Sept. 13 (Bloomberg) -- The increasingly sharp campaign-trail exchanges between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry about Social Security reflect a long-running division among Republicans about the program.
Perry, the governor of Texas, stands with those Republicans who never made their peace with a universal pension program run by the federal government. Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, argues that the program is worthwhile but that its growth needs to be reined in, and that Perry’s rhetoric will backfire.
Conservative Social Security reformers are used to siding with Republicans who boldly point out the program’s flaws, and thus a lot of them are defending Perry from what they see as Romney’s unfair attacks. But Romney’s approach is more likely to convince the public that Republicans can be trusted to reform Social Security rather than demolish it.
Perry has said that Social Security was an unconstitutional enlargement of federal power and has talked about turning it over to the states. He has called it a “Ponzi scheme,” a “failure by any measure” and “a monstrous lie.” He hasn’t proposed specific changes to it other than saying that any reforms should leave existing retirees and near-retirees unaffected.
Romney, on the other hand, has said that he supports the program but that it needs changes to make it sustainable. He has favorably mentioned raising the retirement age, instituting personal accounts and means-testing benefits. But appearing to be hostile to the program, he has warned, will get Republicans “obliterated.”
Lessons of History
Party history suggests that Romney is correct. In 1936, Alf Landon ran on a platform of repealing Social Security and won only two states. In 1964, Barry Goldwater said the program should be made voluntary, got hammered by Republicans and Democrats alike for the remark, and then spent the rest of the campaign running away from it -- before he, too, was crushed.
Ronald Reagan took a different approach. In the 1980 debates, he said that Social Security was out of actuarial balance and that he would appoint a task force to fix it. But the main point on which he insisted was that he supported the program and wouldn’t cut benefits for retirees. Members of Congress who went further than that lost seats in the 1980s.
Ever since, Republicans who have sought to reform Social Security have adopted Reagan’s attitude. In 2000 and 2004, George W. Bush repeatedly praised the program and at no point allowed any negative words about it to escape his lips -- while also saying that it needed reform. Although Bush was unable to secure passage of the changes he sought, such as starting personal accounts and moderating the growth of benefits, Republicans who supported his plan did not suffer politically. (Republicans lost a lot of seats in 2006 and 2008, it’s true, but vocal supporters of reform didn’t lose at an especially high rate and very few races turned on the issue.)
Polls do not suggest that public opinion has changed enough that a frontal attack on Social Security is now a feasible strategy for Republicans in a general election. The public worries that the program is unsustainable on its current path. And it is: The program has an unfunded liability of some $16 trillion. But in a Gallup poll in January, only 34 percent favored cutting Social Security spending -- and the percentage among Republicans was identical.
A Pew poll taken in June found that 60 percent of the public thought it was more important to preserve benefits than to cut the deficit; just 32 percent disagreed. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll last October found that Americans tend to think the Democrats (44 percent) would do a better job than the Republicans (29 percent) at fixing Social Security.
If anything, changes in public opinion have made reformers’ job harder. According to Gallup, 31 percent of non-retirees say they expect to rely on Social Security as a major source of income later in life. That percentage has been increasing in recent years, as Americans have grown less confident in their ability to fund their retirements with 401(k)s.
Fund of Trust
Conservatives often say that the Social Security Trust Fund lacks assets that will help pay for the program (because it merely contains IOUs from the rest of the federal government). But both polling and history suggest that Republicans have no fund of trust to rely on, either. It’s not going to be easy to persuade Americans to go along with major changes to Social Security, and it’s going to be impossible for anyone who seems opposed to the program on principle.
Americans might listen to someone who calls Social Security a “Ponzi scheme,” if he goes on to explain that what he means is that it cannot deliver the benefits it promises without significant reforms. But someone who seems eager to get the federal government out of the business of ensuring retirement security altogether will find a less receptive audience.
So Romney is right. He could, in fact, sharpen his argument. If Republicans run against Social Security -- or even allow the impression that they’re against it to stand -- it’s not just they who will be obliterated. It’s the prospect of reform.
(Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist and a senior editor at National Review. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the author of this column: Ramesh Ponnuru at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contact the editor responsible for this column: Timothy Lavin at email@example.com.