Rick Perry’s debate debut here was hot and uncompromising. He threw elbows at Republicans from Ron Paul and Karl Rove on up. Offered an opportunity to retreat from his attacks on Social Security, he promised more “provocative” language about the program. Mitt Romney, by contrast, was measured and sober. He presented himself as a competent manager who can fix the economy and beat President Barack Obama.
Perry’s bet is on a conservative, confrontational and mad-as-hell Republican Party. Romney’s is that GOP activists want, above all, to win and will come to recognize that nominating the Texas governor would be an act of political suicide.
The divide between the two men reflects an ongoing debate that’s splitting the Republican Party both on the campaign trail and beyond it. Some of its leaders, looking back at the 2010 midterm elections, believe that the party — and the nation — are ready to gorge on red meat as never before. The American people, goes this line of thinking, recognize that entitlements must be addressed and that old-style demagoguery over the issue has become less effective.
Others believe deeply that the laws of political gravity still apply — that Social Security and Medicare reform must be handled with great care, if at all, and that 2012 will hinge on jobs-focused swing voters who are in no mood to revisit the still-popular New Deal-era program during a time of economic uncertainty. The divide is both strategic and ideological, and as Romney and Perry emerge clearly as the party’s two presidential poles on the issue, it will take on an even higher profile than it did during the punishing debate over Paul Ryan’s budget proposal.
“I think it’s naive for the political elite to think that Social Security can’t be discussed, can’t be fixed, can’t be done better in this new, modern era,” said Dave Carney, Perry’s chief strategist, after the POLITICO/NBC debate. “That’s crazy.”
What’s crazy, say gleefully incredulous Romney aides, is nominating a GOP candidate who thinks that “by any measure Social Security is a failure.”
Democrats may hope that Rick Perry’s comments on Social Security would ensure his defeat in a general election. If so, they should ponder the fellow in whose library the debate took place. By the 1980 campaign, liberals had long been confident about beating Ronald Reagan. In a May 8, 1979 Esquire article titled “Why Reagan Won’t Make It,” Richard Reeves wrote: “Reagan seems like a nostalgia figure whose time has passed; he looks like the past; he talks about the past. It is hard to imagine America turning to a candidate whose standard pitch is `I told you so.’” In September 1980, the DNC circulated old newspaper clippings quoting Reagan as saying that the program should be voluntary. During his debate with Reagan, President Carter zeroed in on the issue, saying that such approaches “are very dangerous to the security, the well being and the peace of mind of the retired people of this country and those approaching retirement age.” And Democrats thought that one of the Gipper’s debate comments provided them with even more material: “The Social Security system was based on a false premise, with regard to how fast the number of workers would increase and how fast the number of would increase.”
Reagan, of course, won big. And he carried the over-60 vote by a 13-point margin.
Mind you, nothing here is to equate Reagan and Perry. The point is much narrower: a record of controversial statements on Social Security does not necessarily spell defeat, especially when the other side is struggling with a bad economy.
Meanwhile, the death penalty remains relevant to politics. ABC reports:
Perry said the death penalty should be dealt with on a state-by-state basis but supports the decision of Texas to uphold the death penalty, calling it the “ultimate justice.”
“In the state of Texas, if you come into our state and you kill one of our children, you kill a police officer, you’re involved with another crime and you kill one of our citizens, you will face the ultimate justice in the state of Texas, and that is you will be executed.”
When NBC’s Brian Williams asked Perry the question about the death penalty and pointed to the 234 executions – even before Perry answered – the Republican debate crowd erupted in applause for the governor’s actions. Perry pointed to the applause as indicating a vast majority of Americans supports capital punishment.
Last fall, Gallup found that the death penalty has the support of 64 percent of Americans -- and 78 percent of Republicans.