Ever since Rick Perry referred to Social Security multiple times as a “Ponzi scheme,” a number of commentators and GOP establishment figures have been asking themselves: Is he really comparing the popular entitlement program to a criminal enterprise?
Now Perry has elaborated on his views in an interview with Time magazine, and in it, he was not just unapologetic, but he also escalated his fight with the GOP establishment over his style:
There may be someone who is an established Republican who circulates in the cocktail circuit that would find some of my rhetoric to be inflammatory or what have you, but I’m really talking to the American citizen out there. I think American citizens are just tired of this political correctness and politicians who are tiptoeing around important issues. They want a decisive leader. I’m comfortable that the rhetoric I have used was both descriptive and spot on. Calling Social Security a Ponzi scheme has been used for years. I don’t think people should be surprised that terminology would be used...
I don’t get particularly concerned that I need to back off from my factual statement that Social Security, as it is structured today, is broken. If you want to call it a Ponzi scheme, if you want to say it’s a criminal enterprise, if you just want to say it’s broken — they all get to the same point. We need, as a country, to have an adult conversation. Don’t try to scare the senior citizens and those who are on Social Security that it’s somehow going to go away with the mean, old heartless Republican.
Let’s unpack this a bit. First, Perry’s self-styled straight talk about Social Security is anything but straight. Social Security is not “broken.” As Kevin Drum noted recently, Social Security has a “small, short-term funding shortfall” that can be “fixed easily.” The irony here is that in accusing critics of his reckless rhetoric of trying to scare senior citizens, Perry himself is doing exactly that.
Second, note that Perry is far more aware of what he’s up to here than he’s previously let on: He says explicitly that this kind of swagger signals to voters that he’s a “decisive leader.” This seems to confirm Jon Chait’s recent point that such talk is all about letting GOP primary voters know he's the “alpha male” in the race — he’ll answer questions on his own terms, thank you very much, and won’t take any guff about it, dammit.
Indeed, note Perry’s sneering reference to “cocktail circuit” Republicans who are sounding the alarm about his blunt language. Perry is escalating, rather than tamping down, this battle, and even using the GOP establishment’s hand-wringing about his swagger as a foil. Maybe Perry have decided that this fight helps him with GOP primary voters more than it hurts — after all, hard-right opinionmakers are backing him up, and GOP primary voters actually agree with him. Whatever he’s thinking, his hostility towards the program just can’t be kept in check, which won’t inspire any more confidence about Perry’s general election chances.
UPDATE: I’ve taken out the Tourette reference in the interests of taste, and edited the post slightly.