Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right about one thing: Lots of people are talking about Social Security. In the debate last night he reiterated his idea about sending responsibility for retirement benefits to the states. Here is the exchange with Mitt Romney:
BLITZER: Governor Romney, you said that Governor Perry’s position on Social Security is, quote, unacceptable and could even obliterate the Republican Party. Are you saying he could not, as Republican nominee, beat Barack Obama?
ROMNEY: No, what I’m saying is that what he just said, I think most people agree with, although the term Ponzi scheme I think is over the top and unnecessary and frightful to many people. But the real issue is in writing his book, Governor Perry pointed out that in his view that Social Security is unconstitutional, that this is not something the federal government ought to be involved in, that instead it should be given back to the states.
And I think that view, and the view that somehow Social Security has been forced on us over the past 70 years that by any measure, again quoting book, by any measure Social Security has been a failure, this is after 70 years of tens of millions of people relying on Social Security, that’s a very different matter.
So the financing of Social Security, we’ve all talked about at great length. In the last campaign four years around, John McCain said it was bankrupt. I put in my book a series of proposals on how to get it on sound financial footing so that our kids can count on it not just our current seniors.
But the real question is does Governor Perry continue to believe that Social Security should not be a federal program, that it’s unconstitutional and it should be returned to the states or is he going to retreat from that view?
BLITZER: Let’s let Governor Perry respond. You have 30 seconds.
PERRY: If what you’re trying to say is that back in the ‘30s and the ‘40s that the federal government made all the right decision, I disagree with you. And it’s time for us to get back to the constitution and a program that’s been there 70 or 80 years, obviously we’re not going to take that program away. But for people to stand up and support what they did in the ‘30s or what they’re doing in the 2010s is not appropriate for America.
ROMNEY: But the question is, do you still believe that Social Security should be ended as a federal program as you did six months ago when your book came out and returned to the states or do you want to retreat from that?
PERRY: I think we ought to have a conversation.
ROMNEY: We’re having that right now, governor. We’re running for president.
PERRY: And I’ll finish this conversation. But the issue is, are there ways to move the states into Social Security for state employees or for retirees? We did in the state of Texas back in the 1980s. I think those types of thoughtful conversations with America, rather than trying to scare seniors like you’re doing and other people, it’s time to have a legitimate conversation in this country about how to fix that program where it’s not bankrupt and our children actually know that there’s going to be a retirement program there for them.
ROMNEY: Governor, the term Ponzi scheme is what scared seniors, number one. And number two, suggesting that Social Security should no longer be a federal program and returned to the states and unconstitutional is likewise frightening.
Look, there are a lot of bright people who agree with you. And that’s your view. I happen to have a different one. I think that Social Security is an essential program that we should change the way we’re funding it. You called it a criminal...
PERRY: You said if people did it in the private sector it would be called criminal. That’s in your book.
ROMNEY: Yeah, what I said was...
ROMNEY: Governor Perry you’ve got to quote me correctly. You said it’s criminal. What I said was congress taking money out of the Social Security trust fund is like criminal and that is and it’s wrong.
But do other Republican governors agree with Perry?
I did an informal sample of opinion from a number of prominent governors. I asked the press secretary for Perry’s newest surrogate, Gov. Bobby Jindal, three questions: Does Gov. Jindal think Social Security should go back to the states? Does he think advocating such a position is a problem for the GOP nominee? In Nov. 2010 on Morning Joe, Perry said Jindal could figure out a better Social Security system and then other states could copy it. Does the governor agree? He declined to answer any of those. In the spin room after the debate Jindal dodged again, simply repeating over and over again that Perry was brave in being the first to raise the issue. (Apparently, he doesn’t recall Rep. Paul Ryan’s efforts.)
I got a more forthright answer from the spokesman from Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who’s frequently mentioned as a VP candidate. This was his answer: “The Governor believes that Social Security must be reformed in order to ensure that it remains sustainable in the decades ahead. It is estimated that by 2037, absent serious reforms, retirees will only receive 76 cents for every dollar they contribute to the program. That is unacceptable and it is unfair to the millions of workers who are paying into the system today and rightly anticipating that they will receive their full benefits when they retire. Governor McDonnell strongly supports broad reforms to the system, including raising the eligibility age for future recipients, in order to make certain that future recipients can continue to count on this important federal retirement program. They must be made today, in order to preserve this vital program for the retirees of tomorrow.” Sounds like he has been following the Ryan-led debate on entitlements and understands what it takes to reform the system.
Then there is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who actually made very dramatic changes in state retirement and healthcare programs. His office declined comment, but last week he was quoted as saying after the first debate, “‘I’m going to let them have their fight,’ Christie told reporters here, ‘but in general it’s incorrect to say that Social Security is a failure. I would disagree with that statement.’” (The New Jersey Star-Ledger editorial board read it this way: “Gov. Chris Christie stepped off the sidelines to weigh in on Romney’s side, another voice of sanity in a party that has clearly lost its bearing.”)
Now, not every governor I tried responded. One press secretary confessed, “We’re engaged in 50 fistfights right now, but this isn’t one of them.” Fair enough.
Two things stand out. First, not even his newest surrogate endorses Perry’s idea about sending Social Security to the states. Second, these governors have been part of a debate over several years on the whole range of entitlement programs. Recall that at a speech at the American Enterprise Institute in February, Christie said: “What’s the truth that no one is talking about-here is the truth that no one is talking about: you’re going to have to raise the retirement age for Social Security. Oh I just said it and I’m still standing here! I did not vaporize into the carpeting and I said it! We have to reform Medicare because it costs too much and it is going to bankrupt us. Once again lightning did not come through the windows and strike me dead. And we have to fix Medicaid because it’s not only bankrupting the federal government, it’s bankrupting every state government. There you go. If we’re not honest about these things, on the state level about pensions and benefits and on the federal level about Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, we are on the path to ruin.” In short these are serious leaders who have thought hard about these issues.
Here’s my advice for all the candidates: Talk to the governors. Read Ryan’s Roadmap for America’s Future. And put out a plan that maintains Social Security as a federal program on a sustainable basis. That would show maturity and courage.