Sunday, January 08, 2012

Perry keeps skidding on smears

Give Rick Perry credit for consistency. His primary mode of political communication remains the smear.  To be more precise, his default mode of attack is the inflammatory insult used to articulate a garden-variety policy disagreement.

Note the structural similarities between two Perry attacks, one made in today's New Hampshire debate
and one made four months ago. Today:
HILLER: Governor Perry, your party’s last nominee, John McCain wrote in the Washington Post in an op-ed about a year ago, his words, “I disagree with many of the president’s policies but I believe he is a patriot, sincerely intent on using his time in office to advance our country’s cause. I reject accusations that his policies and beliefs make him unworthy to lead America, or opposed to its founding ideals.” Agree?

PERRY: I make a very proud statement and, in fact that we have a president that’s a socialist. I don’t think our founding fathers wanted America to be a socialist country. So I disagree with that premise that somehow or another that President Obama reflects our founding fathers. He doesn’t. He talks about having a more powerful, more centralized, more consuming and costly federal government.
And on September 15, in a Time Magazine interview:

But you know there’s concern that you use controversial rhetoric, like calling Social Security a “Ponzi scheme.”

There may be someone who is an established Republican who circulates in the cocktail circuit that would find some of my rhetoric to be inflammatory or what have you, but I’m really talking to the American citizen out there. I think American citizens are just tired of this political correctness and politicians who are tiptoeing around important issues. They want a decisive leader. I’m comfortable that the rhetoric I have used was both descriptive and spot on. Calling Social Security a Ponzi scheme has been used for years. I don’t think people should be surprised that terminology would be used.

No one gets confused about the point I was making, that we have a system that is now broken. We need to make sure that those on Social Security today — and those approaching it — know without a doubt it will be in place. It will not go away. We’ll have a transitional period for those in mid-career as they’re planning for their retirement. And our young people should be given some options. I don’t know what all of those options need to be yet, but they know instinctively that the program that is there today is not going to be there for them unless there are changes made.

I don’t get particularly concerned that I need to back off from my factual statement that Social Security, as it is structured today, is broken. If you want to call it a Ponzi scheme, if you want to say it’s a criminal enterprise, if you just want to say it’s broken –they all get to the same point. We need, as a country, to have an adult conversation. Don’t try to scare the senior citizens and those who are on Social Security that it’s somehow going to go away with the mean, old heartless Republican.
In one case Perry is invited to refrain from endorsing, and in the other to modify, a defamatory attack.  In both cases he asserts that the defamation is appropriate, citing reasons disproportionate to the slur's import. Because Perry labels Obama's policies 'socialist,' he need not repudiate the notion that Obama is "opposed to to [this country's] founding ideals"  (never mind that there was no such concept as "socialism" in the founding fathers' time). Because Social Security may be inadequately funded, it's perfectly appropriate to call it a Ponzi scheme or "criminal enterprise."


This sloppy smear-only style may have been too much even for Republican primary voters. The common assumption is that the debates sank Perry because 1) he evinced too much 'compassion' toward illegal immigrants  and 2) he often sounded like an idiot, babbling incoherently or trailing off.  But he also was thoroughly pwned by Romney in the Sept. 12 CNN debate for his scare tactics regarding Social Security. Note the focus on language (and would that any other GOP candidate could call Romney out this effectively for his own distortions):
BLITZER: Governor Romney, you said that Governor Perry's position on Social Security is, quote, unacceptable and could even obliterate the Republican Party. Are you saying he could not, as Republican nominee, beat Barack Obama?

ROMNEY: No, what I'm saying is that what he just said, I think most people agree with, although the term ponzi scheme I think is over the top and unnecessary and frightful to many people. But the real issue is in writing his book, Governor Perry pointed out that in his view that Social Security is unconstitutional, that this is not something the federal government ought to be involved in, that instead it should be given back to the states.

And I think that view, and the view that somehow Social Security has been forced on us over the past 70 years that by any measure, again quoting book, by any measure Social Security has been a failure, this is after 70 years of tens of millions of people relying on Social Security, that's a very different matter.

So the financing of Social Security, we've all talked about at great length. In the last campaign four years around, John McCain said it was bankrupt. I put in my book a series of proposals on how to get it on sound financial footing so that our kids can count on it not just our current seniors.

But the real question is does Governor Perry continue to believe that Social Security should not be a federal program, that it's unconstitutional and it should be returned to the states or is he going to retreat from that view?

BLITZER: Let's let Governor Perry respond. You have 30 seconds.

PERRY: If what you're trying to say is that back in the '30s and the '40s that the federal government made all the right decision, I disagree with you. And it's time for us to get back to the constitution and a program that's been there 70 or 80 years, obviously we're not going to take that program away. But for people to stand up and support what they did in the '30s or what they're doing in the 2010s is not appropriate for America.

ROMNEY: But the question is, do you still believe that Social Security should be ended as a federal program as you did six months ago when your book came out and returned to the states or do you want to retreat from taht?

PERRY: I think we ought to have a conversation.

ROMNEY: We're having that right now, governor. We're running for president.

PERRY: And I'll finish this conversation. But the issue is, are there ways to move the states into Social Security for state employees or for retirees? We did in the state of Texas back in the 1980s. I think those types of thoughtful conversations with America, rather than trying to scare seniors like you're doing and other people, it's time to have a legitimate conversation in this country about how to fix that program where it's not bankrupt and our children actually know that there's going to be a retirement program there for them.

ROMNEY: Governor, the term ponzi scheme is what scared seniors, number one. And number two, suggesting that Social Security should no longer be a federal program and returned to the states and unconstitutional is likewise frightening.

Look, there are a lot of bright people who agree with you. And that's your view. I happen to have a different one. I think that Social Security is an essential program that we should change the way we're funding it. You called it a criminal...

PERRY: You said if people did it in the private sector it would be called criminal. That's in your book.

ROMNEY: Yeah, what I said was...

(APPLAUSE)

ROMNEY: Governor Perry you've got to quote me correctly. You said it's criminal. What I said was congress taking money out of the Social Security trust fund is like criminal and that is and it's wrong.
While Romney was able to parry Perry, Perry had no answer except ineffective counterattack to Romney's charge that the Ponzi scheme label for Social Security was inaccurate and inflammatory.

The American political system may be entering its dotage.  But the electorate has not yet shown itself ready to elevate a transparent bully. At least, not one who's also manifestly stupid.

Update 1/9: I'm pleased to note that Perry is turning his smear tactics on Romney:

“There’s nothing wrong with being successful and making money, that’s the American dream,” Mr. Perry said. “But there is something inherently wrong when getting rich off failures and sticking it to someone else is how you do your business. I happen to think that that is indefensible.”
 May he do some damage before he goes belly-up.

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