As debate over Social Security intensifies, could Rick Perry be Mitt Romney’s savior?

Republican presidential candidate former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, left, passes behind Texas Gov. Rick Perry during a break in a Republican presidential debate Monday, Sept. 12, 2011, in Tampa, Fla. Photo: AP Photo/Mike Carlson

By most accounts, Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s entry into the Republican presidential contest has been disastrous for Mitt Romney. The former Massachusetts governor had been all but assured of the party’s nomination until Perry big-footed him last month, offering the promise of a candidate who could unite the restive Tea Party movement and the traditional Republican establishment.

Now, however, Perry’s sheen has started to fade, as the Texas governor makes one inflammatory comment after another. Perhaps he has yet to conform to the mold of a national candidate, but Perry has so far resisted opportunities to mollify his brash, shoot-from-the-hip approach. Perry’s swagger is what makes him appealing to the conservative activists who dominate the GOP electorate, but the hard edge on his rhetorical style also threatens to alienate the moderate and independent voters he’ll need to defeat President Obama in a general election.

Calling the chairman of the Federal Reserve “treasonous” is one thing — monetary policy is obscure enough, and picking on the mild-mannered accountant-in-chief probably isn’t all that unpopular among conservative diehards. Perry’s searing criticisms of Social Security, however, are quite another. Perry has derided the program as “a Ponzi scheme” and a “monstrous lie,” questioning both its fiscal solvency and its Constitutionality. In a book published last year, Perry wrote that Social Security is “by far the best example” of a program “violently tossing aside any respect for our founding principles.”

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A personal note from the corner cubicle

This episode of Need to Know, the first of Season Two, will be the last one I produce.  I’ve been with the program and website since it was an idea waiting to be turned into reality, and it’s been my honor to be its executive producer.  One of the great joys of producing for public broadcasting is that you get to do the kinds of important stories that often are overlooked by commercial television, and you get to share them with an intelligent, informed and committed audience.   We’ve covered the issues of our day through the personal stories of our fellow citizens.  That’s been the signature style of Need to Know, and it will continue to be as the program evolves into a 30-minute, politically focused show.  You’ll see that focus represented here on the website, too.

I’ve loved engaging with those of you who post comments or suggest stories, and I thank you for taking the time to do so.  I’m going to be moving over to a whole new challenge, and leaving the program and website in the very capable hands of Marc Rosenwasser, a friend and colleague for more than 20 years.

Marc was executive producer of “WorldFocus.” He spent 16 years at NBC News as executive editor and senior broadcast producer of “Dateline,” and as executive producer of “Tom Brokaw Reports.” He is a recipient of 23 Emmy Awards, three Columbia-DuPont Awards and a Peabody Award.

So you can see Need to Know is in good hands.  Now all we need is your continued support.

My sincere thanks to all who made my tenure at Need to Know such a wonderful experience.

Alison signs off

When the time is right, the time is right.  That saying applies to my decision to leave Need to Know to finish a book I’ve been working on for years. Yes, years.  Now it is due to my publisher in March 2012 and I want to do a great job.   But I also want to do the best I can at my place of employment, and I want to be  there for my family. As many working mothers know, the constant juggle between the professional and the personal is tricky.  In order to achieve a reasonable balance, something has got to give.

When I learned the show  was  going to shift focus and turn toward the political, it seemed I had to consider bowing out.   I’ve covered politics before, gone on the campaign trail, covered conventions.  I can tell you it isn’t for the faint-hearted or the already overscheduled.  So when the time is right, the time is right.

I leave you in good hands. The staff of NTK is dedicated and wonderful.  There are good things to come. I’ll be watching — and I hope you will too.

You can keep up with Alison Stewart’s upcoming book and future projects at AlisonStewart.net.

Photo: Keeping your ears to the ground

Meet Harbor, an 8 year old coonhound from Boulder, Colorado. He has just been declared "dog with the longest ears" by the Guinness Book of World Records. His left ear measures 12 1/4" and his right one measures 13 1/2". Perhaps being the 2012 record holder makes up for all those tumbles down the stairs as a puppy! Photo: AP Photo/Ryan Schude/Guinness World Records

With Obama and Republicans set to spar over jobs, what can we learn from ‘Obamanomics?’

Photo: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

In perhaps their most direct confrontation yet, President Obama and his Republican rivals are set to deliver dueling national arguments this week on the economy, as the president prepares to unveil a series of measures designed to kick-start the anemic jobs market and Republicans meet for yet another national debate. The televised tête à tête comes on the heels of yet another bleak jobs report, the worst in almost a year, that showed the job market had effectively stopped growing: unemployment remained stuck at 9.1 percent, and the number of non-farm payroll jobs in the country remained unchanged. Republicans have seized on the figures, dubbing Obama “President Zero.”

In a way, the juxtaposition of Obama’s national address and the Republican debate will offer the first glimpse of a potential general election contest between the president and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, by most accounts the new GOP front-runner. Whereas Obama is likely to call for new rounds of public investment in the economy — such as the extension of a payroll tax holiday and unemployment benefits for working and middle-class Americans — Perry has been searing in his criticism of the Obama administration’s first attempt at spurring economic growth, and has promised to veto any new stimulus measures as president. “You won’t have stimulus programs under a Perry presidency,” he said at a recent appearance in Tulsa.

When pressed for details of what a Perry jobs plan might look like, however, the Texas governor said only that he would abide by his conservative “guiding principles,” that the tax burden in his administration would be “light on job creators” and that he would work to unleash the “entrepreneurial spirit” of the American people. Perry’s comments echoed remarks he had made early in his campaign denouncing stimulus spending, declaring in a speech in San Antonio in August, “Government doesn’t create jobs, otherwise the last two and a half years of stimulus would have worked.”

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Photo: A cat from Possum

Mike Hester holds a cat he rescued from an area destroyed by a wildfire at Possum Kingdom Lake, Texas, Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2011. The wildfire, which started last week, swept through the neighborhood and destroyed more than three dozen homes. Fourteen-hundred firefighters from 34 states, plus local volunteers are fighting the blaze. Photo: AP Photo/LM Otero

Rick Perry’s immigration ‘Achilles heel’

Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks during the 28th annual National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials conference, Thursday, June 23, 2011, in San Antonio. He received a tepid reception after Democratic Hispanic leaders denounced some of Perry's most prized policies as openly hostile to Hispanics. Photo: AP Photo/Darren Abate

Rick Perry is leading the pack in the quest for the Republican nomination for the 2012 presidential race – but his record on immigration, largely considered the Texas governor’s “Achilles heel” among the conservative base, will be a prime target for scrutiny as the race pushes forward.

Despite Perry being one of the most conservative candidates in the field of Republican contenders, his stance on immigration has been notably divergent from the conservative orthodoxy. At Mother Jones, Josh Harkinson sums up the ways that Perry has balanced the immigration issue in a state with booming numbers of both Latino-Americans and Tea Party members:

Texas is not a national outlier on immigration policies so much as a brutal testing ground. Here, exit polls in 2010 showed a higher tea party affiliation than anywhere in the country, and yet the low-wage economy—the bedrock of the so-called ‘Texas Miracle’ — depends on a steady influx of workers from south of the border. Perry’s approach has been a shrewd blend of satisfying the tea party base by trumpeting the need to secure the border (which is a federal responsibility, not to mention pretty much impossible) while protecting his corporate donors from liability stemming from hiring undocumented workers.

In terms of policy, Perry’s relatively moderate record on immigration is an easy one for staunch conservatives to criticize. The governor has called the notion of a border fence between the U.S. and Mexico “ridiculous,” and he supported the Texas state DREAM Act – a law granting qualified undocumented students in-state tuition for college – in 2001, long before similar state laws were enacted in more than a dozen states across the U.S. Perry also opposed a mandate that would require employers to use a federal system called e-Verify to check the immigration status of all prospective employees, and has supported a guest worker program in the state. Additionally, after the passage of SB 1070 in Arizona, largely considered one of the strictest immigration laws in the country, Perry declared then that he would not seek to pass similar legislation in Texas despite a flurry of similar bills cropping up in other states.

