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The Referendum on the New Deal and Great Society

There have been plenty of assessments, some quite lengthy, of last night's Republican presidential candidates' debate in Simi Valley. Some focus on conventional debaters' points, and typically adjudge Mitt Romney the "winner." Others focus on personality, and tend to award the prize to "alpha male" Rick Perry. Still others looked at who did and didn't dominate the event, and noted how the fiery Michele Bachmann is beginning to fade from first-tier status.

But in the long run, the enduring significance of this debate is that Mitt Romney went after Rick Perry's denunciations of Social Security, and Perry did not back down.

Romney's decision showed how alarmed he and his team must be about Perry's rapid ascent in the polls and his superior positioning in the GOP field as the guy Tea Partiers and Christian Right activists love and the Establishmetn can tolerate. Many of the most certain participants in early nominating contests--the kind of people who tell pollsters they are "very conservative"--pretty much agree with Perry's uninhibited remarks in Fed Up that Social Security is not just a "Ponzi scheme" and a "lie" but was from the very beginning a huge step down the road to serfdom that should be retracted to the maximum extent possible. This is why Paul Ryan has become such a conservative icon--he seems to be challenging the very fundamentals of the "socialist welfare state," the New Deal/Great Society legacy, not just ObamaCare or the 2009 stimulus package. Perry's attack on that legacy in Fed Up was a lot more direct and visceral.

But with polls showing resistance to cuts in (much less abolition of) Social Security and Medicare being very unpopular even among rank-and-file Republicans (a broader subset of voters than likely caucus and primary participants), Perry's stance is also perilous. You'd figure, however, that rivals like Romney would let Democrats and the news media focus attention on Perry's radical views. That he did so himself at so early an opportunity tells us a lot about Team Romney's sense of urgency.

Perry's tack on the subject is now also pretty clear. He won't take back what he said in Fed Up. But he will promise to take the edge off his attacks on Social Security and Medicare by focusing on the "Ponzi scheme" aspect of the former program--i.e., its current solvency--instead of his criticism of its original design and basic moral character. And he'll also promise not to change the two programs for current and near-term beneficiaries on grounds that they have already planned on them.

"Grandfathering" entitlements for people over 55 or so while suggesting they are socialist abominations is a very old and transparently cynical conservative tactic. It was a feature of George W. Bush's failed 2005 Social Security partial privatization effort, and of Ryan's proposals for both of the big programs. Up until now, it hasn't worked to tamp down fearful opposition among seniors--even very conservative seniors who don't quite understand why we can't just eliminate "welfare" for shiftless poor people and stay away from retirement programs that are a reward for a virtuous lifetime of working and saving.

We are about to find out if the generational warfare characteristics of contemporary U.S. politics have advanced to the point where at least conservative seniors will take Rick Perry up on his offer to gut entitlements for younger Americans while holding old folks harmless, and ignore his rather obvious feeling that anyone receiving such benefits is a parasite. If that happens, then Perry will become a maximum hero to those conservative activists and opinion-leaders of all ages who are determined to make the right-wing uprising of the last few years an attack on three-quarters-of-a-century of "socialist" policymaking.

If conservative seniors (and younger Republicans who are only interested in retaking power and repealing Obama's initiatives) instead respond positively to Romney's efforts to label Perry as too extreme on entitlements, then we'll know that there are indeed limits to the rightward movement of the GOP at this juncture of history. I would not put big money on this proposition, however, particularly if it depends on a messenger like Mitt Romney.

Either way, it's becoming obvious that the 2012 cycle is not just a referendum on Barack Obama, but on the New Deal and Great Society. And that's a referendum Democrats ought to be able to win.