‘It is a Ponzi scheme’

It’s probably safe to say this will be the part of last night’s debate that has the most significant political impact.

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Rick Perry was asked about his book, in which he talked about his opposition to Social Security. The Texas governor conceded in his answer that current retires and those who are nearing retirement “don’t need to worry about anything.” But then Perry shared his actual beliefs:

“I think the Republican candidates are talking about ways to transition this program, and it is a monstrous lie,” Perry said. “It is a Ponzi scheme to tell our kids that are 25 or 30 years old today, you’re paying into a program that’s going to be there. Anybody that’s for the status quo with Social Security today is involved with a monstrous lie to our kids, and it’s not right.”

Told that Karl Rove and Dick Cheney disagree with that assessment, the Texas governor added, “I don’t care what anyone says.”

For those of us who’ve been wondering how Perry will deal with the controversial position he put in writing just last year, I guess we have our answer.

In case this isn’t obvious, Perry is clueless when it comes to the underlying policy question. Social Security isn’t even close to being a “Ponzi scheme” — Perry keeps using the phrase, but I don’t think it means what he thinks it means — and the integrity of the system in the coming decades really isn’t that dire at all. This notion of Social Security being “a monstrous lie to our kids” is ridiculous.

But under the circumstances, I suspect the substantive questions are irrelevant. This is, after all, a Republican primary.

Politically, then, the question here is whether Perry’s rhetoric on Social Security is a problem for his campaign. I suspect it is. Indeed, if you want to know why the Republican establishment isn’t sold on Perry, it’s tough to beat these two minutes from the debate.

After the debate, a Romney advisor told reporters, “Perry just lost the election. He said he’d abolish Social Security! You can’t win federal office saying that.”

Well, maybe. Last year in Wisconsin, Republican Ron Johnson was somehow elected to the U.S. Senate after calling Social Security a Ponzi scheme, and repeating the line in a television ad. He beat Russ Feingold by five points anyway.

In 2000 and 2004, George W. Bush used more restrained rhetoric, but nevertheless talked about “reforming” Social Security via privatization. This never mattered much electorally, either.

But Perry’s hostility towards the popular retirement program is clearly more intense, and for GOP officials who want to carry Florida in 2012, it’s no wonder the governor is making them nervous. Watch to see if Perry starts adding some nuance to his position, and watch for every other Republican candidate to use this to say Perry is simply unelectable.