But in light of Perry’s bid for the GOP nomination, he has made a noticeably rightward shift on the immigration issue. In June, he attempted (and ultimately failed) to pass a measure banning so-called “sanctuary cities,” whereby police are prohibited from asking detainees about their immigration status. He also sought to expand the federal program Secure Communities, the controversial system that mandates local law enforcement to share information with the federal immigration agency, and supported the use of Predator drones along the U.S.-Mexico border for surveillance.

Despite these efforts, Perry’s record is already being billed as one of his biggest weaknesses as a Republican presidential contender. Earlier this month, former Congressman Tom Tancredo declared that Perry’s shift toward more hard-line immigration policies “don’t make up for the rest of his positions on immigration.” Fellow candidate Mitt Romney, who has fallen behind in the GOP race since Perry entered, will likely grill the Texas governor on his record at this weekend’s South Carolina forum organized by Senator Jim DeMint. Romney strategists believe the immigration issue will be devastating for Perry with Tea Party Republicans across the country — and especially in important primary states like Arizona,” columnist Marc A. Thiessen wrote at the Washington Post this week.

Over at the American Prospect, Adam Serwer muses on what Perry’s immigration record might do for the much-sought-after Latino vote in the upcoming election:

John McCain had about as moderate a record on immigration as a Republican can have. Obama still walked away with the vast majority of Hispanic votes, because those voters understood that moderate McCain was an outlier in a party of restrictionists. The far less moderate Perry isn’t likely to play much better on the issue.

What to make of Michael Vick?

Michael Vick just netted one of the biggest contracts in professional football, signing a six-year, $100 million dollar deal to keep playing quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles.  Vick is now the only player in NFL history to have signed two $100 million dollar contracts.  As you’ll remember, his first contract – with the Atlanta Falcons – famously fell apart back in 2007 when Vick was convicted and sent to Leavenworth prison for his role orchestrating a dog-fighting ring out of his home in rural Virginia.

By any measure, Vick’s triumphant return to the top of professional sports is amazing.  His talents on the field are undeniable, but Vick’s return to glory – and our collective response to it — is still hotly debated.  (Just browse through the 3,000-plus comments posted on ESPN’s website this weekend about writer Touré’s essay about Michael Vick.  Or read the nearly 2,000 responses to Melissa Harris-Perry’s article last year when she tried to explain her take on Vick.)

Last year, we told you the story of what happened to the dogs from the center of Vick’s ring, and how their redemption became a landmark case for animal rights in the U.S.  Our report was inspired by Jim Gorant’s book, “The Lost Dogs.” Here’s a brief excerpt of my interview with Jim Gorant from last year where he gives his take on Vick’s return to the NFL.

Note: This interview was recorded in 2010.

Lower percentage of OB-GYNs willing to perform abortions, study finds

While the debate over abortion remains one of the most vitriolic political battles in the U.S., a new survey finds that the percentage of obstetricians and gynecologists willing to provide the service may be dropping.

A study published in the science journal Obstetrics and Gynecology last week found that while 97 percent of OB-GYNs have encountered patients seeking an abortion, only 14 percent are willing to perform them, a drop from a reported 22 percent in 2008.

Religious belief, unsurprisingly, was one of the key factors for doctors unwilling to provide abortion services to patients. The survey, conducted among 1,144 OB-GYNs by researchers at Duke University and the University of Chicago, also uncovered several other trends of doctors willing to perform abortions: female physicians are more likely to provide abortions, as are younger doctors (age 35 and below) and those based in urban areas. OB-GYNs in the South were found to be least likely to offer abortion services.
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