In Florida, the Mitt Romney campaign is distributing a flyer attacking on Texas Gov. Rick Perry on Social Security. It contrasts Perry’s own words (“By any measure, Social Security is a failure”) with Romney’s positions (“Ensuring the program that millions of Americans rely on will be there for our children and grandchildren”). The issues is not simply, as Perry boosters would have us believe, that it is a Ponzi scheme. No, that part is halfway defensible (hence the focus of their commentary) since it addresses the concern that the system as currently configured will go bankrupt. No, the real issue is twofold: Are Perry’s attacks on the very idea of federal retirement benefits reasonable and will he make himself unelectable by defending them?
Perry has suggested in his book that Social Security is unconstitutional (“Social Security is something that we’ve been forced to accept for more than 70 years now. . . . at the expense of respect for the Constitution and limited government”). However in the debate he said he didn’t want to discuss the theoretical issue. (But if it is unconstitutional, why wouldn’t he?)
The Romney team is making several points. First, Perry has said these things frequently; it’s not a matter of backing away from a throwaway line in his book. Second, Romney is betting that even among conservatives this stuff sounds bonkers; in fact, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) has suggested as much. And finally, Romney is telling GOP voters that President Obama could essentially copy this sort of flyer, put it on every ad his campaign can manufacture, and make the election not about Obama’s rotten record but about Perry’s extremism.
This certainly makes Monday’s debate in Florida interesting. Perry has two choices: 1.) Try to walk it back and then deal with allegations that he’s flip-flopped (and is insufficiently careful with his own rhetoric); or 2.) Stick with his position and suggest a serious policy alternative to Social Security. More important, however, is how he reacts to the attacks. Is he testy and angry, or calm and forceful? This is his first serious test. Let’s see if he can pass it.