As an underdog last year, Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson epitomized the frustration of the tea-party movement. He was a Republican and an accountant, but more importantly, to take the title of Rick Perry’s book, he was fed up. On the trail, he railed against the federal government’s out-of-control entitlements, blasting the fiscal management of Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme.”
Perry, as we’re now reminded daily, has frequently used the same criminality-tinged tagline to describe Social Security. The choice of phrase has drawn criticism from Mitt Romney, who warned at Wednesday’s GOP debate that the party cannot nominate a Republican who does not believe in the program.
Speaking recently with Sean Hannity, Romney emphasized that Republicans “would be obliterated as a party” if they nominate “someone who the Democrats could correctly characterize as being against Social Security.” He also swatted away the notion that Perry was simply talking about Social Security’s books. Instead, he argued that Perry’s descriptions of the program, using words like “failure,” could be political poison.
Johnson, in an interview with National Review Online, says that Perry’s use of the term should not be denounced by fellow Republicans. He points out that in 2010, in a swing state no less, he not only called Social Security a “Ponzi scheme,” but did it in a television ad — and won a Senate seat, toppling progressive hero and Democratic incumbent Russ Feingold.
“Certainly, my approach was not to go out of my way to say things that scare people,” Johnson says. “When you just calmly and coolly lay out the facts and the figures, people kind of come to the conclusion that, yeah, I understand why he’s calling it a Ponzi scheme.”
The way Beltway politicians have “raided the funds,” he adds, “looks an awful lot like what Bernie Madoff had done to his investors. … When you have an unfunded liability of $17.9 trillion dollars, when you’ve taken $2.5 trillion from the trust fund and basically spent the money, it’s gone, that falls in line with the definition of a ‘Ponzi scheme’: You lure investors in and pay those folks off in return with the new investors’ money.”
Of course, Johnson recognizes that the Perry–Romney spat is more about politics than policy. And on that front, Republicans, he says, should not shy from tough language. But he advises them to remember that, in his own race, he also championed Social Security’s merits, even as he derided Washington’s management of its finances.
“The point is, we want to preserve it for future generations,” Johnson says. “My approach to anything in this town is to speak the truth, don’t hide it, don’t demagogue an issue. To say something is fine and dandy when it’s not? Folks on the other side are very guilty of that. They say Social Security is solvent to this year or that year.”
Johnson notes that he does not know Perry’s full position on Social Security, but when it comes to using the phrase “Ponzi scheme,” the Texan has a friend in the Badger State. “I have no fear discussing it,” he says. “In the end, it’s not ideology; it’s actuarial math.”
For a sense of a potential Perry response, here’s Johnson’s ad from last year: