Washington - Texas Gov. Rick Perry made an interesting strategic choice at Wednesday's Republican presidential debate about how to deal with his self-inflicted Social Security problem. Perry doubled down -- redoubled, actually -- on one controversial component: his description of the retirement program as a "Ponzi scheme" and a "monstrous lie." But Perry backed away from reaffirming the even more explosive aspect of his Social Security position -- that the federal government ought to stay out of the retirement business altogether.
The first choice is questionable as a matter of politics and irresponsibly alarmist on the substance. The second is smart but may not suffice in the long run to let Perry escape the implications of his recently stated positions.
On the substance, Perry's point about Social Security as Ponzi scheme has some grounding in reality. As with a Ponzi scheme, Social Security relies on money from new investors (workers) to pay previous investors (retirees). Because the ratio of workers to retirees is dropping as the baby boomers age, the program's financing becomes increasingly problematic. The system ends up without enough money to pay all promised benefits.
But the key word here is "all." Perry's overblown rhetoric suggests to younger workers that they will have nothing to show for their contributions -- like investors who lose all in a Ponzi scheme. In fact, even after the Social Security surplus is exhausted, the system could continue to pay out more than three-fourths of promised benefits. This would represent an enormous problem for many retirees, but hardly a "monstrous lie." Perry's inflammatory suggestions to the contrary are a monstrous misdirection.
As to the politics of the Ponzi remarks, Perry's continued repetition of them certainly preserves his persona as a Texas straight-talker compared to a certain Massachusetts flip-flopper. Yet at what cost? Florida seniors aren't likely to take Perry's attack on their cherished program in a contemplative fashion. I suspect they are going to hear Perry and Ponzi, and head straight for that nice-looking Romney fellow.
If so, that would be the right choice for the wrong reason. As I've written before, the truly radical aspect of Perry's views on Social Security -- and other government benefit programs, for that matter -- is not that he believes they are inadequately financed. It's that he doesn't believe they should exist at all -- indeed, shouldn't exist under his vision of the Constitution.
This represents the point of maximum danger for Perry -- a moment he nimbly avoided Wednesday night but may not be able to so deftly side-step in the future. When Politico's John Harris asked Perry to explain his view that Social Security was wrong from the start, Perry demurred.
"I think any of us that want to go back and change 70 years of what's been going on in this country is probably going to have a difficult time," he said. "Spending a lot of time talking about what those folks were doing back in the ‘30s and the ‘40s is a nice intellectual conversation."
Except this is precisely the conversation that Perry introduced in his book -- last year's book -- "Fed Up!" He lambasted Social Security for "violently tossing aside any respect for our founding principles of federalism and limited government," complained that the retirement program is "something we have been forced to accept for more than 70 years now"; and asserted that "by any measure, Social Security is a failure."
Perry might not want to resume this intellectual conversation, but his opponents aren't apt to let him duck it -- nor should they. On Wednesday, Romney began the jabbing: "Our nominee has to be someone who isn't committed to abolishing Social Security, but who is committed to saving Social Security."
For Romney, focusing on Perry's views is a matter of exploiting an opponent's political vulnerability. For voters, the issue is more serious, with consequences far beyond the specifics of the retirement program.
Perry, judging his book by its words, wants to oversee the dismantling of the post-New Deal regulatory state, undoing everything from rules protecting the environment and food safety to the government's role in providing health care to the poor and elderly.
Whether government retrenches so far may be, as Perry suggests, an academic matter at this point. But Americans have a right to know whether they are electing a president who believes this rollback should occur. The coming GOP debates need to home in on that central question.