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.”
Perry, of course, is not the first Republican to launch an ideological broadside against the crowning achievement of the New Deal. When the program was established in its current form in 1935, Social Security was reviled by Republicans who called it “the lash of the dictator” and predicted that it would “enslave workers” and “end the progress of a great country.” Those auguries proved hysterical, of course. Social Security has become the centerpiece of the government safety net, cherished by Democrats and Republicans alike.
Perry’s remarks about Social Security — remarks he defended in Monday night’s Republican presidential debate — have set off screaming alarms within the GOP establishment. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who bowed out of the race after a poor showing in the Ames Straw Poll in August, quickly endorsed Romney this week, a sign of just how anxious party insiders are about the potential for a Perry victory. In a typical campaign, an also-ran like Pawlenty might have waited until the race was at its most heated, so as to extract as many concessions as possible (a cabinet post or running-mate consideration, for example).
Indicting Social Security also isn’t likely to win many hearts and minds within the Tea Party, either. Polls have routinely shown that, despite their distaste for government spending, Tea Party members largely approve of classic entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare. The movement is also comprised largely of baby boomers who are either already receiving Social Security checks or are counting on them for income in the next few years. One poll, conducted by Bloomberg, found that nearly half of those affiliated with the Tea Party are 55 or older.
As a result, the party insiders who typically anoint the nominee in the rigidly hierarchical GOP — the donors, operatives and eminences grises — are shifting subtly but noticeably toward Romney, even after months of keeping him at arms length and hoping to lure someone else, like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, into the race. Perry’s mere entry into the contest has suddenly made Romney palatable to the insiders who previously saw him as a sort of Reagan-esque android, a candidate who looked the part but seemed unable to connect to flesh-and-blood voters.
Meanwhile, those flesh-and-blood voters, who may heretofore have been holding their noses even as they professed their support for Romney, suddenly have a legitimate, affirmative reason to vote for him: He’s the more electable, more substantive and more experienced of the two most viable contenders. Where Romney was previously seen as the least disappointing choice among an otherwise paltry field, he is now, by contrast, the serious candidate, the adult in the room, the John Kerry to Perry’s Howard Dean.
Romney clearly senses as much. In the second presidential debate on Monday night, Perry continued to eschew the right-of-center establishment and embrace the role of firebrand (a role he has usurped, incidentally, from Michelle Bachmann). Romney, on the other hand, cast himself as the defender of Social Security. Perhaps even more telling, he challenged Perry to a substantive debate on the issue. When the Texas governor deflected pointed questioning on the topic, saying, “We ought to have a conversation,” Romney cut him off. “We’re having that right now, governor,” Romney retorted. “We’re running for president.”