I get the sense that liberals were very pleased with last night’s debate, particularly Rick Perry’s decision to go all in on his (false) claim that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme. After all, Social Security is really popular! And unlike most Republicans, Perry isn’t saying that it needs to be fixed or modified or saved; he says that it’s a scam.
I think there’s a bit of oversell on this, however, and I’d caution against counting on Perry’s extremism being too big a liability in the long run.
First, the general record on these things is that perceived ideological extremism hurts in presidential elections — but only by a few percentage points. If we’re really in for a true double-dip recession, Barack Obama isn’t likely to be saved by such things, and if the economy winds up hitting the upside of economists projections, he won’t need to be savd by them.
What’s more, there is still plenty of time for Perry to blunt charges of extremism by modifying his positions and, especially, emphasis. Yes, the Obama campaign has the debate footage saved and ready to deploy. And yes, it will make no sense at all when Perry says (if he wins the nomination) that despite still believing what he’s said in the past, he remains committed to delivering every dollar of Social Security benefits to absolutely everyone who has ever paid into the system. It won’t make sense — but if the economy is awful and Obama is at 35% approval, it won’t matter because no one will be listening to the president any more.
Now, it’s certainly possible that a Perry-Obama contest could be a very close race, and those two or three points that Perry might lose compared to a more moderate conservative nominee like Mitt Romney might well make the difference. But Perry may not really be perceived as all that extreme by next fall.
My guess is that Perry is far more of a savvy politician than a true believer, and that he’ll have a lot less trouble than some Democrats currently believe in moving to the center if he does win the nomination. My prediction is that at he’ll wind up as committed to Social Security as any other candidate, and his current crazy talk will be a lot less damaging than it seems now.