Social Security no longer a 'monstrous lie'? Why Rick Perry is shifting.

Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry had questioned the very foundations of Social Security before Monday's debate. His new, softer stance is a bow to political reality.

Scott Audette/REUTERS
Texas Gov. Rick Perry makes a statement during the CNN/Tea Party Republican presidential candidates debate in Tampa, Fla., Monday.

Is Rick Perry changing his position on Social Security? It sounded as if he might be doing just that at Monday’s CNN/Tea Party Express debate in Tampa, Fla.

In the past the Texas governor has called the huge federal retirement program a “Ponzi scheme” and a “monstrous lie.” But he didn’t use such inflammatory language on Monday night. Instead, he echoed the structure of an opinion article he’d published in that day’s USA Today.

First, he reassured seniors and those close to retirement that he’s not in favor of changing current benefits.

“Slam dunk, guaranteed, that program is going to be there” for such individuals, Governor Perry told the audience of tea party adherents.

Then he said he would tell younger workers the truth: The system is broken and needs to be reformed.

He concluded “we’re going to fix it,” without offering any specific policy prescriptions other than a national conversation on the subject.

Pretty much every politician in Washington, Republican or Democrat, could have said the same thing, challenger Mitt Romney pointed out.

“What he just said, I think most people agree with,” said Mr. Romney following Perry’s Social Security answer.

Romney then hammered at the issue, bringing up passages from Perry’s recent book, “Fed Up!” in which the Texas governor questions whether Social Security is constitutional and urges that it be taken away from the federal government and given back to the states.

Perry would not get drawn into that fight. “We ought to have a conversation with...." he said at one point.

Romney interrupted him. “We’re having that right now, governor ... we’re running for president,” he said.

So why has Perry changed his tone? Just last week, in the Reagan library debate, he used the “monstrous lie” line. Now he’s sounding like a panelist in a Brookings Institution seminar titled, “Whither Entitlements?”

We’ll tell you why: His advisers convinced him that the poll numbers on what he was doing were against him. Just because it is conventional wisdom doesn’t mean it’s wrong. If you’re a politician with national aspirations, you really don’t want to step on Social Security’s cape.

In a Pew Research survey from July, 87 percent of respondents agreed with the statement, “Over the years, Social Security has been good for the country.” Eighty-seven percent! That’s as close to unanimous as you get in the polling game. Given that, maybe it’s not a good idea in terms of electability to question whether that program should exist.

In his Monday article, Perry added that “Americans deserve a frank and honest discussion of the dire financial challenges facing the nearly 80-year old program.”

That statement is unexceptional, and unsurprising to most voters, who already know the program is in trouble. In that same Pew survey, 77 percent of respondents said that the state of the program’s finances is “only fair/poor.”

In fact, many younger voters are cynical about their chances of collecting benefits. A 2010 Gallup poll found that 60 percent of non-retirees believe that Social Security will not be able to pay them a benefit when they retire.

At the same time, Gallup found that 78 percent of non-retirees believe that Social Security will be at least a minor source of income for them after they stop working. Over a third – 34 percent – say it will be a major source of retirement cash. That last measure has gone up in recent years, perhaps due to the effect the Great Recession has had on 401(k) programs and other nest eggs.

“Americans thus appear to be in a bind, perceiving an increased need for Social Security while at the same time being less sure it will be there when they need it,” wrote Gallup poll editor Frank Newport last year.

Thus Social Security may be both an opportunity and a danger for the eventual Republican presidential nominee. They might need to thread a needle: suggest ways to reform Social Security, without calling into question the overall structure of an institution most Americans support.

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