Posted by: Joshua Green on September 16, 2011
Judging from the mood of party activists, it has seemed likely for much of the last year that the Republican presidential nomination would go to whichever candidate hewed most faithfully to right-wing orthodoxy. That is certainly the direction that the party has taken in Congress. But Texas Governor Rick Perry’s emergence has had a curious and unanticipated effect: A race supposed to be fought over who would cut government the deepest is suddenly producing a ringing defense of the entitlement state.
The loudest clarion is Mitt Romney, whose motivation is equal parts strategy and common sense. Perry, who supplanted Romney atop most primary polls when he entered the race last month, has called Social Security “a Ponzi scheme” and “a monstrous lie,” and suggested that it might be unconstitutional.
In the last two candidate debates, Romney launched ferocious attacks on the Texas governor, accusing him of wanting to eliminate the program and scaring seniors. Any nominee with such a position, Romney said, would get “obliterated” in the general election.
But Romney went beyond these attacks to offer an impassioned defense of the government’s responsibility to provide its citizens security in old age. His defense was all the more striking because it comes at a time when a Democratic president - ordinarily the champion of the welfare state - is weighing how much to cut Social Security and other entitlements to reduce the deficit.
As the Wall Street Journal’s famously conservative editorial page groused, Romney “sounded like a Democrat” and “seems to be taking Social Security assaults a notch or two beyond even the Democratic playbook.”
That’s probably wise, since Romney couldn’t hope to be more struttingly conservative than his chief rival. But it also makes practical sense. Although Republicans have often disagreed about Social Security, history suggests that casting oneself as an outspoken opponent can be a deadly maneuver for anyone with designs on the presidency.
In 1936, Alf Landon proposed to eliminate Social Security outright and went down in a landslide. In 1964, Barry Goldwater suggested that the program should be made voluntary and immediately came under attack from Democrats and Republicans alike. He, too, endured a historic drubbing.
As a candidate, Ronald Reagan - a Goldwater admirer - often mused about the same idea, to the horror of his staff. Once he became president, his budget director referred to the program as “closet socialism” and made clear the administration’s desire to scale it back. Although that plan never went anywhere, Republicans suffered major losses in the 1982 midterm elections.
The following year, Reagan made an about-face and agreed to a $165 billion bailout of Social Security that has helped fund the program up until now. And a more recent reminder of Republican perils is George W. Bush’s disastrous attempt at partial privatization in 2005.
Of course, flaunting one’s pragmatism and moderation can be swiftly punished by the right wing, regardless of historical precedent. Perry discovered this when his policy of supporting scholarships for the children of illegal immigrants was raised during Monday’s debate and drew a chorus of catcalls and boos.
But there’s reason to believe that a frontal assault on such entitlements as Social Security is more dangerous than ever for a Republican hopeful, and that’s because more Americans are being forced to rely on them. On Tuesday, the Census Bureau reported that real median household income declined over the last decade and that a record number of Americans - 46.2 million - are living in poverty.
That may not matter to conservative activists like those in the audience Monday night who cheered lustily at the prospect of uninsured Americans who become ill being left to die. But it matters a great deal to the much larger group of Republicans and independents who have been buffeted by the recession, seen their retirement savings dwindle, and will ultimately decide the nominee. Earlier this year, a Gallup poll showed that only 34 percent of Americans favor cutting Social Security. The percentage of Republicans who favored it was identical.
That means Romney has hit upon an issue, and line of attack, that resonates equally with Republicans and with the broader electorate. This may be why Perry seemed so flustered when confronted on Monday night. It’s also why Romney may soon reclaim his front-runner status.
Joshua Green writes a weekly column for the Boston Globe.