divide over Social Security means for the future of entitlement reform. Our November cover story, “It’s GOP Gut-Check Time.”
MITT ROMNEY has spent the bulk of this year leading all the declared Republican presidential candidates in most national polls. Rick Perry’s announcement quickly changed that. Among many other considerations, a Texas governor is simply a better cultural fit for the GOP primary electorate than a former Massachusetts governor. But Romney didn’t get to where he is today by surrendering in the face of adversity.
Like Romney, Perry has chinks in his conservative armor. But it soon became clear that Romney — who did, after all, win an election in a state where only 13 percent of registered voters are Republicans — wasn’t going to confine himself to attacking Perry’s deviations from conservative orthodoxy. (Romney is hardly the best positioned Republican candidate to do so.)
Romney’s strategists combed Perry’s book Fed Up! and came up with what they considered to be some fairly provocative statements about Social Security. “Look at what happened to Paul Ryan when he proposed a plan to save Medicare, they say,” wrote Marc Thiessen in the Washington Post. “Romney’s campaign will argue that Perry is against the very idea of Social Security and Medicare, and that he will use Perry’s book to scare seniors in early-primary states with large retiree populations, such as Florida and South Carolina.”
“By any measure, Social Security is a failure,” Perry wrote, one that “we have been forced to accept for more than 70 years now.” Perry called the massive retirement program a “Ponzi scheme” and suggested that it was unconstitutional, saying it was created “at the expense of respect for the Constitution and limited government.”
True to Thiessen’s reporting, Romney has launched a full-court offensive against Perry’s Social Security remarks. He suggested a Republican nominee with these views cannot beat President Obama in the general election. “If we nominate someone who the Democrats could correctly characterize as being against Social Security, we would be obliterated as a party,” Romney told Sean Hannity.
“The governor says look, states ought to be able to opt out of Social Security. Our nominee has to be someone who isn’t committed to abolishing Social Security, but who is committed to saving Social Security,” Romney said standing next to Perry at a Republican candidates’ debate. The day of another debate in senior-heavy Florida — which turned out to be a fairly disastrous one for Perry — Romney published an op-ed on Fox News’ website titled, elegantly, “Rick Perry Wants to Dismantle Social Security.”
“Does Governor Perry believe Social Security is unconstitutional,” Romney asked, “or is he advocating its elimination because he believes fifty separate programs would be better public policy?” Romney senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said that nominating someone who used Perry’s “radical rhetoric” would be a “disaster” for the GOP. “In the book and on the media tour, [Perry] attacks Social Security as a failure from its very inception,” Fehrnstrom told National Review. “He said it does violence to the founding principles of this country. He suggested we should end it as a federal entitlement and give it to the states.”
Whether they support Rick Perry or not, Romney’s conservative critics might be tempted to reply, “Of course Mitt Romney would hit Perry from the left on Social Security.” But Romney’s Social Security attacks on Perry have been joined by Tea Party favorite Michele Bachmann.
“People, I think, rightly have a genuine concern about the governor’s commitment to Social Security benefits for current retirees,” she told the Des Moines Register. The Minnesota congresswoman also said in an interview with CNN, “America needs to keep its promise to senior citizens, I talk to them all the time. I love senior citizens. I care about them.”
Bachmann has good reasons to want to take Perry down a peg. Since he got into the race, her Iowa lead has evaporated and her national poll numbers have dropped precipitously.
It is nevertheless telling that a Republican as conservative as Bachmann would criticize Perry in this fashion. The Social Security debate goes far beyond the 2012 horse race and will have implications for the party even if neither Perry nor Romney winds up the nominee. Republicans have struggled with a contradiction: they are the party of fiscal conservatism and Social Security-receiving senior citizens. The two groups most shortchanged by the current system — young people and minorities — were the voting blocs most loyal to Obama.
On these issues, the Republican Party’s principles and political self-interest are in conflict. This could be a defining moment for how the GOP resolves its longstanding schizophrenia on entitlements.
IN 1964, Barry Goldwater raised constitutional questions about Social Security and proposed making the program voluntary. (The former is hardly a crackpot position, incidentally. Virtually no one thought the Constitution authorized anything like Social Security prior to the 1930s.) It was one of many reasons he was buried in a landslide.
After Goldwater, few candidates were so bold again. Those who did were either unsuccessful, like Oliver North in his 1994 Virginia Senate candidacy, or were elected in safe Republican districts, like Perry’s fellow Texans Dick Armey and Ron Paul.
Ronald Reagan was on record taking Goldwater’s position on Social Security in 1964. He also opposed the creation of Medicare in 1965. At least one subsequent Republican nominee, Bob Dole, voted against Medicare as a member of Congress. Both Reagan and Dole subsequently emphasized their support for an alternative proposal called Eldercare. In 1980 candidate Reagan strenuously denied he had any plans to cut either Social Security or Medicare. “There you go again,” he famously said when Jimmy Carter accused him of harboring such intentions.
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