The Agenda

Should Mitt Romney Have Attacked Rick Perry?

I keep apologizing for veering into campaign politics in this space. All I can promise is that I’ll try not to let it overwhelm deeper thoughts. 

Last night, Rich Lowry wrote the following tweet (modified slightly):

Aggressiveness of Bachmann and Santorum against Perry shows there was no need for Romney to go so far out on limb on Social Security attack.

I think Rich was referring narrowly to the debate itself, and I agree that Bachmann and Santorum were very effective in their attacks against Perry. But I want to underline that I agree with Ramesh Ponnuru on the basics of the Social Security dispute between Perry and Romney: 

 

Perry has said that Social Security was an unconstitutional enlargement of federal power and has talked about turning it over to the states. He has called it a “Ponzi scheme,” a “failure by any measure” and “a monstrous lie.” He hasn’t proposed specific changes to it other than saying that any reforms should leave existing retirees and near-retirees unaffected.

Romney, on the other hand, has said that he supports the program but that it needs changes to make it sustainable. He has favorably mentioned raising the retirement age, instituting personal accounts and means-testing benefits. But appearing to be hostile to the program, he has warned, will get Republicans “obliterated.”

Party history suggests that Romney is correct. In 1936, Alf Landon ran on a platform of repealing Social Security and won only two states. In 1964, Barry Goldwater said the program should be made voluntary, got hammered by Republicans and Democrats alike for the remark, and then spent the rest of the campaign running away from it — before he, too, was crushed.

Ronald Reagan took a different approach. In the 1980 debates, he said that Social Security was out of actuarial balance and that he would appoint a task force to fix it. But the main point on which he insisted was that he supported the program and wouldn’t cut benefits for retirees. Members of Congress who went further than that lost seats in the 1980s.

Ever since, Republicans who have sought to reform Social Security have adopted Reagan’s attitude. 

And it seems that there is wisdom in the Reagan approach. Politico’s Alexander Burns shares the results of a new CNN/Opinion Research Poll:

 

Nearly seven in 10 Republicans disagree with Rick Perry’s statement that Social Security is a “monstrous lie” and a failure for Americans, according to new data from this week’s CNN/Opinion Research poll.

Asked whether they think those descriptions of the popular entitlement program are accurate or inaccurate, 72 percent of Americans said they were inaccurate. Among Republicans only, that number was 69 percent. Among self-described conservatives, it was 67 percent.

I’d suggest that it is better to have a debate over whether or not Social Security is a “monstrous lie” during the nominating process than during a general election. A recent survey from Public Policy Polling, sent to me by one of my conservative comrades, reinforces the point:

Only 20% of voters agree with Perry that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme to 70% who dissent from that statement.  Democrats (4/87) and independents (20/69) are pretty universal in their disagreement with Perry and even Republicans (39/49) don’t stand with him on this one. When it comes to the possibility of actually ending Social Security voters are even more unanimous- 82% oppose taking that step to only 10% who would be supportive of it.  If Perry ends up as the Republican nominee and Democrats can effectively convince the electorate that he does want to end Social Security it could be an extremely damaging issue for him.

In fact it appears that Perry’s rhetoric on Social Security could already be causing him problems.  When PPP did a national poll three weeks ago Barack Obama led Perry by only 6 points at 49-43.  Now that gap has widened to 11 points at 52-41.  The main movement has come with Democratic voters.  On the previous poll Obama had only a 68 point lead with the party base at 81-13 but now it’s 80 points at 89-9.  We know there are a lot of Democratic voters disenchanted with Obama right now but if the GOP puts forward someone like Perry who’s willing to go after one of the Holy Grails of the party’s orthodoxy like Social Security it might scare those voters back into the fold.

 

The good news for Rick Perry is that he polls about as well against Barack Obama as Newt Gingrich and slightly better than Michele Bachmann. So there is always that. Romney fares somewhat better:

Mitt Romney continues to look like the considerably more electable GOP contender.  He trails Obama by only 4 points at 49-45.  You can see the difference between Romney and Perry’s general election viability at this point particularly with independents.  While Perry’s favorability with them is just 23/51 as mentioned above, Romney’s is 44/39.  And where Perry trails Obama by 10 points with them, Romney actually holds a 2 point advantage.  Romney also consolidates the GOP vote better than Perry (87% as opposed to 82%) and wins over slightly more Democrats (11% to Perry’s 9%).  If Republican voters really value having a candidate who can beat Obama, as they claim to, Romney’s their guy at this point.

Perry isn’t faring very well with over-65s:

One very interesting crosstab I missed in the original write up of this poll.  With seniors Romney leads Obama by 4, but Obama leads Perry by 5.  No one’s going to be more concerned about the Social Security issue than them, and it’s safe to say a Republican can’t get elected to the White House next year without doing very well with that voting group.

Merck, question-raising land deals, Fed Up!, the Texas Emerging Technology Fund. If nothing else comes up between now and November of 2012, the president and his allies will have much to discuss in a campaign against Rick Perry. And if a single other thing comes up, if the governor makes one more statement that the complex constellation of labor unions, 527s, left-of-center media outlets, etc., can capitalize on, the race could get ugly down the ballot as well.  

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