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Right Turn
Posted at 08:45 AM ET, 01/17/2012

Gingrich and Santorum face off on Social Security

There was a little-remarked-upon moment in the debate last night in which Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum sparred on Social Security. It suggested that while Gingrich’s facts and policy are often askew, he retains a rhetorical flair that in a debate setting is hard to match. Santorum began by accusing Gingrich of being “irresponsible” in his plans to privatize Social Security:

There’s nobody for the last 15 years that’s been more in favor of personal savings accounts than I have for Social Security. But we were doing that when we had a surplus in Social Security. We are now running a deficit in Social Security. We are now running a huge deficit in this country.
Under Congressman Gingrich’s proposals, if he’s right, that 95 percent of younger workers taken, there will be hundreds of billions of dollars in increased debt, hundreds of billions of more debt being put on the books, which we can’t simply — we’re going to be borrowing money from China to fund these accounts, which is wrong. I’m for those accounts, but first we have to get our fiscal house in order, balance this budget and then create the opportunity that Newt wants. But the idea of doing that now, is fiscal insanity.

He is right, of course.

Gingrich had two responses, neither of which was credible. First, he promised to “take 185 different federal bureaucracies that deal with low-income Americans. Think about this, there are 185 separate bureaucracies with separate regulations, all dealing with low-income Americans. We can consolidate them into a single block grant.” That’s gong to pay for a huge outflow from Social Security? It’s preposterous. Next, he claimed that in the long run, “if you have a personal savings account model, you increase the size of the economy by $7 to $8 trillion over a generation because of the massive reinvestment.” Perhaps that is true, but we have a huge, nagging debt right now and he’s going to make it worse with his plan. And while Santorum was certainly right on substance, Gingrich’s glibness may have successfully concealed how really silly is his policy proposal.

In short, aside from the political hurdles (George Bush died on his sword over individual accounts) Gingrich’s Social Security plan is, as Santorum claimed, irresponsible. But as president, Gingrich would feel free to roam about, trying this fantastical idea and then another. Do the voters really imagine the “historian” would be able to separate the viable from the impractical and be effective at governing?

And yet, Gingrich gets to throw his red meat to the base in a debate setting, never concerned that the figures add up. He’s too big, you see, for accounting and too creative to be constrained by political reality. But, really, in a time in which our fiscal situation is acute, do voters buy into such schemes or are they looking for a candidate more grounded in reality?

So far voters have been very insistent on pinning candidates on details and have shown determination to reduce the debt. Santorum, if he wants to pull ahead of Gingrich, should pound away at the notion that Gingrich is interested in spinning interesting ideas but is entirely ill-equipped to accomplish them and to govern. That’s accurate, and I think the voters understand that as well.

By  |  08:45 AM ET, 01/17/2012

Categories:  2012 campaign, Budget

 
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