Rick Perry and his Social Security problem

at 12:52 PM ET, 09/08/2011

Social Security is an issue that divides young and old, rich and poor, left and right.

And that’s just in the Republican Party.


Republican presidential candidate and Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks during the Ronald Reagan Centennial GOP Presidential Primary Debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library Wednesday in Simi Valley, Calif. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s contention in Wednesday’s Republican presidential debate that the entitlement program amounts to a giant “Ponzi scheme” has reignited long-simmering questions about the sustainability of the program. That’s because Perry spoke about the program in terms that many Republicans — even those who consider themselves members of the tea party — have been hesitant to repeat.

The reason: Social Security as a program is broadly very popular, and wide swaths of the general public will potentially resist any effort to reform it. While many people say they support some kind of Social Security reform, virtually every specific proposal is a non-starter. And getting rid of the program is quite simply out of the question.

While people may or may not agree that the entitlement program is a “Ponzi scheme,” the fact that Perry is even raising the issue makes him vulnerable to questions about how he would fix it. And when it comes to that, there’s basically no winning — even in the Republican Party.

And for Perry, that makes his stance more than just a general election problem.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll from March showed that the vast majority of Americans think Social Security is headed for a crisis and that the program needs a revamp. That much, people of all political stripes can agree upon.

Beyond that, though, taking any firm stance on Social Security becomes dicey.

Among Republicans only, 71 percent opposed raising the Social Security tax rate, 51 percent opposed applying the tax to all of a worker’s income, 54 percent opposed raising the retirement age, 47 percent opposed reducing benefits to those who retire early, 39 percent opposed slowing the rate of increase in benefits and 62 percent opposed reducting benefits for future retirees.

Now, in fairness to Perry, he wasn’t proposing these changes and didn’t even say that Social Security needs to be reformed.

All he was saying was that it’s a “Ponzi scheme” and that it represents a big lie to the younger generations, who won’t benefit from it down the line.

And in that way, the Texas governor may very well be in line with the American people and his party. Because while people don’t agree on how to fix the program, they do think it’s a huge future problem. They may not go so far as to say it’s a “Ponzi scheme,” but essentially they believe it’s unsustainable in its current form. Whether that constitutes a “scheme” or not is in the eye of the beholder.

The problem with using such sensational terms to describe it, however, is that Perry is opening himself up to the inevitable follow-up question: How do you fix it?

In that regard, it’s very hard to please everybody — or even most people — even in the Republican Party.

The Pew Research Center earlier this year asked people what they thought was a bigger priority: reducing the budget deficit or maintaining intact Social Security and Medicare benefits.

Among Republicans, 63 percent of those making more than $75,000 a year preferred reducing the deficit, while 62 percent of those making less than $30,000 a year preferred retaining benefits.

Among tea party supporters, 57 percent wanted to reduce the deficit, while 56 percent of non-tea party supporters wanted to keep current benefits.

And gutting the program is essentially out of the question for most people. The Pew poll showed just 21 percent of Republicans thought the program should be “completely rebuilt.”

To The Fix, at least, a “Ponzi scheme” seems like something that needs to be completely dismantled and maybe — and we’ll stress that maybe, because Perry is so anti-big government — rebuilt.

Indeed, Romney’s team is already trying to push the idea that Perry wants to completely eliminate the entitlement.

“This is going to be a really big deal,” Romney policy director Lanhee Chan told the Huffington Post. “To make the argument that Social Security effectively has to be eliminated is a complete non-starter.”

Either eliminating the program or completely restructuring it are completely unacceptable options, even to most Republicans. People like the idea that Social Security will be there for them when they retire, and any suggestion that it won’t be or that something specific has to change will be met with strong resistance — particularly among the poor and the old (hello, Florida).

It’s not clear which direction Perry will take in this key battle, but there aren’t a whole lot of great routes available.

Perry has created an issue for himself that he will need to massage constantly. And it’s not even clear that the Republican Party wants to make the massage appointment.

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