It didn’t take Rick Perry, the current front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, long to back away from his first comments on Social Security. After he boldly called it a Ponzi scheme in a debate last week, suggesting it was an unconstitutional government sham, he tactfully reversed himself over the weekend by claiming that all he wants to do is “fix” the program.
Perry is no fool, at least not as a politician. He wants to be seen as a straight shooter (which, for a Texas governor, is no pun), but he also wants to be his country’s next president. And while you can say a lot of things about how bad the federal government is, and can even get away with attacking certain programs (welfare is always an easy target), you get dumped from the ranks of a serious contender real fast when you start suggesting that the country might be better off without Social Security.
So Perry did the political thing and backed away decisively from what he really believes, assuming that his true beliefs are best represented in the book he released last year. In “Fed Up” (Little, Brown and Company, 2010), Perry wrote that “by any measure, Social Security is a failure” that exists “at the expense of respect for the Constitution and limited government.”
In last week’s debate, he came even closer to calling the program unconstitutional by saying, “It’s time for us to get back to the Constitution.” That line is code for the ideological belief long held by staunch conservatives. It goes something like this: the federal government was not established by the founders to engage in social welfare or social engineering. Any government welfare program, the argument goes, if a need exists for it at all, should be a decision of the individual states and should not be imposed by lawmakers in Washington, DC.
This line of thinking is linked to the view that all government social programs are anti-American, because, dammit, we should be able to take care of ourselves, and if we have to take care of each other, we can do it much better on our own without dictates from government officials who are nothing but do-gooder bureaucrats seeking to make the world a better place while they actually mess everything up.
Most hard-line conservatives, if subjected to a lie detector test, would acknowledge that they hate any and all government intrusion into their private lives. They only want their governments to protect their property from theft, their bodies from criminal assault, and their land from trespass. Providing those protections is what justifies a strong military force, since foreign invaders would presumably take their property, assault their bodies, and trespass on their land.
Some, perhaps even many, hard-right conservatives also believe there is a role for governments in areas like police and fire protection (although some would just as soon have those functions privatized so that market forces could bring about what they are convinced would be greater efficiencies, and certainly hefty profits for the owners of those companies).
And a smaller percentage, but perhaps still a majority, sees a role for government in education. (Here, however, things get a little dicey, with many supporting voucher programs that would effectively destroy public education in favor of private schools that would again score nice profits for their owners.)
Beyond those “essential services,” however, most conservatives with ideological beliefs like Rick Perry’s, oppose anything that smacks of robbing Peter to pay Paul, which is why they hate things like the graduated income tax (taking from the wealthy to support programs that the wealthy don’t need), and Social Security and Medicare (providing for the needs of the masses when they should be taking care of themselves).
Are these the views of the majority of Americans? That may be the critical question in an Obama versus Perry presidential campaign. At least that should be the question that Obama presses in a variety of forms, because the likely answer, as Perry himself implicitly acknowledged with his quick retreat on Social Security this week, is that most Americans want more from their government.
The current political climate is murky at best on this question. The Tea Party movement has been commanding most of the attention for almost the entire period of Obama’s presidency, but few would claim that it represents the views of the majority of Americans. That movement has come to dominate, if not overwhelm the Republican Party, but even with the sweeping victories in 2010, many of the best known Tea Party candidates lost their Congressional bids.
And, if anything, some of the luster for the movement has been tarnished by the outrageousness of the debt ceiling debate earlier this summer. That fiasco revealed to many Americans just how extreme the die-hards in this movement are. It also gave Obama an opening for the fiery speech he delivered to Congress last week.
If the Republicans nominate Rick Perry, and the early line strongly favors that likelihood, Obama may be able to pivot the focus away from the economy (which is a guaranteed loser for him) and towards the issue of just what kind of government the majority of Americans wants. That’s a debate Obama could actually win, assuming the Obama we’d see would be the one who delivered that speech last week and not the one who has occupied the White House for most of his term.
And, of course, it is still pretty early, albeit not as early as some of the pundits would have you believe. As opposed to generations past, when the real campaigns didn’t start until Labor Day (of the election year), now they start around Labor Day of the prior year. Hence, voter attitudes get formed much earlier. That’s why Obama is taking to the stump this month. It isn’t just to get his American Jobs Act passed. It’s to get Americans reacquainted with the guy they thought they were electing back in ’08.
That guy disappeared once he took office. Now that he’s running again, and very likely will be running against an ideology that wants to reverse all the gains his party has brought to America for almost one hundred years, the Obama the electorate loved is resurfacing.
Whether that Obama can defeat the ideology of a Rick Perry will define the country for the next decade, if not the next generation.