The most revealing comment on Rick Perry’s denunciation of Social Security as a Ponzi scheme came at the end of Maggie Haberman’s post on the subject yesterday. In Perry’s book, “Fed Up!” he comes close to calling the country’s entitlement programs “unconstitutional,” and is unrelenting in his criticism of their contribution to America’s fiscal difficulties.
He has also been hitting the theme these “social safety nets” are far from safe if they go bankrupt, leaving beneficiaries who paid into the system their whole lives out of luck. Haberman notes Perry was asked repeatedly about this by reporters at campaign stops, and his response has been to assert that his book doesn’t say what reporters insist it says. Haberman thinks this isn’t good enough:
The whole episode underscores how difficult “Fed Up!,” which strongly favors states’ rights and is getting picked over by reporters and opposition researchers alike, will be for Perry to explain on the trail….
For Perry, saying a version of “that’s not what I said” is unlikely to do the trick.
First of all, “getting picked over” is the wrong word. Reporters and bloggers have, as the Politico post indicates, developed a fairly discomfiting track record when trying to explain what Perry’s book actually says. (See Avik Roy at National Review and Dan McLaughlin at RedState for two important correctives of some of the more egregious manipulations of the text.)
But what really jumps out at the reader is the latter sentence in Haberman’s quote. Pointing out that he didn’t actually say what reporters claim is, according to Haberman, “unlikely to do the trick.” Why on earth would that be? It’s unclear whether Haberman doubts the truth will be good enough for reporters or for senior citizens, but so far it’s the reporters questioning Perry on it and misquoting him.
Either way, Perry has been warned: reporters are not interested in nuance or that silly “legitimate, honest, national discussion” you say you want to have about entitlements. (On a side note, keep in mind these are the journalists asking if Rick Perry is “dumb.”) But on the other hand, these stories are doing Perry a favor. If he is the nominee, the Obama campaign will also helpfully elide the difference between what Perry said and what Perry didn’t say. And you can bet the advertisements will quote Politico, the Washington Post, and the other outlets that have pulled this stunt. Obama has already begun to demagogue the issue.
Another question, of course, is whether Perry should be repeating his attacks on entitlements. David Frum makes a good point when he asks: “Do [Republicans] really want to volunteer to reverse this election from a referendum on President Obama’s record to a referendum on Rick Perry’s intentions?”
Perry has two ready-made issues for the general election, should he become the nominee: his record of job creation vs. that of President Obama, and his creative and well-regarded approach to reforming schools in ways that will help the poorest students get access to a better education. But that’s a question for Perry to answer, and he may decide reforming entitlements is more important than winning an election. It’s a shame, however, that Perry’s call for an honest national discussion about the issues has already been rejected both by campaign reporters and the president.